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Decade of the Dynamo
Illustration by Joseph Salina

Decade of the Dynamo

Inspired, energetic, driven – nothing ever stopped Robert Prichard in his tracks during 10 years as president, not even a near tragedy

As far as Rob Prichard is concerned, his immediate predecessor as president of the University of Toronto, George Connell, stepped wrong just once.

That was when Connell changed the office that the president occupies from its traditional location on the second floor of Simcoe Hall to a smaller inner room one floor below. Prichard moved back upstairs promptly after his own appointment in 1990, and with the generous wall space in these quarters, he gave particular thought to the pictures he would choose to display, the oil portraits, the formal photographs, the candid snapshots.

Sir Robert Falconer
A large oil painting in greys and browns, Sir Robert looking stern and fleshy, the portrait dominating the office from the east wall behind Prichard’s desk.

Sir Robert is wearing a necktie in the painting. Prichard likes to tell the story about Falconer, on a career-changing train journey from Halifax to Toronto in the summer of 1907, removing his clerical collar, never to wear one again, and tying on a four-in-hand, a symbol of his move from the religious to the secular. Falconer had been a Presbyterian minister and the principal of Pine Hill Presbyterian College in Halifax when a University of Toronto search committee seized on him to be the university’s new president. On the day of his installation, Sept. 26, 1907, Falconer was 40 years old. That made him the youngest president of the 20th century, one year, one month and 10 days younger at his installation than the second most junior, Rob Prichard, was at his. Youth was one bond that Prichard says he found with Falconer.

A grand vision for the university was another. Robert G. Greenlee, Sir Robert’s biographer, writes that Falconer “had no desire to inhabit a mere colonial outpost, dependent on others for ideas and for the men to inculcate them.’’ Thus, on his watch, which stretched to 25 years, Falconer brought to the university a resounding new emphasis on research and graduate work. He put up Hart House and Simcoe Hall. He effected sweeping modernization at the medical school. He spread the welcome mat for such scholars as the historian Frank Underhill, the scientist Frederick Banting, the economist Harold Innis.

Prichard says that he himself arrived in office without such a clear view for the university. He spent his early period sussing out the place. He practically memorized Greenlee’s book about Sir Robert. He arranged monthly discussion lunches with faculty members, 12 different guests per lunch. And he popped up all around the campus, asking, listening, absorbing.

“What was central to Rob’s eventual achievements,” says Heather Munroe-Blum, Prichard’s vice-president of research and international relations, “was that he knew the university’s history and its current state in more detail than practically any other living person.”

From that vantage, Prichard enunciated a mission that seemed audacious. Toronto would become, he insisted, “Canada’s pre-eminent university, ranking among the finest public research universities in the world.” Prichard announced the objective in the same language several times a day, every day, to audiences of one and to audiences of one thousand. He said it so often that when Governing Council prepared a 45-page report of helpful suggestions for Prichard in 1995 on the eve of his second term, the report contained just one cavil: Governing Council was sick and tired of hearing that the university’s goal was to be pre-eminent and internationally significant. “I read that and I thought, this is good!” Prichard says. “If everybody’s tired of hearing it, it must be working! There must be a consensus for the mission around the university!”

Prichard was right. The university, driven by its president’s energy and determination, blossomed into a place of optimism and growth. Academic standards were elevated. Research deepened. The architecture school, scheduled to be deep-sixed in the 1980s, re-emerged as a superior graduate school in the 1990s. The nursing school was reworked to function more like a law school with higher entrance requirements and no more admission straight from high school, and the law school, which Prichard had largely reinvented as its dean in the 1980s, sat comfortably in the 1990s in the big leagues with Harvard Law and Yale Law. The way medicine is taught was revamped once. The way arts and sciences are taught was revamped twice. New bridges were built to the business community resulting in such institutions as the Rotman School of Management. The university came to rank second only to Nortel as a hotbed of Canadian technological research. And the university grew dense and thrived with cross disciplines, students earning law degrees and PhDs in philosophy at the same time, MBAs pursuing engineering degrees, architecture students working in geography, medical students learning about law. “To help get these things done,” Prichard says, “there had to be a sense of purpose coming out of Simcoe Hall.”

His purpose was Falconeresque in its scope, entirely fitting to Prichard as the president who moved his office back upstairs. “This is the room where Sir Robert sat when he created the modern university,” Prichard says. “I strongly identify with that.” Nor was it a coincidence that Prichard rescued a neglected Falconer portrait from a remote Simcoe Hall corner. But, Sir Robert devotee that he is, Prichard seems not to have registered one detail of Falconer’s career: his weariness after a quarter century on the job. “While I still regret to leave my colleagues,” Falconer told an academic friend in 1931, “it will be a relief to lay down my duties.”

