Universities: Who Needs Them?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 7 Feb 1974, p. 212-223
Macdonald, H. Ian, Speaker
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Item Type
A short review of post-secondary institutions, particularly in the 1960's. A switch from the "quantitative revolution" to the "qualitative revolution" in education from the 1960's to the 1970's. The basis for an austere forecast in education. The role of universities; why we need them. Examples of areas of neglect and unfortunate failure. Some fundamental battlegrounds in Canada. Canada's role internationally, and the significance of universities in that role. Openness and mobility of key importance of the "new university" in the broader community.
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7 Feb 1974
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Full Text
FEBRUARY 7, 1974
Universities: Who Needs Them?
CHAIRMAN The President, Robert L. Armstrong


Mr. Minister, distinguished head table guests, ladies and gentlemen: If I were to give the best introduction possible of our guest speaker today, I could only do so by plagiarizing his own elegant introductions of speakers in the 1969-70 year of this Club, when he was our distinguished President. I shall refrain from such literary theft with a possible exception or two.

Mr. Macdonald was born in Toronto and led his course in obtaining a Bachelor of Commerce degree with first class honours at the University of Toronto, winning the Governor General's Medal for highest degree in the Faculty of Arts and the Cody Trophy for contributing most to the athletic life of University College. A Rhodes Scholar, he earned a Master of Arts degree in two years and a Bachelor of Philosophy in Economics in an additonal year at Balliol College, Oxford and while there was Captain of the University of Oxford hockey team.

In 1955 he joined the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, being appointed Dean of Men in University College and subsequently professor of Economics.

In January 1965 Mr. Macdonald was appointed Chief Economist for the Province of Ontario with responsibility for all economic research in government. In 1967 he became Deputy Provincial Treasurer (Finance and Economics) and later, after government reorganization, Deputy Treasurer of Ontario and Deputy Minister of Economics. In April 1972 under the new structure, Mr. Macdonald was appointed to his present position, Deputy Treasurer and Deputy Minister of Economics and Intergovernmental Affairs.

It is a particular tribute to this extremely capable mandarin that his Minister is present at this table to do him honour.

Our speaker has served as Chairman of many important governmental committees, too numerous to specify in this introduction. He is presently Chairman of the Economic Studies Committee appointed to advise the Premier on long-range economic policy.

Perhaps his greatest challenge of all lies ahead. On July 1, 1974, Mr. Macdonald will become President of York University.

I have borrowed two quotations from Mr. Macdonald's famous introductions.

When introducing the then Dean of the Faculty of Administrative Studies at York University he quoted the late Sydney Smith who parodied the aphorism of George Bernard Shaw "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach" with the following, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; those who can't teach, administer; and those who can't administer, work for the government. " Mr. Macdonald modestly added that such a reference to the then guest speaker would not only be inappropriate but actually offensive, except that he himself had followed that path to its ultimate conclusion. Humorous but not true of today's speaker.

But, best of all, I liked his quotation on another occasion, "The groves of academe have been swept by brush fires in recent years and their tranquility upset by periodic turbulence. " I trust his new career will not prove unduly tempestuous. All who know him are confident he will fill his important new position with great distinction. Ladies and gentlemen, I am indeed proud to present to this audience Mr. H. Ian Macdonald, Deputy Minister, Treasury, Economics and Intergovernmental Affairs, and President-elect, York University, who will address us on the subject, "Universities: Who Needs Them'?"

Mr. Macdonald.


Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen. When asked why he hired so many of his relatives, the late President Kennedy remarked that it is easier to fire a relative than a friend. However, there is absolutely no way, that I have discovered, to graciously say "no" when asked to do something by a member of the family. As a former President of this Club, I found myself recently in precisely that situation, for this is far from the ideal time for me to make a major address. As a civil servant, I am still bound by the statutory oath of secrecy and the traditional practice of anonymity. As President-elect of York University, due to take office on July I, I can scarcely speak for that institution. Not only would it be improper to do so but unwise, I suspect, in view of my formal absence from the academic community of nearly nine years. When the veil of anonymity is lifted from my shoulders on July 1,1 shall certainly feel less fettered and I might even have something worthwhile to say.

