Are universities doing enough to train the next generation of public sector leaders? Not according to one of Canada’s richest men, Stephen Jarislowsky.
The billionaire business magnate, investor and philanthropist has endowed $2 million each to five Canadian universities in support of a new network of chairs in trust and political leadership. Mr. Jarislowsky, who made his fortune as the founder of the investment management firm Jarislowsky Fraser, has donated millions of dollars into Canadian higher education through his charitable Jarislowsky Foundation over the course of many years. In an interview, he told University Affairs that this latest investment in the sector comes out of a belief that universities should do more to train Canada’s future cohort of leaders in government, geopolitics and the public service if the country is to confront increasingly dire economic and political circumstances worldwide.
“If you look at the experience of people who go into politics in Canada, it’s unbelievable,” he said, noting that while universities have long-standing schools and departments dedicated to professional training and accreditation in fields like medicine, law, and business, no widely recognized system of professionalization exists for civil service. To be a strong public sector leader “you have to know foreign affairs, economics and finance – and you have to know ethics,” said Mr. Jarislowsky. “If you think that [leaders in Canada] have the qualifications to stand up against other parts of the world like Russia and China, you’re just kidding yourself.”
The network of chairs is intended to expand knowledge and training in ethical politics, fiduciary responsibility, and democratic governance with the long-term aim of professionalizing work in the political and public service.
The chairs will be based at universities in five geographically and politically distinct regions across Canada – British Columbia’s Vancouver Island University, the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Trent University in Ontario, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and Nova Scotia’s Acadia University. The universities have committed to finding total matching funds of $10 million to support the network, which will officially launch on July 1. The Jarislowsky Foundation has also secured donations from Scotiabank, which will match additional pledges, according to The Globe and Mail.
At the time of writing, two of the five chairs have been filled: Cristine de Clercy at Trent and Alex Marland at Acadia. Notably, the chairholders will be supported by a national advisory council of seven high-profile Canadian public servants, including former Governor General David Johnston and former Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin. On behalf of the council, Mr. Johnston said in a press release that the program’s aim is to help build trust in public institutions. “Our democratic institutions are being eroded somewhat in various jurisdictions around the world, and we are not immune to that here in Canada.”
Canadians need not look far to see why the initiative is both timely and necessary, said Dr. de Clercy, who previously served as director of the Leadership and Democracy Laboratory at Western University. “The border blockades happening a year ago show that the connection between leaders and citizens is very important, and when that trust breaks down, we need to understand why,” she said in an interview with University Affairs. The chairs will help to fill what she sees as a “huge deficit” in the study of political leadership in Canada.
Dr. Marland, who has interviewed hundreds of Canadian politicians, political staffers, and strategists, said that the new network comes at a time when concern about ethical standards and accountability in politics is rising. “We have to uphold high standards of accountability and strong leadership, because not all of us are satisfied with the choices that we have in terms of elected officials,” he said. While universities tend to generally prepare people for working in government – and several universities in Canada even offer degrees in public administration – they “do not necessarily help them understand their responsibilities as good citizens and leaders.”
The chairholders will be tasked with designing a program of study comprised of research, teaching and experiential learning opportunities for students who are interested in politics and the public sector. And with chairs represented across the country, the network’s scope will allow chairholders and their students to collaborate on topics of both regional and national importance. “The network reflects an important form of diversity in Canada, which is our different political cultures,” said Dr. Marland, “and it makes sure that we’re able to support each other and potentially pool our resources.”
The five universities were selected because of their small size, teaching focus, and ability to provide a broad spectrum of liberal arts and interdisciplinary courses, according to Mr. Jarislowsky. “The humanistic education is enormously important,” he said, “and it’s going to be one of the most important contributions that these universities can make.”
Dr. de Clercy adds that leadership “is a very large, interdisciplinary concept that covers many disciplines and activities, so by locating the chairs at these somewhat more compact, teaching-intensive places, the foundation will spur additional investment at each location because the chairs will have more profile,” she said.
Beyond the national advisory council, each chair will be supported by a committee of two experts from their discipline, one representative from the Jarislowsky Foundation and two academics at their university. Mr. Jarislowsky said that the balance of the committee, which will meet once or twice a year, is meant to ensure that the chairholders are “free from university politics” and that the network “operates on a rational, ethical basis, without anyone standing to benefit except the public and the students.”
The Jarislowsky Foundation
The Montreal-based Jarislowsky Foundation was created in 1991 and is a registered Canadian charity with the mission of promoting advanced education. In 2021, the organization had $51.9 million in revenue. Since its founding, the organization has appointed dozens of chairs at Canadian universities in fields ranging from water security to learning disabilities. Mr. Jarislowsky told University Affairs that the foundation was created on the values of “ethics and excellence” and that he views universities as the “only place where you can really study and develop excellence.”