The Currency of Character

Principal’s Perspective

As principal of McGill, I spend a certain amount of time raising money for the University, and I’d like to share a few things I’ve observed about the “character” of money.

Money invested in a business displays a very simple character. Revenues are the top line, profits are the bottom line, and the cost of doing business, including R&D, sits in the middle. The product or service might serve to make this world a better place, or it might serve to make this world a worse place. The invested money does not care. Its motivation is to create profit. Period.

Money invested in a university has a somewhat different character. The moment it arrives at the university, it takes on a larger purpose – the discovery, and sharing, of knowledge. It endows chairs from which researchers make life-saving breakthroughs in medicine. It funds scholarships for needy students, changing their lives in ways they cannot even begin to imagine. It seeks to preserve and enhance the beauty of existence. It even makes music.

Seymour Schulich, an extraordinarily generous graduate of McGill has given to universities all across Canada: the business school at York, the medical school at Western, the engineering school at the University of Calgary. These are all noble causes. But every penny of his $20 million donation to McGill went to support music and the students who pursue it.

When we opened the New Music Building last September, Mr. Schulich’s message was very moving, and worth repeating. “I would not be here today,” he said, “if it weren’t for a scholarship from McGill.” Thanks to his generosity, generations of McGill music students will develop their skills in the very best surroundings. And as the talent nurtured by Mr. Schulich’s donation matures, the Schulich School of Music of McGill University will become synonymous with McGill’s world reputation for excellence.

Another great Canadian philanthropist, Dr. Marcel Desautels, announced his $22 million gift in November to the Faculty of Management, now called the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University. It is the largest single donation ever made to a Canadian business school. This donation is not about bricks. It’s about brains. It’s about scholarships to support the best minds, funds to support academic programs, and challenge to governments to upgrade their level of funding and support for university teaching and research.

It is McGill’s reputation for enduring quality and value that led Dr. Desautels, who is a graduate of the University of Manitoba, and the foundation he heads, the Canadian Credit Management Foundation, to support McGill. His gesture and generosity are a powerful endorsement from Dr. Desautels, who said: “I am proud to be part of such an exceptional institution, and there is no doubt in my mind that McGill’s management faculty will continue to set the standard for business education for generations to come.”

There were other visionary gifts to McGill in 2005. David O’Brien, the former Chairman of Canadian Pacific Limited, one of our graduates in law, whose father before him taught in the Faculty of Law, made a generous gift of $3 million. A $1 million gift from architecture graduate Gerry Sheff will create a visiting professorship in architecture. A gift from Jake Eberts will support outreach programs and scholarships for aboriginal students. All of these gifts have been made with money that has been lifted up from the bottom line, and ennobled with the character of their visionary donors.

You can see the character of money when you walk around the campus, past the landmark buildings that bear the names of past donors.

From one generation to the next, the names may change, from Macdonald and McConnell, to Bronfman and Trottier, to Tomlinson, Wong and Bellini, to Schulich and Desautels. Their vision and generosity – the character of their money – supports the work of great researchers. It nurtures the minds of great students.

The existence of McGill itself is a story of philanthropy. It began with James McGill, whose bequest led to the founding of our university in 1821. It was a vision that came to life 46 years before the birth of our country, and it continues to this day.

The next time you walk by the statue of James McGill on the lower campus, you might want to thank him for his vision, and the character of his money. I did the other day. And I could have sworn he tipped his hat in return.

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