In earlier years, at the University of Toronto, as one deeply interested in questions of public policy, I had the freedom to speak, but not the access to facts; recently, as a civil servant, I have had the access to the facts, but not the freedom to speak. I have often considered that, if those two states could be wedded, public policy would be the beneficiary in Canada. Indeed, those separate states provide the launching pad for my remarks today, because I believe that there are not two, but several, solitudes in Canada and, whereas we do not have a "secret society", we are far from having "an open society". Only with a more open society will the unique opportunities of this nation be realized, and the significant example which we can set to the world be achieved.

This deeply-held belief, which I shall elaborate upon shortly, helps to explain why I decided to leave government and return to university life at this time. I hope you will forgive me, Mr. Chairman, if I indulge in a few personal remarks, but surely The Empire Club family is an acceptable place to do so.

You are all aware that the process of choosing a university president today is a highly open and public one, and as part of the trial by fire, I was invited to various open meetings of faculty and students at York University. The first question put to me on the very first day was: "Why would a pillar in the corridors of power with access to control over great sums of money be interested in a position with no power facing severe financial stringency?" All I could think to reply, while trying to prepare a cogent answer, was that I had been on the fringes of politics for so long that I had decided it was time "to turn pro". Indeed, I am advised that certain political skills are a prerequisite to the survival of university presidents. However, if the assumption underlying the question which was put to me at York is true, I could best describe myself, in paraphrase of Peter Newman, as "a renegade from power".

At the time of the announcement that I was leaving the Ontario Government, I confess to you that I experienced quite a cultural shock. After nine years of studied anonymity, I burst forth into two weeks of unsolicited fame and publicity. That condition proved to be doubly difficult for one who had spent a lifetime deploring "the cult of personality". May I also report that the publicity assumed some rather curious forms. For example, I was interested to read that I wore "a nondescript suit and an unfashionably thin tie". Now, I readily admit that, until that moment of revelation, I was totally unaware that ties came in different widths, but what really jolted me was the fact that I was wearing my best suit. The very next day I received a telephone call from Ottawa and my heart took an ecstatic leap when I was advised that it was from "Fashion Unlimited" but, alas, it was for another Macdonald in the Ministry of Industry and Tourism. Then, Time magazine wrote that "I balanced books rather than writing books". Let me point out that, whereas I have been responsible for producing two books of Confederation essays in recent years, I cannot recall when we last balanced the provincial budget during my tenure as Deputy Treasurer of Ontario.

Well, Mr. President, I must have been asked a thousand times, during the past few weeks: why am I going to York? My answer is simple. I believe in the future of our universities and particularly of York. But, I would like to add today what I could not reply earlier because it would have sounded immodest and patronizing. In the months preceding my selection, many members of York University had spoken to me in the most generous terms about considering the presidency. I tell you this in order to indicate what impressed me so much: everyone I met at York was enthusiastic about its future and demonstrated nothing but goodwill towards the office of the president. That apparent state of mind was reaffirmed during my peregrinations at York as part of the selection procedure.

I believe it is fair to suggest that the public perception of York is rather different. It must be, if my experiences during the past few weeks are any indication. I have experienced some of the sensation of the bon-voyage of Christopher Columbus. Everyone wished him well, while remaining convinced that the world was flat! Similarly, the external perception of York and its presidency is almost fatalistic. But, unless there is some hidden leviathan waiting to swallow me up, I cannot share the view of those who have been tearfully waving me farewell, as I embark on a mission of self-destruction. I simply believe in York and the future of York. York University is alive and well and living in Downsview, where it might be described as a university in search of an expressway. In that sense, I confess that its new president is about to suffer from self-inflicted wounds in view of certain policies of the Ontario Government with which I have been associated.

