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Hal Jackman’s Gift to Last

As our 30th chancellor concludes his term, his one-of-a-kind contribution will live on

Henry Newton Rowell Jackman, who is retiring as the University of Toronto’s 30th chancellor at the end of June after six years’ service, has been around the St. George campus for well over half a century: first as a schoolboy at the University of Toronto Schools, then as an undergrad (BA 1953 Victoria), and finally as a law student, graduating in 1956. If you think he loves the place, you’d be right, although he’s not about to say so himself. That just isn’t Jackman’s style.

Hal Jackman’s affection for U of T has to be coaxed out of him. But it emerges nonetheless, in dribs and drabs, over an hour’s lively conversation in his office. His business card cites him as president of the Dominion & Anglo Investment Corp., but he is a longtime Bay Street financier who chairs a clutch of companies. According to Canadian Business magazine, Jackman, 70, is also one of Canada’s richest people (estimated net worth: $650 million). His office, accordingly, occupies most of the top floor of the Dominion of Canada General Insurance Co. building at University and Adelaide.

Jackman made his mark on Bay Street by turning a substantial fortune forged by his father, Harry Jackman, into a major one, through asset diversification and timely sell-offs, such as the 1997 sale of National Trust to the Bank of Nova Scotia for $1.2 billion. At 70 he’s scaling back his workload, but he still goes into the office every day. “There’s always something to do,” he says.

Well over six feet tall, with hooded eyes and bushy eyebrows, Jackman has a hearty handshake and engaging manner. Both served him well through his six years as lieutenant-governor, the Queen’s official representative of Ontario. Soon after that ended, he was asked to become chancellor of U of T.

Why take on another ceremonial role, so soon? Because, says Jackman simply – and here you begin to glimpse his affection for U of T – “I was honoured and flattered to be asked. I appreciate the university much more now than I did as a student. Back then, for me, it was mostly about highjinks,” he laughs. Once he got into the job of chancellor, however, he discovered just how constantly enlarging university life can be. “The totality of it is amazing. I meet all sorts of people at all kinds of events. I’m able to talk to faculty and students, go to lectures and concerts. It’s great.” Recently, his schedule has included memorable evenings with journalist and academic Michael Ignatieff (BA 1969 Trinity), and controversial Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis.

The heart of the job, however, is convocation. For three weeks in June and a week in November, Jackman dons his impressive black and gold robe and presides over numerous ceremonies for thousands of U of T grads. Onerous? Hot? Long? Boring? None of the above, insists Jackman: “It’s three solid weeks of convocation, yes, but I enjoy it.” There’s even a little fun to be had, he notes. “President Birgeneau and I have a routine where after he asks everyone in attendance to turn off their cellphones, mine rings. He then shoots me a dirty look.”

But Jackman is under no illusions as to his position in the students’ hierarchy during these days of personal triumph and familial pride. “It’s not me that’s important,” he says, “but when the chancellor attends an event, it’s a signal that the university thinks it matters.”

Symbolism always matters, but actions matter even more. That’s why Jackman decided to give $15 million to U of T beginning in 1998. As one of Canada’s leading philanthropists, he believes in supporting the causes that are dear to his heart. His $15 million gift to fund academic chairs, scholarships and programs at U of T’s Faculty of Arts and Science is his latest substantial gift, and the largest of its kind in Canadian university history. (More important to Jackman, it was double-matched by U of T for a total of $45 million.)

Jackman was aiming to highlight the study of traditional arts subjects, which, he says, sometimes seem overshadowed by growing emphasis on commercial and scientific breakthroughs. “These days especially,” he asks, “what’s more important than a historical perspective?” Jackman’s gift will fund a minimum of three professorships in the humanities and social sciences, as well as graduate and faculty research fellowships. It is also used to establish a general program for symposia, lectures and distinguished visitors. “This initiative is particularly close to my heart,” said Jackman in announcing his gift. “I can’t imagine a university without these areas of study – the heart, root and historical basis of any great university.”

“The impact of the Jackman gift on our undergraduate and graduate students has been profound and immediate,” said Carl Amrhein, former dean of Arts and Science, in an interview just before leaving U of T to become provost of the University of Alberta. “Two distinguished professors in philosophy and political theory are already on campus teaching and conducting their research,” says Amrhein. “We could not have recruited them without Chancellor Jackman’s donation.” Enhanced learning opportunities are the goal, he says. “The Jackman Program for the Arts has enabled us to bring eminent international figures to campus to interact with students.”

Yet Jackman’s gift of his time is also significant – and looks set to continue. After Vivienne Poy succeeds him as chancellor on July 1, Jackman will serve as honorary patron of the King’s College Circle heritage society program, a growing group of donors who have included the U of T in their wills. He will also accept a new title, chancellor emeritus. In other words, Jackman’s lanky frame will continue to be seen around the university. And, no doubt, the highjinks will continue.

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