Deborah Buszard is UBC’s Interim President and Vice-Chancellor – she was appointed to this role in October 2022.
Professor Buszard is a familiar face at the university and a well-known leader in the Canadian post-secondary landscape. She served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal at UBC Okanagan from 2012 to 2020. Prior to this, she served in various leadership roles at both Dalhousie and McGill University. She currently holds an academic appointment as Professor of Biology in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science on the Okanagan campus.
Originally from the United Kingdom, Professor Buszard’s early research endeavours brought her to Canada, where she pursued horticulture and strawberry breeding. Her current research interests include global agriculture and food innovation, institutional system transformation, and sustainability.
In addition to her academic work and love of plants, Professor Buszard loves travel and the great outdoors. She also considers herself a lifelong student, eager to learn something new and put her skills to the test.
Q1. What quality do you most admire in a leader?
DB: Vision, values, and principles. I believe so passionately in the power of universities and their significance in our society. As an institution, we have an obligation to uphold our vision, values, and principles in the very best way we can. We need to be a role model for others.
There’s also an underlying social trust that we must kindle and respect. We’re a community of scholars, so modeling collegial governance, ensuring transparency, and communicating our ambitions are important elements in building and maintaining that trust within our society.
Q2. What makes you laugh?
DB: I enjoy silly things. I was a fan of Monty Python and recently revisited ‘The Philosophers' Football Match’ from Monty Python's Flying Circus. It depicts a football match between famous Greek and German philosophers, and it’s absolutely ludicrous!
I also don’t take myself too seriously – for example, I’m left-handed and a bit clumsy, so sometimes I feel like I’m a stranger in a strange land, navigating a world of right-handedness.
Q3. Who inspires you, and why?
DB: Nelson Mandela. He is, and always has been, a great inspiration to me. I have a deep admiration for who he was, and what he accomplished under seemingly impossible circumstances. He was smart, and incredibly principled – a true visionary in South Africa. Even under duress, he engaged amazing thinkers and never gave up his fight for human rights.
Q4. For you, what makes UBC different?
DB: UBC is a gem in Canada’s post-secondary sector. It’s different from the other universities in part because of its unique place and history. It’s much younger than other top-tier institutions; it has a bolder, more west-coast feel and outlook, and its stunning geographical locations in Vancouver and Kelowna are such an asset.
Thanks to the creation of the UBC Properties Trust, the Vancouver campus has become quite a robust little city unto itself. In fact, UBC’s two campuses and distributed learning sites continue to grow and contribute in so many ways to communities across BC, with future opportunities for even more – yet another thing that makes UBC incredibly special.
Q5. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned, in your career to date?
DB: One important lesson I’ve learned is that great ideas and big plans are always followed by a lot of hard ‘slogging’. Ideation is wonderful, but it’s only the beginning. Nothing important in universities happens easily or overnight. There’s always hard work to be done in order to bring ideas to fruition. Somehow, I think my research on fruit trees, which take years to yield results, has helped me see the need for a long-term outlook!
Q6. How do you like to recharge?
DB: I’m a gardener at heart, so I’m drawn to the outdoors and always want to be among trees and plants. My background is in horticulture and working in fields and orchards, so naturally, I enjoy getting my hands in the dirt or exploring the forest.
When I was studying horticulture, I was very attracted to working with fruit crops – particularly strawberries! Did you know that our commercial strawberry is actually a hybrid of two unique species – one from Canada and one from Chile?
Thanks to the sneaky work of explorers back in the seventeenth century, these two traveling strawberry plants met in a botanical garden in Paris, and this little rendezvous produced the modern strawberry we know today. In fact, the French spy who brought the strawberry plant back to Europe from Chile was named Amédée-François Frézier. That might sound familiar because the French word for strawberry is “fraise.”
Q7. What is the best advice you were ever given?
DB: My mother used to say, “when a door opens for you, you should walk through it.” In other words, take opportunities that come along. Sometimes, unexpected opportunities may yield the most promising results… like coming back to UBC.
Q8. What do you value in your colleagues?
DB: I value wisdom, a sense of humour, and sound principles.
The wonderful thing about being at a university is you’re surrounded by scholars and other amazing people who are curious and engaged. It’s such a sparky environment. The kind of people who end up working at universities are typically there because they love it – this passion and energy is palpable.
I also think being able to laugh when you’re working on challenging problems is imperative. We need to laugh at our own predicaments.
Q9. What do you hope will be your lasting impact at UBC?
DB: It’s a curious thing coming back to UBC after my retirement in 2020. During this time as Interim President and Vice-Chancellor, I hope people will recognize my dedication to keeping the university on track and moving forward… but it’s not about me, it’s about all of us as a community. We are all working hard to improve the university while we search for a new president. We are in this together.
I want people to laugh and make the most of our time together. I want us to respect each other as fantastically diverse and complementary people. The intellectual power and values of this community mean that we can think our way through any and all challenges.
Q10. If you could have a super power, what would it be?
DB: I’d really like to teleport, as I spend far too much time waiting, or in transit at airports. My grandchildren live in eastern Canada and I wish I could just drop by for a visit or to babysit!
Q11. What inspired your return to UBC to take on the role of Interim President and Vice-Chancellor?
DB: Just as my mother advised me… when a door opens, you should walk through it. But more importantly, I love UBC.
I have such fond memories of my time at UBC Okanagan, so when I thought about my years of experience around the Executive table, and my fondness for this institution, coupled with the bold new paths the university is currently pursuing, I knew this was an opportunity for me to contribute again.
Coming back to the university and out of retirement has been an adventure – an unexpected new learning experience for me. It is a privilege to have this opportunity.
Many folks may be surprised to know that I’m also a UBC student. Back in 2020 as the pandemic lockdown set in, I decided it was a good time to improve my French. During the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve taken five UBC French classes online and have every intention of taking additional classes in the future. I will be continuing my journey as both Interim President… and a student.
Q12. What is your hope for the university in the next five years?
DB: There are very important initiatives currently underway at UBC – commitments to Indigenous engagement and reconciliation, anti-racism, accessibility, transportation, climate action, infrastructure, Campus Vision 2050, UBC’s new presence in Surrey, etc. – so my hope is that these plans and ambitions for the university will successfully come to fruition in the coming years. I also know UBC will find a wonderful president who will keep us on task and on track and set a future direction.
While everything seemed to change because of COVID-19, the fundamentals of what people want in a university remain unchanged. For example, people will continue to seek great education, solutions to problems, and breakthrough research – all of the things that are inherent within great universities such as UBC, and it’s up us to us to deliver on these promises.
I have no doubt that UBC will continue to cultivate big ideas and opportunities for the future.
Interviewed by: Rivka Parris, UBC Internal Communications