“I’d love to serve as long as Sir Robert!” Prichard says with his apparently unquenchable enthusiasm. Prichard’s feeling that the university renews itself through a new president is the only reason he sees for propelling himself out the door. “Otherwise, if it were entirely personal, I’d aspire to come into the office every day until my 65th birthday.”

Claude Bissell
Another large oil painting, this one full of colour, the portrait of an elegant Bissell, hanging in the anteroom outside Prichard’s office.

When Bissell, the university’s president from 1958 to 1971, came to dinner parties at the home of Prichard’s parents, Rob was the young kid who carried the guests’ coats upstairs. Rob’s father worked for Bissell. Stobo Prichard, Welsh-born, took his medical training in London, England, where Rob entered the world on Jan. 17, 1949. Then Stobo moved his family to Toronto in 1951 where he made a most distinguished career as a pediatric neurologist at the Hospital for Sick Children and a professor at the university’s Faculty of Medicine.

“In one way or another, the university has been shaping my life since I was three or four years old,” Prichard says. He learned to swim at Hart House, to skate at Varsity Arena. At the law school, he was student, teacher, dean, and after this long association Claude Bissell has left with Rob, the coat-check kid, an example of gentlemanliness.

That was Bissell’s style as president, an English literature scholar with a courtly manner, a courteous president who caught the unswerving devotion of the faculty. None of this was lost on Prichard who thought to apply the gentlemanly arts to his own regime. Bissell himself took an interest in Prichard’s career in a way that was, in Prichard’s words, “completely helpful but never invasive.” So it was that, of all the living former presidents, it was Bissell whom Prichard asked to speak at his own installation ceremony on Oct. 12, 1990.

“And I have the painting of Claude hanging here,” Prichard points out, “to remind me and everybody who comes to the office that, as a president, he was an example of a leader who was also a beautiful man.”

George Connell
One of a set of framed formal photographs of the university presidents on the west wall, Connell wearing an expression of amused intelligence.

Connell wasn’t laughing in the summer of 1986. He had been president for two years, and now, looking around him, he decided the university had lost its way. For the next eight months, Connell pulled back on other presidential duties while, by himself, he consulted with people and wrote an analysis of the troubles. The result was a 134-page booklet, complete with charts and graphs, which Connell titled Renewal 1987. Prichard regards it as a seminal document for his own period in office. “In many, many ways, picking up on Renewal 1987,” he says, “I see my presidency as a continuation of what George began.”

Connell highlighted the necessity for multi-year planning, for expansion of research resources, for a dozen or more additional reforms. Prichard pursued all of them in his unrelenting manner. But of all the areas emphasized in Renewal 1987, the one where Prichard surely succeeded beyond Connell’s most optimistic dreams happens to be the area that is Prichard’s least favourite to discuss. The area is fund-raising. “I thought it was a distortion of the president’s role to focus on the issue of money when we had none,” Prichard says. “And I still think it’s a distortion to focus on money now that we have started to get some.”

Nevertheless, the need to bring in cash was never far from Prichard’s thoughts – or his conversation – for 10 years. Paul Fox tells a small illustrative story. Fox has graced the university since 1954, a distinguished political scientist, principal of Erindale, now professor emeritus, and he recalls a university-related dinner in the mid-1990s where he found himself at the same table as Prichard and two captains of industry.

“This is the greatest political scientist in Canada!” Prichard suddenly said, referring to Fox and startling both him and the two captains. “A Paul Fox chair should be endowed at the university!” Prichard looked at the two nonplussed captains. “How about some money for the chair? What about it?”

The Paul Fox chair still remains a Prichard dream, but many dozens of other dreams came to reality. When Prichard assumed the presidency, the university had seven permanently endowed chairs; today there are 131. And in 1990 the total of the university’s permanent endowment stood at a mere 220 million dollars. In 2000, it reached a stunning 1.2 billion dollars.

Even Bill Graham finds this impressive. Graham, a professor of philosophy, headed the University of Toronto Faculty Association for most of the 1990s and was inevitably on the opposite side of Prichard on many university issues. He concedes that the endowment fund does “represent a cushion that didn’t exist before, a buffer against forces that seek to encroach on the university.” However, he says the fund was built on money that should have been used to improve the employee pension plan; when the plan was in surplus the university was granted a contribution holiday and used those funds to boost the endowment fund, much to the chagrin of the faculty association.

A perverse irony is that, among some people inside and outside the university, the effusive energy that Prichard brought to his fund-raising tasks got him a reputation as just another over-the-top salesman. This is supposedly in contrast to his successor, Robert Birgeneau who, as a physicist of great standing, is perceived as a true academic.

“That view of Rob is entirely false,” Munroe-Blum says. “He could never have been as successful as he has been without a thorough knowledge of the core academic mission of the university and the passion to realize it. And – how can people forget this? – Rob is himself a scholar in the law.”

