(Editor’s note: This letter was addressed to members of the Whistler Education Group. A copy was forwarded to The Question for publication.)
Dear Stephen and Members of WEG,
I was quite astonished in a déjà vu all over again kind of way when I read in the Pique and the Question last week of your meetings and efforts to draw educational tourism and related courses and workshops to Whistler.
As you may know for four years there was a Learning Strategy Task Force of Whistler 2020, the stakeholder engagement process into which the RMOW poured over $2 million. I, along with several other representatives from educational schools and centres participated in setting goals, priorities and tasks to increase the learning capacity in and for Whistler’s desired future. If you haven’t already you should check the Whistler 2020 website for all the work of the members, our considered priorities, actions and indicators of success etc. http://www.whistler2020.ca/whistler/site/strategy.acds?instanceid=1930604&context=1930603.
What you may not know is that in 2009 the Whistler Forum was tasked to take the lead on exploring opportunities for educational tourism and learning festivals, as well as to do a feasibility study on drawing post-secondary education opportunities to Whistler.
The Whistler Forum was established as a non-profit society in BC in 2003 in consultation with Ann Popma based on her previous experience with the Whistler Centre for Business and the Arts. This was a time when Intrawest and others had given thumbs down to the World Economic Forum coming to Whistler, and when Millennium Place was opened with a mortgage in excess of $3 million and little ability to pay. There was also talk of a Whistler Mountain Institute that Phil Scott and Joe Houssian had advanced but did not come to fruition. The Forum grew slowly and in 2006 we received charitable status by the Charities Directorate of Revenue Canada as an “centre for education in Whistler”. To this day I believe we are the only group so registered (perhaps Waldorf School?)
My experience as an Alberta MLA with the Banff Centre, and as an Executive MBA student at the University of Colorado with the Aspen Institute, gave us aspirations and goal of establishing a similar centre that would befit Whistler and ‘lift us up from our usual selves’. We began to offer leadership development, public dialogue and forums, events and symposia as a platform for a variety of educational and life-long learning experiences. With our connections to SFU and UBC we were and are open to facilitating more formal academic offerings for credit or certificate granting but found out early on the additional costs and complexity of doing so. Even with Royal Roads University and Capilano College/University and their ‘distance’ and ‘executive’ learning models, the costs of faculty and program delivery in Whistler was prohibitive. We also learned how competitive for students and protective of reputation most colleges, universities and faculty are in an increasingly oversupplied educational marketplace.
In our first five years of research and experience we knew that success in increasing formal and or informal educational opportunities in Whistler depends on core funding from three sources:
i) levels of government, especially provincial (as in the Banff Centre model);
ii) donors and philanthropists (as in the Aspen model) and;
iii) tuition and fees from students, participants, executives and sometimes business.
In 2008 when the Forum began to fulfil its Learning Strategy tasks we were told that with respect to educational tourism and learning festivals, Tourism Whistler was too preoccupied with existing pleasure-seeking tourism markets. Then a senior official at the RMOW told me point blank “Whistler does recreation - we don’t do education”. While I continue to disagree, there is an inherent culture here that is escapist and hedonistic. I have been told many times that most visitors just want to come here to relax and recreate and not to think and learn.
When we applied to the Community Enrichment Fund for $5,000 to support a $20,000 feasibility study for post-secondary education opportunities, Council turned us down (even though they hired Academica from London, Ontario for $75,000 to do such a study in 2011). This was entirely disappointing given that we were so tasked by Learning Task Force and Whistler 2020. Moreover by 2009 the Forum had hosted more than 80 Dialogue Cafes, convened more than 40 forums, seminars, conferences and summits, and had facilitated five cohorts of Leadership Sea to Sky with more than 80 emerging leaders from the Corridor. We have growing connections with administration and faculty throughout UBC, SFU, Capilano U, Quest U, the Provincial and Federal governments. We found the funding to invite more than 50 leaders and teachers from academia, business, non profits, aboriginal communities and government at all levels.
The lack of real appreciation and tangible support of the RMOW, TW and others for educational programs is not surprising because education is not an area of local government expertise or even jurisdiction, notwithstanding Whistler 2020. Our MLA Joan McIntyre has been a frequent conversation partner on these matters for the past eight years. She maintains the B.C. Government has no additional funds for new start-ups. Existing educational institutions in the province are already over capitalized and looking for students to fill existing and unused capacity.
As Doug Forseth knows WB already sends its rising executives to Cornell distance programs. As Sue Adams knows the Arts Council, Chamber and Film Festival have little if any financial capacity to take on new training or education programs given their heavy reliance on funding from a tax-reducing RMOW to maintain their current programs. And as Tamwood, I-house and Quest U know, attracting international students is a costly and time consuming business for recruiters. Proven accreditation and reputation is essential.
The two fundamental issues which I believe you need to be aware of so as not to waste time reinventing this wheel and to sharpen your wishful thinking are:
As the Academica report makes clear with others in every post-secondary institution I have consulted (UBC Presidents Piper and Toope, Quest Chancellor Strangway, China expert Professor Pitman Potter, SFU Dean of Business Danny Shapiro, Capilano Dean Casey Dorin, Vancouver Community College Dean Sal Ferreras to name a few), the existing post-secondary education programs and offerings at every level and discipline are overbuilt and oversupplied. They are all desperately seeking students from an ever decreasing domestic pool and highly competitive international one.
The cost of providing educational programs in Whistler for housing, food, faculty, equipment, travel, etc. is significantly higher compared to Squamish, Surrey, the Okanagan. Even Holly hock has financial difficulties getting participants to Cortes Island. In discussions I have had with Joel Solomon and others they are now delivering programs in Vancouver.
These two fundamental issues are real barriers to the kind of educational programming the Whistler Forum aspires to offer, and that it sounds like you and your interest group want to explore and develop. These barriers also make it in my view completely unrealistic for Mr Player to propose a private for-profit university from scratch on the Zen Lands. Nor does Capilano U have the financial capacity or business model to make Whistler programs feasible. If they did it would have happened through the efforts of several of their Deans and faculty before now.
The one avenue that may afford some success is with philanthropists, major donors and university advancement such as with my friend Brenda Mclean, co-chairing UBC’s $1.5 Billion campaign. I had developed a close relationship with Peter Cundill who donated close to $50,000 a year for six years to the Whistler Forum. He decided however that more of his contributions would go to his alma mater McGill. Since his death a year ago the Cundill Foundation has not revealed what its priorities will be - so we wait.
With my ten years of knowledge and experience in Whistler on this file, and with my extensive contacts and connections in post-secondary institutions in BC, North America and Asia, I continue to explore some feasible options for educational offerings that make sense financially, academically and socially.
I care a lot about Whistler and have given dearly of my time and resources over the past ten years. I care even more so about an educated and creative public equipped to face the many intractable challenges of the 21st century.
But I am concerned about this sense of déjà vu, of often myopic, wishful thinking. There is a blinding degree of hubris in various local efforts to use education as a way to diversify Whistler’s brand or as some economic development generator for an international resort.
I trust that your efforts do not fall into this category and I remain open to pursuing what viable options and opportunities may exist.
President, The Whistler Forum