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The governor general of Canada and his vision for the country

No previous governor general of this country has known universities as intimately or as broadly as the one who currently holds the office.

Governor General David Johnston. Photo By DANIEL EHRENWORTH

Canada’s 28th Governor General has been a student of three universities, a law professor of five and a president of two, McGill and Waterloo. Among his many distinctions are honorary degrees from 13 Canadian universities and institutes. So, it won’t be a stretch to say that a little over a year ago, when the Prime Minister announced that David Johnston would be Canada’s next governor general, hundreds of former students, colleagues and academic acquaintances felt the glow of reflected pride.

His modest early circumstances are by now well-known. Mr. Johnston, 70, was born in Sudbury and grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where his parents worked in a hardware store. He attended Harvard University on a hockey scholarship and succeeded in academia, in the words of a former colleague, “on brains and hard work.” His life has been one of continuous public service, and those who know him say that David Johnston would not have accepted his new role if he didn’t believe he could make a difference.

When the Governor General gives the keynote address to a meeting this fall of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, at McGill, it will be a home-coming of sorts, not only to McGill but also to AUCC. He was actively involved in the association during his years as a university president and served as its president (now called chair) from 1985 to 1987.

As Governor General, Mr. Johnston has focussed on another anniversary – Canada’s 150th birthday coming up in 2017. He has repeatedly challenged Canadians to imagine a “smart and caring nation,” one where “all Canadians can succeed, contribute and develop their talents to their fullest potential.” He has proposed three pillars for this vision: supporting families and children, encouraging philanthropy and volunteerism, and – the one he has talked about most often – reinforcing learning and innovation.

In the following interview with University Affairs, conducted at Rideau Hall in mid-August, the Governor General said the greatest challenge facing Canadians in achieving this vision is “complacency.”


Q: In some of your speeches as Governor General, you have talked about reconciling accessibility to education with the excellence of our institutions. What do you mean by that duality?

A: It’s John Gardner’si famous question: Can we have equality of opportunity and excellence too? I think we can. I think Canada is pretty well advanced on that path, as seeing those two objectives as mutually reinforcing and not mutually excluding.

It may be we are a little further advanced in understanding the equality of opportunity. I know of no nation that has worked as hard as this one has in making opportunities available to the full spectrum of the population, including our newest members. This is not to say we don’t still have challenges. We still have enormous challenges, and aboriginal education is one glaring example. But if you look at a comparative and historical scale, we’ve done reasonably well, and we must not be complacent, we must do much more.

On excellence, what we have to do is realize that these things aren’t antagonistic. By providing opportunity you’re not diminishing the elitism that is excellence but in fact you’re expanding, first of all, the physical number of people who can contribute to excellence and, secondly, by the positive reinforcement that comes with more and more people having higher and higher aspirations to actually reach a higher standard. I think we have to accentuate that aspiration for quality and excellence and not preclude that, because we’re working so hard on accessibility, we somehow lose sight of that. We have to do the trigonometry, the triangulation of causing those two pathways to reinforce each other.


Q: Is there a way you could see our universities taking up that challenge?

A: I see it every day. One thing Canadian universities have done well is collaborate in complex inter-institutional research enterprises. I go back 30 years when Fraser Mustard first began developing the Centre of Excellence concept in Ontario, and out of that came CIFAR, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, and then came the federal [Networks of] Centres of Excellence.

It’s harder to do that combination of a number of institutions, including private-sector partners, in many other jurisdictions, including the United States where the rivalries are substantial. I think it’s easier to do that in Canada where, number one, by nature we’re collaborative, and two, we realized that for a critical mass and scale we can’t rely on a single institution. We’re driven to collaborate. I think we must continue that kind of example, just as one where, by working smarter, working collaboratively, we achieve much higher levels of excellence than we would if each of our universities were on its own.


Q: It’s just been announced that you will be leading the AUCC delegation to Brazil in April 2012 and attending the Conference of the Americas on International Education. Why did you want to accompany the mission?

A: Well, I’m thrilled to do that. First of all, I think there’s a remarkable opportunity for Canada in participating in educational ventures around the world. Without being complacent, we do public education very well, at all levels. And therefore we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to share what we do with other nations around the world.

In the higher education area, when you look at the combination of colleges and universities, we have a very good combination of diverse institutions that other [countries] are looking at. We have been able to build the research and the teaching enterprise together, whereas in many parts of the world it’s split and should not be. And I think we manage the movement from school to work better than most nations do.

We also have a system of education that is largely affordable, in part because it is progressive, and while we do have tuition fees, we have good federal-provincial schemes that provide support for students according to their financial-aid needs. These are all important achievements that I think can be shared with the rest of the world, and Brazil is a country that happens to be a very appropriate pairing with Canada, as seen by Prime Minister Harper’s recent visit there.


Q: You are a big champion of study abroad programs. Why is that?

A: First of all, my own experience: I grew up in a little town in northern Ontario and I had the extraordinary good fortune to study in the U.S. and then the U.K. and then back in Canada. I think I’m a better law professor and lawyer and university administrator because of those experiences of living overseas.

Secondly, I’ve seen it with my daughters.  All five of my daughters began exchanges at age 12, and they’re proud Canadian citizens but they are citizens of the world. … What I see in my children is that not only do they become more tolerant people by deep exposure to other cultures, but they become more critical in the best sense, and more respectful of difference, and they realize that difference and diversity enriches, and we’re enriched by it. I would like every Canadian university student to have the experience that my children had. So, that is my motivation for international education. I really think that Canada has a great opportunity to be the Athens of the 21st century, that small nation whose intellectual power pervaded the whole world of the Roman Empire.