Prime ministers and other political superstars
Small framed photos in rows along two tables against the north wall. Here’s Prichard with Jean Chrétien, Prichard with Brian Mulroney, with Bill Clinton, Paul Martin, Mikhail Gorbachev.

There’s a downside to socializing with celebrity statesmen. “For each of those photographs,” Prichard says, “there was a dinner I had to host or attend on behalf of the university.” Dinners every night except Saturday and Sunday for 10 years, followed by trips back to an empty Simcoe Hall for undisturbed reflection and paper shuffling until one or two a.m. Prichard thinks the most comprehensive change in his post-presidential life will be the evenings that will now be freed up for family and friends.

Prichard makes a loyal friend. He is loyal to Lionel Schipper, for one. Most of Prichard’s pals are connected to the law, and Schipper is one of them, a 1956 U of T law school grad, an immensely wise lawyer and businessman, constant in contributing to the university’s work in neurodegenerative diseases, Jewish studies and the law.

“To the extent I have made a difference as President,” Prichard wrote to Schipper on Dec. 16, 1999, “it is substantially due to the lessons I learned from you at the most formative moments of my career within the University.” The letter also spoke of Schipper’s commitment to the university and of his “personal qualities of integrity, loyalty, wisdom and generosity which are so widely recognized throughout our community.”

Lionel Schipper becomes on June 20, 2000, the last person to receive an honorary degree in the 190 convocations that Prichard presided over in his years as president.

At 10:30 one night this spring, another Prichard friend, Gerry Schwartz of Onex, interrupted Prichard’s solitary work at Simcoe Hall. “Prichard,” Schwartz said on the telephone, “I really look forward to the day when you earn 10 times as much money as you earn today and work one-tenth as much time.”

If Prichard is to get suddenly rich, it won’t start happening in the next year. For 2000-2001, he has rented a small house in Cambridge, Mass., where he’ll live four days a week while he lectures in his specialty, torts, to 150 Harvard law students. And after that? “Being a law school professor at the University of Toronto,” he says. “Being a public commentator. But my problem is still going to be, how can I find anything as meaningful as being president of this university?”

Jay Prichard

A studio photograph of a three-year-old of sunny, heart-lifting beauty. This is the child whom Prichard calls “the miracle boy.”

On Prichard’s first day as a student at the law school in 1972, his eyes locked on a classmate. Slender, blond, radiant. “I fell instantly in love,” Prichard says. The object of his affections was Ann Wilson. The two married during the Christmas holidays three years later. Ann pursued a career that took her into a favourite area, policy analysis, and she works today for the Ontario Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs. She gave birth to three sons. Wil, majoring in history, enters the sophomore class at Harvard this September. Kenny is headed into his last year at Upper Canada College, dad’s old school. And the boy in the photograph, Jay, against every conceivable odd, is on schedule for Grade 9.

It was brain cancer that struck Jay. He was six years old, and at the Hospital for Sick Children, chemotherapy and radiation battered his little body for a year. During one terrible period, he couldn’t speak, suffered paralysis, couldn’t focus his eyes. But he had superb medical care, and he had his parents, mother by day, father by night.

Prichard arrived at the hospital each evening at nine. He had a reading lamp and a cell phone. He worked and slept next to his sick son. In the morning, he showered at the hospital, dressed and hurried to his new job as president at the university up the street.

“You should see that boy today!” Prichard says exuberantly. “He walks! He talks! He sees! He makes jokes! He finished runner-up in the public speaking contest at his school!”

Some people think Prichard goes over the top in his enthusiasms. Maybe he’s entitled.

And maybe – not really much maybe about it – it has been Prichard’s obvious fervour, the celebratory joy he brings to his job, the passion for the office that has carried the university to a position where, unmatched since Sir Robert Falconer’s day, it is achieving great distinction in the broadest world of higher education. Prichard may go over the top, but it looks like he has taken everybody else at the University of Toronto with him.

Jack Batten (BA 1954 VIC, LLB 1957) is a Toronto author.

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  1. One Response to “ Decade of the Dynamo ”

  2. Scott Anderson says:

    The articles by Brad Faught ("The Cast of Presidents") and this one by Jack Batten offered an intelligent and highly readable perspective on U of T's development as an institution. I was pleased to learn that outgoing president Robert Prichard so clearly understood the value of history as a key to understanding the present and charting the future. A correction to Mr. Batten's article, however, is in order. The name of Sir Robert Falconer's biographer is James G. Greenlee (professor of history at Memorial University in St. John's, Nfld.). Mr. Batten renamed him Robert.

    Anders Henriksson
    MA 1972, PhD 1978
    Harpers Ferry, West Virginia