You don’t become U of T’s most senior fundraiser by thinking small, and David Palmer, who started as chief advancement officer in September, has some big ideas about U of T’s role in advancing Canada’s economic and social agenda. Palmer is the former president of the Royal Ontario Museum’s board of governors and the architect of the $300-million Renaissance ROM Campaign. He spoke with U of T Magazine editor Scott Anderson in October about his initial impressions of U of T, its strengths and his priorities in the coming year.
You’ve been on campus two months now. What are your early impressions of U of T? What has struck me most is the universal commitment to leadership I’ve seen among faculty, staff, students and volunteers. Many are undisputed leaders in their field or, in the case of students, leaders-in-making, whose work is contributing in significant ways to the betterment of society. But my impression is of more than just hard work and dedication. People derive a fundamental sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from their association with U of T. These are individuals who are making a difference. It’s why our alumni volunteers and donors make such a passionate commitment of time and energy and why they thrive on their involvement with U of T. That’s what makes the university such an exciting place, and why I found it an irresistible destination.
What do you see as U of T’s public role? As a national institution of international importance, U of T is vital to Canada’s future economic success and competitiveness. The university has a remarkable depth of talent, research, teaching and outreach that makes it a leader in areas that go well beyond the academic community. U of T is an engine
for growth – a source of both leadership and innovation.
What are our strengths? What challenges do we face? The university is still vastly underfunded, on a per-student basis, compared to its peers in the United States. Despite this, U of T is arguably, dollar for dollar, the most productive research university in the world – second only to Harvard in research impact as measured by citations. For students, such research means access to discovery and an educational experience of the utmost currency and relevance. For alumni, it means access to some of the most exciting thinkers in the world. For society, it gives Canada a competitive edge in research and innovation. Building on these strengths will require an enormous commitment of time, energy and resources.
Your title is vice-president and chief advancement officer. How do you define “advancement”? For me, advancement is about the pursuit of excellence. It’s about the enhanced opportunities for students and faculty that come from investment in growth and innovation.
What will your priorities be in the coming year? The university’s responsibility to its students doesn’t end with graduation. We have to look for ways to add value to the alumni experience over a lifetime. A new online alumni community to be launched next year marks a great addition to that lifelong partnership. It will offer grads new ways to connect with other alumni and easy access to the many services the university provides.
I also plan to meet with U of T’s alumni in Canada and around the world to encourage the participation of a more diverse range of grads. I know from the ROM how successful an institution can be when it throws its doors open to a broad group of people. And I know that initiatives like that exist in different places around the university. It’s an approach from which I think all of U of T will benefit.
Finally, we will be laying the groundwork for the next generation of fundraising at U of T. The university’s most recent campaign ended in 2003 and raised $1 billion. Since then, we’ve begun building new momentum with some very important major gifts. The key is building a base of support, involvement and interest commensurate with the aspirations of the university.