OUTLOOK: UFV at the head of the class

The University of the Fraser Valley became a university five years ago, but has only captured that “university feel’ in the last year.

Dignitaries gather during the ground breaking for UFV’s B.C. School of Agriculture on June 18

The University of the Fraser Valley became a university five years ago, but has only captured that “university feel’ in the last year.

Most notably at its Chilliwack campus.

When UFV Chilliwack moved from Yale Road to Canada Education Park in the spring of 2012, the culture of the university instantly changed.

While the old campus had pockets of activity distributed around the periphery, it didn’t have that cluster of student activity throughout. But with the new, open-spaced building – a massive, award-winning renovation of an old military engineering site – it’s connected the whole of the university.

“You walk into that building and you just feel good,” said Eric Davis, UFV provost and vice president academic. “It’s full of warmth and light… No matter where you are, you can look down the hall and see everybody. You feel connected, you feel a part of something bigger than yourself, whether as an individual or in a program, you feel a part of a university.

“It’s made the Chilliwack campus a destination campus for many people,” said Davis. “It’s a place where people want to be.”

For five years, UFV ranked top of the class in the Canadian University Report, a publication put out by The Globe and Mail and The Strategic Counsel and Educational Policy Institute, that grades more than 60 universities based on the opinions of over 43,000 undergraduates.

In the reports, UFV consistently earned the most A-level grades of any public university of any size in B.C. including class size, quality of teaching and learning, student-faculty interaction, and instructors’ teaching style.

In 2012, it was tied for first in the category of most satisfied students.

“Our results with The Globe and Mail University Report, and other national surveys, show we do as well or better than other universities across the country as far as student satisfaction and quality of education and so on,” said Davis.

“We are not only becoming known as a great university because of those results, but because we are a teaching-focused university, and a regionally focused university … we are increasingly being seen, I think, as a model for how to do university education.

“The norm for what a university is, is changing right now,” said Davis. “In the year 2020 the norm for what a university is will be very different from what the norms were in 1990, and those norms in 2020 will be very close to what we are.”

The government has noticed.

Last spring, the B.C. government established UFV as the province’s Centre for Excellence in Agriculture, allotting $1 million seed funding to get the ball rolling for a state-of-the-art agriculture, research facility.

This semester, students will be gradually moving into the $2.5 million facility, which includes one of two “poly prop” greenhouses and a 783-square-metre demonstration barn that will give students hands-on practical experience, and provide an important research tool for animal care.

Phase two will include additional classroom space, laboratory space and land for experimental plots.

The centre will be the hub for agriculture information in B.C., partnering with industry, other post-secondary institutions, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Advanced Education – directly translating into benefits for both the university and the community.

“We’ll be able to pull in the best researchers, not just from UFV but from other universities around the province, to address agriculture issues in the Valley,” said Davis.

“It’s going to strengthen local economy; it’s going to make UFV an attractive site for visiting faculty wanting to do research in agriculture; it’s going to make UFV a site where industry will turn if they want answers to questions and problems they have.

“The possibilities are limitless because agriculture is becoming more and more important as the world faces global shortages of food and water,” said Davis. “There are potentially scores and scores of research projects that our students and faculty can do that will be directly relevant to the local agriculture industry.”

Unlike most universities, UFV is unique in that student-led research projects are done by undergraduate students – not just masters and PhD students. The thought process behind that, said UFV president Mark Evered, is to provide students with critical-thinking, problem-solving skills they’ll need outside of university.

“It’s giving our undergrads an opportunity to work at a level they don’t normally get at university,” said Evered. “It’s about students getting the chance to work on the forefront of knowledge.”

While the future is exciting for UFV, building on its core programs – agriculture, health sciences, and indigenous studies – funding is still a challenge.

UFV is bursting at the seams. The Abbotsford campus is operating 30 per cent above capacity, and the Chilliwack campus is near capacity. Enrollment has been capped.

And while the Chilliwack campus is the largest of all the UFV campuses, sitting on 80 acres of land, with ample room to grow, the university does not currently have the funds to grow.

“Our challenge remains finding the funds to build and operate new facilities,” said Evered. “We understand the fiscal realities our government faces, and it’s very clear that if we’re going to move forward, we’re going to have to do this in partnership.

“That’s going to be an important part of our future, seeking the funds to enable us to continue to build so we can meet the demand.”

The university is seeking sponsorships, partnerships, research funding, and is also looking at creating endowment funds, of which the interest from those funds will go directly to the operations of the university.

As well, it’s looking to the old campus on Yale Road for funding solutions.

Initially the plan was straight forward: sell the property and use the revenue for its needs. But when the economy took a nosedive in 2008, the sale became much harder than anticipated.

While the sale of the property is still a possibility, the university is exploring other potential ideas.

One of which includes building a UniverCity style development that would generate income for UFV, like that of Simon Fraser University.

“It’s an interesting idea, and we would have to find the right partners to develop, because that isn’t our strength,” said Evered. “Whatever happens, if we were to move into the development opportunity, it would be really important that we stay true to our goals and that it not just be a way to make money, but be a way to serve the university and serve the community in ways that benefit us all.”

Where UFV is today, the road it’s traveled since it first opened as Fraser Valley College in 1974, is thanks in large part to the community.

Without the support of the community, said Evered, UFV likely wouldn’t be the success it is today.

“When I first started [as president] four years ago, we put together a new strategic plan. We emphasized that community engagement, we said we wanted to be leaders in the development of the social, cultural, economic, environmentally responsible development of the Fraser Valley,” said Evered. “We were committing to a community that had fought for us.

“At the time, I wasn’t aware of too many examples [of other universities doing the same], but since then, I’ve seen other universities starting to build such goals into their own planning. I think others are waking up, they’re beginning to recognize how valuable that engagement is.”

UFV led the way.