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UNBC at crossroads

If UNBC wants to write itself another chapter of growth and success in its next 25 years, Prince George's jewel on the hill needs to change.
Neil Godbout

If UNBC wants to write itself another chapter of growth and success in its next 25 years, Prince George's jewel on the hill needs to change.

Part of the path forward was on display during Monday's public discussion at the Playhouse between UNBC president Daniel Weeks, Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall and Governor-General of Canada David Johnston. Of that panel, Johnston is the one with the broadest expertise, being the former president of the University of Waterloo. The first class in 1957 had 74 students in it. Today, there are more than 35,000 students there.

As Johnston pointed out, the similarities between UNBC and Waterloo are many - relatively young and unconventional institutions drawing on similar populations. The Waterloo difference is who owns the ideas. While most universities force faculty and researchers into some sort of sharing agreement on intellectual property, Waterloo does no such thing.

"It's owned by them," Johnston said. "The theory was that universities are not very good at commercialization nor should they try to commercialize but they should try very hard to create an ecosystem where commercialization can occur very readily."

The biggest success story for Waterloo has been Research In Motion, the company that became Blackberry. Waterloo is hardly the first university to sign off on the intellectual property creations of its staff and students. The best-known and most successful university to do that is Stanford, a short distance from San Jose in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Waterloo has its Blackberry but Stanford has its Google.

Stanford also has a culture to go along with the ownership of intellectual property. The school expects academics and graduate students to put aside their scholarly duties, such as publishing papers and attending conferences, to pursue commercial opportunities, not the other way around. Furthermore, the school has systems in place to help connect ambitious investors with equally ambitious developers.

Bringing people together and, specifically, bringing money and ideas together in the right setting is a recipe for innovation, as Steven Johnson makes clear in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. At the end of the book, Johnson shatters the myths that most of history's great innovations came from the private sector or from the busy brains of passionate amateurs toiling alone in their basements. Rather, they came about through networks where many individuals freely shared ideas, avoiding issues like patents and copyrights until there was something specific to develop and commercialize.

The name for such a network is university, a place where students and faculty from diverse locations, backgrounds and disciplines can mix, allowing for surprising and unexpected ideas to come forth.

The money, whether it comes from government or the private sector, provides the fuel for these ideas to evolve from concepts to reality. The computer, the Internet, the World Wide Web, satellite and fibre-optic communications, Google and Facebook all began on university campuses, before timely infusions of cash and business expertise turned them all into inventions that changed the world.

For UNBC to separate itself from other B.C. and Canadian universities in the next quarter century and beyond, it has to do what few others are doing and it has to do it so well that fellow bright minds want to come to Prince George to be part of it. That could be a challenge for Prince George and area residents to adapt their view of UNBC as a regional university that teaches their children and studies issues of local concern. If UNBC wants to evolve into a national and international academic player, it might to have to leave some of the important things from its early days behind.

A small, vibrant school with diverse interests and deep roots in the region is a good thing but we should demand more from our university.

Whatever that future, it won't be created on a picket line or a negotiating table arguing over salaries and benefits. Faculty and administration need to cut a deal and get back to working together to create the future of our university. So much of this region's potential hinges on their ideas today changing us and our world tomorrow.