Dr. Martha C. Piper, Interim President and Vice-Chancellor

One-on-One with
Dr. Martha C. Piper

Dr. Martha C. Piper is Interim President and Vice Chancellor of UBC. A native of Lorain, Ohio, Dr. Piper served as UBC’s 11th President from 1997 to 2006. She recently returned to the university as Interim President, to lead UBC through its Centennial year.

Over the course of her career, Dr. Piper has been the recipient of 17 honorary degrees, as well as being an officer in the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of British Columbia.


What quality do you most admire in a leader?

MP: One of the qualities I particularly admire is the ability to listen. Listening is more difficult than people may think, but I believe this quality differentiates many leaders. When you’re pushed in a new direction, it is easy to think you automatically have the answer. However, a good leader will open up and really listen before making a decision.


What makes you laugh?

MP: My grandchildren! I have four grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 to 12 years old. They see the world in such a refreshing way and ask questions that are just hysterical. The two younger children (aged 2 and 4) are in Dallas and I do miss seeing them. One of the considerations I had to make when taking on the role of Interim President was the fact I would see them less often. But fortunately we have much better ways of staying in contact these days, and we Skype regularly.


Who inspires you, and why?

MP: A lot of people inspire me, many of whom I have never met, such as Eleanor Roosevelt. I read a book called ‘No Ordinary Time’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which chronicles the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In reading the book, I discovered that Eleanor was amazing in her time. She was instrumental in integrating the armed forces, and providing daycare for women in factories during the war. She served in the UN and was very progressive. She was an amazing woman.

Another woman who inspired me was the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She wanted to be her own person, and I have one of her works over my desk at home. She was an example of someone who achieved success through more than just talent. It takes a kind of nerve and a lot of hard work.


What is the best advice you were ever given?

MP: When I think back over my career, I recall some advice that I often repeat to colleagues. It was back in 1997, when I was approached about the position of President at UBC. I felt somewhat ambivalent about the opportunity, and it was highly confidential so I couldn’t discuss it with friends. I was on the Board of the University of Alberta, alongside Don Mazankowski [the renowned Canadian politician]. One cold night, as I was walking back to the parking lot with Don, I asked his advice about the UBC opportunity. He looked at me and said: “Life is funny. You get all sorts of opportunities and 9 times out of 10 you can say ‘wrong time’ or ‘wrong circumstances’. If you are lucky, once or twice in your life you get an opportunity that won’t come around again.” At that point I realized I should put my name into the hat for President of UBC.


For you, what makes UBC different?

MP: UBC is a unique university in both its location and its age. It is old enough to have developed traditions and excellence, yet young enough to be nimble. It is a university of the 21st century. We have all the right pieces to make this a great university, not only in Canada but the world. A lot is expected of UBC in terms of its supporting the economy and tackling social issues. If we don’t step up, then shame on us!


You have spoken of the fact that you returned to UBC because there is no other university that you care for more deeply. What does it mean to be returning during this Centennial year?

MP: UBC has been so good to me. It has opened my eyes and so much more. It has allowed me to be in the presence of some distinguished people, and given me experiences that I would otherwise not have had. When I was a child, my father would say: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”  I have been fortunate over the course of my life, and been afforded many opportunities. Giving back is part of who I am.  In a way, the same applies to UBC: much has been given to this university, and much is expected by way of return.

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