Let me attempt an answer to the question of my title: Universities: Who Needs Them? During the 1960's, post-secondary institutions in this country, and in this province particularly, developed at an unprecedented rate. In a short space of years, we grew from seven to fifteen provincially-supported universities in Ontario and we created twenty-two new Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology as part of the post-secondary system. I recall once calculating that post-secondary capital investment in the quinquennial period 1967-1972 in Ontario would surpass all that had taken place in the preceeding century of Confederation. That was the era of the "quantitative revolution" in education. There were some who expressed concern from time to time about the extent of the outlay, and the pace of events, but our social, economic and demographic circumstances were such that we really had no choice. That underlying concern often concealed itself in an attempted economic justification of investment in education. "Investment in human capital"-that most unfelicitous phrase-was a concept that I for one argued against rather forcefully, because I believed-and still believe-that education is more than an economic process, more than a means to an end, and more than mere occupational training, but that it is a prerequisite of a civilized society and a process whose intrinsic worth has been demonstrated many times over.

Now in the 1970's, we are in the phase of the "qualitative revolution", where that intrinsic worth to society must be carefully cultivated and demonstrated. Those professional purveyors of gloom, not an exclusive Canadian commodity although we seem to have more than our share, now talk about universities as a "declining industry", one doomed to financial failure and intellectual impotence. That, I submit, will happen only to the extent that those responsible for university affairs let it happen. We need universities more than ever. The question is not do we need them, but what should they be in the modern world? Let me not appear to suggest that there are no problems--there are. However, my point is that the solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but rather to consider how often the baby needs to take a bath, while remaining a sweet-smelling member of society.

So long as the constitutional responsibilities of our Confederation remain intact, and the revenue sources among the three levels of government remain unreformed, then education and a variety of other socially desirable activities in this province will face financial hardship. I foresee no relaxation in that condition throughout this decade. Indeed, I can assure you that it will be worse before it is better. Incidentally, my current position precludes me from anything but the most neutral comment on the fundamental fiscal problems of Canada's Confederation, but I might well have a comment or two come July 1.

What is the basis of this austere forecast? In recent years, the Government of Ontario has been faced with massive deficits and cash requirements far in excess, relatively, of those of the Federal Government. The Government of Ontario is committed to major transfers to the municipal level of government to offset its sole dependence on the regressive property tax. The current concern about the quality of life means that massive new demands are arising within the constitutional umbrella of provincial governments-environmental protection and enhancement, mass urban transit, preservation of agricultural land, development of recreation and open space, urban renewal and beautification. The decision to embark upon the protection of some 1.3 million acres of the Niagara Escarpment and to provide a Parkway Belt from Hamilton to Oshawa around Metropolitan Toronto will involve an outlay of at least one billion dollars over the next few years-and more to come. In the face of these demands, education, health and the traditional social services obviously will be faced with strong competition for funds. No one knows that better than 1; hence, I think I am taking the post at York with my eyes open.

Someone once said that there are two reasons why parents want their children to go to university: either because they went themselves, or because they didn't. By the same token, my experience in government has taught me that there are two diametrically opposed attitudes to government, depending on the issue: those who criticize the government for spending too much, and those who argue it is not spending enough. The current situation in the schools is a good example. I suppose the two general propositions that I hear most are: one, that taxes are taking too big a bite out of our pockets; and two, that expenditure on education is too lavish. Yet many of these same people feel, where their own children are concerned, that the ceilings are resulting in over-crowded classrooms and poorer education. Some who can afford to do so buy their way out by opting for private schools, but I cannot accept that answer. The only resolution to the dilemma must be acceptance of the necessary discipline to reach agreement on strict priorities, a willingness to set goals and objectives, and the ability to concentrate on those things that matter most. If we face a choice between lower library budgets or more educational television then surely we must be prepared to decide. That is why I do not believe that universities need be a declining industry or that the quality of their product must be diminished. Rather, I believe:

1. We must be willing to have sufficient co-operation among universities to avoid wasteful competition without, at the same time, converting them into an educational cartel.
2. We must be willing to decide on those programs and activities that should be our priorities and be willing to concentrate on them.
3. We must have a sufficiently clear medium-term financial plan to avoid unnecessary emergency situations.
4. If universities wish to seek a bigger share of the public's financial pie, they must be capable of convincing the public that they deserve its support and that they are relevant to our society.

