A British Columbia native, Dr. Birch received his Bachelor of Arts (Classical Studies and English) and Master of Arts (History) at the University of British Columbia, and PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. He taught briefly at Berkeley before returning to BC where he spent his career in a variety of leadership roles, first as Dean of the Faculty of Education and Associate Vice-President of Simon Fraser University where he also served some months as Acting President, and then as Dean of the Faculty of Education and, subsequently, Academic Vice President and Provost of the University of British Columbia, a post he held for twelve years. Following an early retirement from UBC, Dr. Birch spent a decade with Janet Wright & Associates, recruiting leaders for institutions in the public and not-for-profit sectors. For six years he co-chaired the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer and is an active consultant to the Degree Quality Assessment Board of the Ministry of Advanced Education. In 1992, he was awarded the FRSA (London), and the following year, received a Cree name—Mitehe (Heart)—in recognition of twenty years of support for the development of First Nations programs in universities, support which led to the establishment of UBC’s first Aboriginal graduate programs and the opening of the First Nations Longhouse on the campus.
1) What is your experience in higher education? Do you have prior experience serving on a board (university or otherwise)?
Most of the details of my career in higher education are in the bio that was put together when I was first appointed Chancellor. One of the most interesting stories, however, comes from when I was a master’s student in history at UBC. Back then students were normally invited to waive the M.A. thesis and continue on in the Ph.D. program, which is what I was going to do. However, Simon Fraser University had just recently been created, and I was invited to join the Education program, which had a novel, differentiated staffing with both Professors and what came to be called Faculty Associates. My first assignment was to write a letter to all of the local school district superintendants explaining what SFU’s Education program was all about. That made me think seriously about what matters most in higher education.
After that, instead of going back to study early modern history, I went to Berkeley for a Ph.D. in Education. In 1969 I came back to BC fully expecting to start doing research and teaching, but got drafted into administration at a very early point in my career. One year out from the Ph.D. and I was appointed Acting Dean of Education at SFU, and later Dean of Education. It was the start of a career in administration. I was appointed Associate Vice President Academic, then Acting VP Academic, then Acting President. After SFU, I again thought that I would become a regular professor, but I got invited to go to UBC, and I repeated the whole cycle over again there.
That’s where I met David Strangway. One of the things that David liked to do at the end of the day was to talk to people about his interests or your interests. He had spent his early career in the U.S. and saw the pinnacle of undergraduate education as the private, liberal arts college. He was struck by the fact that there were no liberal arts colleges in Canada, and that’s what led to the creation of Quest.
As far as Board service is concerned, I was on the Shaughnessy Hospital Board and later became Chair. I was also on the Board of the BC Cancer Agency and always had a role relating to the Board of Governors in my roles at UBC. Even at Simon Fraser University, the Senate Committees that I served on, a large portion of the material I wrote or worked on in committee went to the Board, so I’ve always been aware of how Boards relate to faculty and staff.
2) What do you feel is special about Quest? Why did you choose to serve on the Quest Board of Governors?
There is no question in my mind that Quest has the most coherent, thoughtful, and challenging approach to the delivery of an undergraduate curriculum. The block plan, interdisciplinarity, the international components, opportunities for experiential learning in Canada and abroad, all of these things are of great interest to me. When I was asked to serve as Chancellor I agreed right away.
I served two three-year terms, that’s six years as Chancellor. After that I thought that my involvement was finished, but I was approached and offered a regular seat on the Board, and I agreed. My approach to undergraduate education has been connected to the pedagogy at Quest. It’s been called different things throughout the years, but it is essentially an inquiry- or discovery-based method. This approach is always student-oriented, rather than subject- or teacher-oriented. It was a natural transition for me to go from being Chancellor to Board member.
3) What contribution do you feel you can make to the Board and to Quest?
I’ve always had a thorough understanding of the larger context of higher education. When I was first appointed Chancellor, Greg Lee, who was President of Capilano, and I were the only two people on the Board who had senior leadership experience. The Quest Board doesn’t have faculty members, and most research university boards didn’t have faculty members until changes in the University Act in the 1990s, so Greg and I became resources to put issues in a larger context. What do other universities do? How are these matters handled elsewhere? Once Greg moved on after his term ended, I was the only one left with a faculty or administrative background. People turned to me to put issues and decisions into a broader context at almost every Board meeting. I still draw on that experience and think that that is my greatest contribution to the Board.
4) Is there anything interesting the Quest community might like to know about you as an individual?
One time I took a group of Deans to the West China University of Medical Sciences in Chengdu. When we got off the plane, our host asked if this was our first time in western China, and my answer was, “The first time in 40 years.” I attended a British boarding school in Sichuan as a child and was evacuated to India at the end of WWII. My parents were missionaries in China as part of an interdenominational mission that set up a number of boarding schools.
Your early years are an important part of your life, and sometimes ideas from my time in western China float around in my head and not entirely consciously. I am by no means fluent in Mandarin, but occasionally a Chinese expression pops up, and it is the only one that truly captures the idea that I am thinking about. My parents understood the importance of language and culture, so we only spoke Chinese when we were outside the home and only spoke English inside, so we would have both cultures. When I visited Expo 86 decades later with my wife Arlene, we represented UBC every day or two at a different pavilion. At the Chinese pavilion I greeted the person in charge, and she immediately asked, “Where did you get the Sichuan accent?” The international context that is a part of Quest has been important to me since childhood and will always be a part of my life. And yes, I am a fan of Sichuan cuisine.
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