In July, the Honourable Michael Wilson, the chairman of Barclays Capital Canada, became the University of Toronto’s 33rd Chancellor. Wilson, who earned a commerce degree from U of T in 1959, has spent much of his career in financial services. He also held public office – serving as finance minister in Brian Mulroney’s government – and has been active in many community organizations. He spoke recently with editor Scott Anderson about his new role.
Do you have any standout memories from your time at Trinity College?
I played guard on the Trinity football team that won the Mulock Cup in 1957. Our team played well together and I stayed good friends with a bunch of those people to this day. Sports were a big part of my life at Trinity.
Probably bigger than they are to most of today’s students . . .
This is something I find a little sad. Sports just don’t have the same position in student life as they did in the 1950s. We used to go to every Varsity Blues football game. The stadium seated 25,000 and it was usually pretty full.
Students today seem quite focused on their studies.
There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think you can combine academics with sports. I’m in business, but I don’t spend 100 per cent of my time on business.
How do you view the chancellor’s role?
To represent U of T in a variety of settings. But I think you also make your own role as chancellor, depending on the circumstances of the time. I had a warm-up as chancellor at Trinity so I have some understanding of what the job is all about – although the activities of the chancellor of U of T are certainly greater than they are at a smaller college.
What made you want to take the job?
It’s an honour. U of T is my alma mater. I’ve long admired the university from my life in politics and business – particularly the quality of its graduates and its leading position in research.
What message will you impart over your term as chancellor?
The importance of the research that’s done at U of T and the importance of U of T within higher education in Canada. We need to let people know what a great institution U of T is. As is pointed out regularly, U of T is a leader in Canada – but also globally in a number of areas.
Canadians are not known for championing their accomplishments to the world.
Yes, and it’s not easy. Many countries have also achieved a lot. My job as the Canadian ambassador in Washington taught me that there are a lot of things that Canada brings to the world: our role in Afghanistan, our performance during the financial crisis, our achievements and stars in the arts.
An ever-present challenge for universities is funding. What are your thoughts on this issue?
A crucial part of that funding challenge is stewardship – making sure that the alumni, corporations and foundations who are the university’s chief private financial supporters have a good understanding of what is going on at the university. As chancellor, I can help make sure they understand the important role that U of T plays in Toronto and the country. We have many great supporters of the university. We just have to keep that spirit alive within them – and that comes from making sure that they have exposure to the good work that’s done at U of T.
As chancellor, you will preside over many convocation ceremonies. What will you say to new graduates?
Enjoy what you do. If you really enjoy what you do you’ll never work a day in your life. Departing students should also recognize . . . that this institution’s great 185-year record can continue only if alumni continue to give their support. New grads ought to feel a sense of pride in their achievements and a sense of ownership in their university.
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre