As David Peterson takes up his new role as U of T’s 32nd chancellor on July 1, he will be looking back, way back, to the last former premier of Ontario who held the office: Edward Blake (BA 1854 UC, MA 1858), appointed U of T’s 15th chancellor in 1876.
Peterson, who served as premier from 1985 to 1990, likens U of T’s highest ceremonial office to that of an ambassador, but he will also be a strong advocate for U of T, advancing its interests with government. “The real agenda is driven by the president of U of T,” says Peterson, “and I will use whatever I can bring to the table to assist the university.” And that is considerable. Peterson is chair of the law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP and a director at a long list of corporate boards and charities. He still wields enormous influence in the Liberal party, most recently signing on as honorary co-chair of Michael Ignatieff’s (BA 1969 TRIN) campaign to become the federal leader. At 62, Peterson hardly seems to have aged from the charismatic figure he cut as premier – silver hair, signature red tie, sleeves rolled up for business.
As chancellor, he will be responsible for conferring about 14,400 degrees in some 24 convocations a year and representing alumni at university events, but admits that he has “a little personal mission” in taking on the role. “You don’t have any real power, but you do have a pulpit,” he says. “You can have a personal influence on people and their values and commitments, and I hope to do that.”
Indeed, there’s one message he wants to deliver to students. “I say to my own kids that they are among the 1/100th of one per cent of the luckiest people in the history of the earth. They have peace, enough to eat, someone to love them. They’ve been educated at the best schools. Now, what are you going to do for those who don’t?” To that end, he won’t shy away from sharing his experiences of political life with students. “I consider public service a very high calling. It’s an exhilarating way to live your life.”
Peterson graduated from U of T’s Faculty of Law in 1967 and was a Hart House debater, but says he really learned to take the knocks of public life by competing on the Varsity boxing team. “The analogy is, when you’re boxing you always risk losing, and you can get beaten up pretty badly and in public,” he says. “But you never win if you don’t try…and people who commit to something, whatever it is, are happier. That’s been my experience.”
Peterson’s belief that university should be about building character and leaders not only in the classroom but beyond is one of the reasons he decided to run for chancellor. (Vivienne Poy [MA 1997, PhD 2003] is at the end of her three-year term.) “There has to be something for the mind, the body and the soul,” he says. “I’m very supportive of David Naylor’s agenda. We’re building toward one of the best research-based public universities in the world, with an enhanced student experience. That’s not a bad goal.”