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UBC starts new year haunted by ghosts of 2013

First year UBC engineering student Daphne Bliss, 18, right, of Calgary, Alta., joins other students and supporters for a "Take Back The Night" march in response to recent sex assaults on campus in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday October 30, 2013.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's largest university enters 2014 with a sexual predator on the loose at its main campus and the lingering aftermath of controversies over racist and sexist chants by students.

Halfway into 2014, president Stephen Toope will be handing the reins of leadership over to a yet-to-be named successor, who will have to manage the fallout from these issues.

Mr. Toope is leaving in June, two years before the scheduled end of a second five-year term. His plans were announced last April.

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"I'd love to hand over to my successor a situation where somebody will have been arrested," Mr. Toope said of the sex-assault case, an unprecedented crisis for the century-old university.

"Otherwise I'll hand over a situation where we will have thought through, as carefully as possible, whether we need to make enhancements to security on campus to try to discourage these things in the future," he said.

RCMP are continuing to search after announcing in October they had linked six attacks since the spring to a single suspect, who has targeted women walking in isolated areas late at night or in the early-morning hours.

Mr. Toope has said the vast 400-plus-hectare size of UBC's main campus about 10 kilometres southeast of downtown Vancouver has complicated efforts to track down the suspect, who has been the subject of a composite sketch.

The situation, unprecedented in the 105-year history of UBC, has prompted the RCMP, who police the campus, to deploy a force of bicycle officers, dog teams, patrol officers and investigators working behind the scenes.

Sergeant Peter Thiessen, an RCMP spokesperson, said the case remains a priority for police.

Mr. Toope said sexual assaults are a sad reality across society, but the UBC administration focused on trying to provide the community as much information as possible. "You can't have enough security to prevent any kind of bad person from doing bad things. It's just not possible," he said.

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The new year looms with campus security operating a heightened level of patrols and even streetlights turned up from dusk to dawn as part of a vigilant status quo.

The university has launched an 11-member, campus-safety working group to consider issues of security. They are to submit a final report by Feb. 28, likely to fuel a debate over the intensified use of surveillance cameras on campus. Mr. Toope is skeptical about that option because he says it won't work without enhanced staffing to monitor the feeds. "Cost is relevant but so, too, is holding out a sense of safety that might not be as real as you might want it be," he said. "Someone glances away and they miss something and something bad happens."

He is hoping for a vigorous debate on campus, but it's likely to proceed after he has left the job. On the announcement of his planned exit, the former president of the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation and dean of the law faculty at McGill University said he wants to return to an academic focus on international law and international relations.

Aside from the predator issue, there's the situation, in September, with UBC's undergraduate society implicated in a frosh-week chant that glorified the sexual abuse of underage girls, as well as a Pocahontas chant by business students that some deemed derogatory to First Nations.

"On the frosh issue, I hope we will actually have begun that very significant campus-wide conversation," he said."We will have completely rethought orientation across the university and tried to encourage our students to be thinking about everyone around them in as respectful a manner as possible."

But he says there were some upsides to the year as well, including the arrival of acclaimed anthropologist Wade Davis as a member of the anthropology department, the opening of a new brain-health centre and ongoing measures to diversify the intake of international students.

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Asked what overall advice he'll offer his successor, Mr. Toope says he'll urge lots of crisis-planning to communicate when terrible things happen on campus. "I really encourage that because it means you're not surprised by technical things," he said, "and not being able to communicate with the right people at the right time."

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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