Q: You have also talked about the need to honour and cherish our teachers and mentors. How do we, as individuals and as institutions, do that?

A: Very personally, my life has been dramatically changed by many teachers and mentors over the years – above and beyond my family. I simply think [teachers] are such a powerful influence on our lives. And how do we encourage that? By those of us who’ve been fortunate to have a number of great teachers, celebrating that and encouraging the recognition of teachers. … In so doing I think we create a culture of appreciation and aspiration that teaching in its variety of forms is important.


Q: This interview is taking place in the context of the 100th anniversary of AUCC, and this fall the association is celebrating a meeting of presidents that took place in Montreal, at McGill, in 1911.

A: Mr. William Peterson was principal of McGill at that time. I remember a reference to that at some point when I was at McGill.


Q: At that early meeting and the next one in Toronto, some university leaders emphasized the importance of universities to cooperate more closely to develop “a truly national spirit.” Do you think AUCC is trying to do that, and is it succeeding?

A: Trying, and succeeding very well. It’s essential that it does. The international front is one where I think we have such a contribution to make and such benefit to gain from closer interaction with other institutions around the world. Two, I think that AUCC is very helpful, from my earlier comment, in the way this country works best when we collaborate and … can be much more powerful in that way. Three, AUCC is simply a very good vehicle for exchanging best practices … particularly for administrators to get the opportunity to gather together to share ideas and recharge our batteries with new ideas.


Q: Some have said it’s a very lonely job, being a university president.

A: It can be. I think it’s the best job in the world. And I say that because the cause and the company are so good. The cause – the idealism of higher education in the development of society – is such an important and noble one. And the company – the people you associate with – are so interesting and attractive. You get these really bright students, they’ve passed all these hurdles so that even someone like me can’t do any damage to them, and then dealing with your faculty and staff, who by and large are people talented in ways that they could have done other things with their lives that are probably more financially rewarding but they have chosen to do this because it’s more idealistic, because it has an impact on people. And here you are, a university president, as the general manager of that consortium. That’s very special. I was university president for almost 27 years, and every day was one of excitement.


Q: You’ve talked in the past about how Harvard’s endowment has benefitted the university so much. Is there any way we can encourage that in Canada?

A: The first thing I would say about my beloved Harvard is that I think its intellectual endowment has been magnificent for the world. I went there as an undergraduate student without a penny in my pocket, and the reason I went there was because about 20 years before, Harvard had decided it had to broaden its undergraduate base – first of all, it had to embrace women, Radcliffe College for women was separate – and secondly it had to reach beyond the very wealthy sons of wealthy New England families who’d gone to very good New England private schools, to reach out to the public schools, not simply of America but to North America. It was its endowment, and indeed the willingness of those New England families that were prepared to diminish the chances of their sons to get into Harvard, to put up the money to support people like me. For me that is the first thing that stands out about Harvard.

Secondly, Harvard began as a Puritan college in 1635. The Puritans arrived in 1620. Fifteen years later they said, we can’t depend on the Old World anymore to educate our people in the ministry. We’ll start our own. And that Calvinist spirit of looking after your own community still exists, and that’s why Harvard’s endowment today is back up to $30 billion or so. But what I draw from Harvard is not the wealth of its endowment but the willingness of its community to invest in it, so it can take its learning and its research and spread it into the world.


Q: In your challenge to Canadians to become smarter and more caring by 2017, how will you know or feel that we “got it”?

A: Measuring the path to success is so important. The first thing I’d say is how important it is to set milestones and objectives. In 2017, Canada will celebrate its 150th birthday. I think we should all think: What is our birthday gift to Canada? And each of our institutions should ask itself: What is our birthday gift to this great country that has worked so hard in equality of opportunity and access? What can my institution do that makes Canada a better place? …

In determining how we become smarter and more caring, I am a believer in trying to measure that. At the institutional level, most institutions develop strategic plans. The document sets out where they are intending to go and how they’re progressing. I think that is a very good device that should be done constantly and in rigorous fashion, resetting goals constantly in respect to changing circumstances.

The other thing I would say is, as we look at the collective of institutions across the country, we probably should work at having institutions that are more diverse, that carve out more innovative approaches to higher education and research. And I clearly think we should be encouraging all institutions to think in broader terms, both in how they impact beyond their regions and internationally, around the world. Canada should become a beacon, a place of renown, for the quality and accessibility of its higher education.


Q: Do you think it’s the public system that has led us to this point?

A: Yes, I think the public system has been a very big part of it, but I [also] think it’s part of the unique features of Canada. We believe in peace, order and good government. We believe in collective responsibility for our communities. We believe in building institutions that provide opportunities for individuals to succeed, but it doesn’t end there – those individuals then have a responsibility to give back to those communities to make the community bigger, if not better. And I think that has been manifested in our education system. It’s a precious public trust and we should work hard to keep that trusteeship and stewardship.

Peggy Berkowitz
Peggy Berkowitz is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Subhadeep Chakrabarti / October 18, 2011 at 16:34

    A great article. I am glad to see the values of excellence, research, diversity and globalization are well appreciated in the top office of our land.

  2. Anil K Bhatt / October 22, 2011 at 20:36

    I’m impressed by the Governor General’s candid reference to what he owes to Harvard’s catholicity as also by the pride he takes in his own daughters’ upbringing as world citizens – values underscored by our, Bharat’s, forefathers’ declaration of ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ – the whole earth ought to be taken as one’s own family.

    Another value the GG holds up for us to ponder and act upon is what he terms as the Calvinist concern for the well-being of one’s community.

    My deep regards to the G G and congratulations to the presenter(s) of the article.