Feature / Spring 2004
The Corporate Connection

Do corporate donations influence what goes on in the classroom? Campaign chair Tony Comper feels that everyone’s a winner when business supports higher learning


For me, the reason why businesses should support Canadian universities and higher education is both straightforward and self-evident – not to mention extremely compelling.

At BMO Financial Group, where I am chairman and chief executive officer, we operate on the belief that our success as an organization is directly linked to the success of Canada as a country and of Canadians as a people. Thus, we actively and broadly support education as the key to success at all levels. While fully subscribing to the principle that every Canadian should have the opportunity to learn and grow as much as she or he is able, we also see our support for education as a fairly simple business proposition: more people with more money means more work for us.

There’s another reason why we unremittingly support education at every level. In recent years, the financial-services business has taken a turn for the complex. The fact is we need people with post-secondary degrees and diplomas to handle the kind of work we have before us. (This change has some passing interest for me, given that when I joined the Bank of Montreal back in the 1960s I was one of the first and one of the few employees to have a university degree.)

BMO has long been committed to building a workforce that reflects our existing and potential customer base. We recognize the marvellous diversity that identifies this country today, and appreciate that Canada has one of the most highly educated populations in the history of the world. How educated? By 2001, according to the Treasury Board of Canada, more than 60 per cent of Canadians aged 25 to 34 had at least some post-secondary education, up from less than 50 per cent 10 years earlier.

The only times that I think twice about the relationship between the corporate and academic worlds are when corporations are accused of exercising too much influence over academia. Then, the first thing I think about is how rarely this accusation crops up. After 20 years of increasingly closer relationships between corporations and universities, there’s but a handful of examples of anything untoward.

As for the commercialization-of-higher-education debate, I agree with former Harvard president Derek Bok. In his most recent book, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education, he writes that if areas of potential conflict are clearly identified and intelligently monitored and regulated, there shouldn’t be much of a problem.

The “issue” of the relationship between corporations and universities does not especially affect either my organization or industry or, for that matter, a fairly good-sized majority of other employers out there. If we have any “interest” in post-secondary education, it’s not one that sets the stage for conflict. The idea of big business conspiring with universities to churn out new generations of “cogs for the machine” has always felt a bit crazy to me, and never more so than now, in this age of the knowledge worker. Even if there were a “we,” exactly what kind of a “cog” would we agree on? What qualities would we induce universities to foster? What sort of things would we insist be part of their curricula?

Our interest in higher education really is just as simple and transparent as helping to ensure that this country’s post-secondary institutions are better enabled to do what they do best. Our interest is for every person in this country to have the opportunity to learn and grow.

Of all the pleasures that have come my way as a result of chairing the campaign and seeing it pass the $1-billion milestone earlier this year, nothing is greater than the knowledge that, alone among Canadian universities, U of T is now financially accessible to every applicant qualified to enrol. Good citizens made this accessibility happen, and many of those citizens were corporate.

Tony Comper (BA 1966 St. Michael’s, LLD Hon. 1999) served as chair of the campaign since its launch in 1997.


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