Our Campus: Deborah Buszard’s retirement was cut short by a fateful call

Relaxing on vacation with her husband, the last thing Deborah Buszard expected was a call from UBC.

And yet the call came, asking Buszard if she would return to the university as interim president. While she enjoyed her time away, Buszard decided that taking a year out of her retirement would be right for both her and UBC.

“I failed staying retired, but I will go back,” Buszard said. “I’ll do my best to keep the university moving in the right direction as we search for a new president.”

President Santa Ono’s unexpected departure this fall meant UBC needed someone on short notice, and Buszard was an experienced choice for the job. She served as UBC Okanagan’s principal from 2012 until her retirement in June 2020. She said the role was unlike any other she’d taken on.

“When I looked at the job at UBC Okanagan, I thought it was the most exciting thing that I had ever seen.”

In October, she assumed the role of president at a tumultuous time on campus — student activists have taken a stance against the administration on affordability and food security.

She was confronted with the protests head-on at the December Board of Governors meeting, where protesters for a tuition freeze chanted so loudly outside the boardroom that governors inside had difficulty hearing each other. Buszard voted in favour of the increase.

Buszard struck a serious tone when discussing her decision, justifying it with a broader view of the university’s needs, and the fact that unless under extraordinary circumstances the university is not allowed to run a deficit.

“Was I comfortable [with my vote], yes, because it was the responsible thing to do from a fiduciary perspective for the university, which is what I'm obliged to do. But I can understand why students chose not to.”

Buszard is optimistic about the direction UBC is moving in on student aid, taking a holistic view when asked about student demands for increased funding for food security initiatives.

“Expanding the food bank is not the cure for the problems," she said. "It provides support for that problem that's there in the immediate term, but more importantly, is living wages, appropriate student bursaries for students in need and access to food supply.”

A passion for plants

Throughout her scholarly career, Buszard studied plants with a focus on fruit. It took Buszard a year of an undergraduate degree in education to realize she didn’t like it, and she then switched to horticulture instead, but her passion for plants started early.

“I was a pretty mediocre high school student, but I loved biology and particularly plant biology. I was fascinated by plants and how they grow,” she said.

At the tail-end of her undergrad in Bath, England, Buszard was asked if she would be interested in pursuing a PhD. She hadn’t considered it before, but a scholarship made the degree a real possibility for her.

“No one in my family had ever done graduate work … I thought well, that’s interesting, why not, right?”

Buszard’s light British accent popped out as she discussed studying at the University of London in Kent. While there, she said a co-op position allowed her to continue her love of the outdoors while conducting research.

“I got to spend some time at the university and some time in the orchards doing field work, and other times I was in a big research laboratory in a chemical company. I was just like a kid in a candy store with all of these bits.”

Buszard said finding her first professorship at McGill was magical, continuing to do practical research in fruit production and coinciding with a politically-charged moment in her field.

In the late 1980s, the anti-smoking movement was gaining steam in Canada — which meant tobacco farmers in Quebec needed a new crop that wouldn’t compete with existing ones.

Buszard received a grant to try and revitalize tobacco fields by growing new breeds of strawberries to machine harvest. While the initial plan of growing on those fields didn’t work out, the breeding program was a success.

“We couldn’t economically make the machine harvesting piece work, but we were able to breed strawberries … one of the characteristics we wanted was things that didn’t need herbicides … and that bit stuck.”

Some strains licensed from the program became a big part of the Ontarian and Quebecois strawberry markets, which Buszard said she still has a special connection with.

“They've been replaced by newer varieties now, but you would have seen them. I can recognize them, you know, sort of like knowing your own children.”

Retirement has made Buszard no less of a “science junkie,” lighting up when discussing the Nobel prize ceremony which took place a few days after our interview.

“This is peak time for me, Nobel Prize season. I would never have won one, but I’m in awe. It’s like how some people are about the Academy Awards.”

‘Everything to teach and everything to learn’

Buszard’s excitement about raising plants echoed in the way she discussed her years at UBCO. She began there in 2012, when it was still a young school.

Enrolment and research at UBCO grew significantly over her time there, and it’s clear when she discusses it that Buszard nurtured the campus' growth just as she might a plant.

“I was just delighted to be able to be there when the campus was seven years old,” she said. “It's like having a small seven year old. You've got everything to teach and everything to learn, and it was so much fun.”

A self-described “nerd of academia,” Buszard was curious about how the Okanagan campus could develop an academic culture separate from Vancouver’s.

She highlighted community partnerships as something the campus developed, whether that be the city of Kelowna or other colleges in the Interior. UBCO has also had a memorandum of understanding with the Okanagan Nation Alliance and its member communities since its opening.

“UBC is big enough [in Vancouver] that it doesn't need to partner with anyone. Well, the Okanagan campus, on the other hand, started off very small when I arrived there … we could do so much more when we partnered with other people.”

She said the university itself also became connected in ways UBC Vancouver couldn’t because it was younger.

“I think there was more of an open mind to innovation … I think interdisciplinarity is a big focus in the Okanagan, because the walls of the faculties weren’t so well established.”

Buszard is only back at UBC temporarily — she has a visitor access card to her own office as a reminder of that fact — but she thinks she’s in the presidency at the start of a time that might be as transformative for UBCV as her years at UBCO were.

“I do think it's very exciting to be here now. And I'm very honored and delighted to have an opportunity to be just a little piece in that as we start that next bit.”