Universities: Who Needs Them? We do-desperately -and let me begin to suggest why. Anyone looking for historical justification for our universities can find evidence in abundance. The universities, their faculties and their students have been guardians of some of our most cherished values--the responsibility for pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, the protection of the freedom to dissent, the ability to explore myths and social fallacies, and the capacity to enlarge the horizons of young minds and those of an increasing number of adults, whether in a creative direction or in a critical fashion.

However, there have also been conspicuous areas of neglect and examples of unfortunate failure. The universities alone are not to blame for these and, perhaps as an impressionable undergraduate, I set too high a store on the remarks of one professor I respected greatly. He said to me: "Do not go into a university career unless you expect to push back the frontiers of knowledge." Yet, in my own subject of economics, I find it difficult to identify the shifting of any frontiers since the work of John Maynard Keynes. We have had great improvements in technique and the accompanying analytical apparatus. Yet, to take three major fields of fundamental and peculiar importance in Canada-the economics of transportation, fiscal federalism, and regional disparity-we have really had no success at all in our fundamental understanding and capacity to knock down the barriers to social progress. Looking forward, I believe that we face some fundamental battlegrounds in Canada that will command all the intellectual muscle we can muster:

- The road to national unity remains as treacherous as ever before in the history of Confederation.

- The outcome of the basic uses to which we put out nonrenewable resources will determine our long-term future and our relationship to the world.

- The question of human settlement, in all its complex parts, in a metropolitan area like Toronto, where so many do not bear names like Armstrong or Macdonald, has had scant attention.

- The attitudes to population change and economic growth now and in the future will determine the type of society we will become.

- The importance of planning the landscape to suit the full needs of everyone rather than the selfish interests of the few is becoming increasingly clear.

- The issue of the balance between work and recreation in our society will have profound economic and social consequence.

- The questions of who should be educated, how far, in what direction, for what, and paid for by whom remain unresolved.

- The process of humanizing government and decentralizing it in order to bring it closer to people, and to fulfill the urge for self-determination on a regional and local basis, must be accelerated.

- Above all, the objective of retaining and enhancing a compassionate society in Canada should be a top priority.

We often ponder the role that Canada should play in the arena of world giants. I believe that our role should be to create and maintain a society in Canada that is truly the envy of the world, not for the selfish satisfaction of those of us who are privileged to live here, but as a source of inspiration and as proof that post-industrial society, or whatever you chose to call it, can be civilized, tolerant and humane. That we achieve law and order by the concern of all rather than the muscle of the few, that we retain the priority of green grass over concrete caverns, that we can bring work to people as well as taking people to work, that we can treat the old and the young as part of a larger family rather than statistics in homes for the aged and day-nurseries, and, perhaps above all, that we can take the time and make the sacrifice to ensure that the handicapped are happy, contributing members of the community-those are some of the goals that I see for Canada.

My hope is that the energies and talents of universities can be marshalled to those ends. In recent years, far too much effort has been devoted to wrestling with questions of internal structure. Much of the vitality of universities has been sapped in resolving the process of how to do things, rather than in deciding what to do. Universities are not alone in succumbing to that temptation. When Ontario called the Confederation of Tomorrow Conference, the objective was to determine the kind of Confederation we wanted to be. Unfortunately, it was succeeded by sterile and still-born discussions of constitutional arrangements. Debates over structure are always easier than setting goals and objectives. But constitutions and university structures are creatures of man, the product of an act of will, and vehicles to help us reach our destination. Let them not become a preoccupation or an end in themselves. Let us create something that works-and not spend too long over it-in order to tackle our primary responsibilities.

In the case of each issue to which I have referred, I believe the university can and must play a large, although by no means an exclusive, role. The traditional university is now only part of "the university" in the broader sense. Learning and research are diversified among a variety of institutions and situations today; nor does the university enjoy a monopoly of knowledge--far from it. The university as an institution must recognize that it is a central part, but still only a part, of a variety of centres of knowledge and learning--business, government, resource institutes, community colleges, and so on. Still it is a special star in the 'intellectual constellation and should be a guiding light. To do so, however, it must earn its place of leadership. To do that, in turn, it must not only know itself, but know and understand intimately the world and conditions around it.

Therefore, I believe two ingredients are now of great importance-openness and mobility-between the various parts of the "new university"-the broad community. Universities should be leading the way. I believe in, and I have done my best to encourage openness of government. Organizations which behave as secret societies must bring suspicion and mistrust upon themselves. Yet, as I keep trying to convince journalists and political scientists, there is nothing conspiratorial about governments; we just muddle through! Let us open up our institutions-let everyone see what we are doing-let the professor know the actual problems of the corporate suite, the businessmen the true constraints of the Cabinet room, the person in government the real objectives of the university.

Over time, mistrust and suspicion will be alleviated by greater mobility, which is something I believe in and have tried to practise. I am well aware of the practical problems. I do not think that I could go downtown tomorrow and run a bank, and I suspect any bank president would find that he had a little to learn about being Deputy Treasurer of Ontario. However, we must be prepared for greater movement of people and less rigorous definition of what constitutes "formal preparation for the job". Again, I believe there is a lesson in this for universities in terms of the type of graduate they should be producing. I suspect, more and more, that our society will require people who are skilled in the arts of life and not solely occupationally trained. Nor am I referring to the commonplace distinction between the theoretical and the practical. Rather I am thinking of the difference between flexibility and adaptability on one side, and narrowness and confinement on the other.

Now, I have reached my limits and should really say no more. Recently, I read an interview in the Manchester Guardian Weekly with young Winston Churchill, the grandson of the great. Asked whether his name had been a help, he replied: "I've never found it a liability, except when it comes to being bashed over the head in Chicago." It appears that Mr. Churchill was in Chicago in 1968 as a reporter covering the Democratic Convention and was frisked, beaten up, and pushed by a policeman over a 15-foot parapet onto an underpass. It is true that he had made the mistake of behaving like an English gentleman in saying to one policeman: "What's your number?" The policeman had then enquired who he thought he was. "I told him," he said. "That of course was a great mistake."

It would be a great mistake to tell you my plans for York: (a) I have not made any at this point; (b) I am not aware, at this stage, how a president carries them out; and, (c) if I had any, and could carry them out, I would probably not agree with them in a few months time.

I do say this. Those who created York University and brought it to a state of such excellence, in such a short period of time, deserve the gratitude of all of us. Universities deserve to have a great future, and York has all the potential to be one of the great universities of the world. I believe in universities and I believe in York. Their challenge is to retain their essential values, while participating in the wider "University of the World" which I have tried to describe.

And for now, that is my answer to the kindly and to the quizzical who have asked me so often during recent weeks: "Why would you want to do it?"

The appreciation of the Club was expressed by Mr. J. Alex Langford, Q.C.

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Universities: Who Needs Them?

A short review of post-secondary institutions, particularly in the 1960's. A switch from the "quantitative revolution" to the "qualitative revolution" in education from the 1960's to the 1970's. The basis for an austere forecast in education. The role of universities; why we need them. Examples of areas of neglect and unfortunate failure. Some fundamental battlegrounds in Canada. Canada's role internationally, and the significance of universities in that role. Openness and mobility of key importance of the "new university" in the broader community.