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TRANSFORMATIVE: McMaster University’s Tradition of Breaking with Tradition


Education, excellent education, is the greatest gift for people who want to live a productive life. Rationally, we should all strive to experience the best education we can absorb. There are few wiser choices for a life well lived. You learn how to think, you learn to understand our world and you become better prepared to make a good living, to direct yourself well through life and, in time, to give back to society in meaningful ways. By excellent education, I mean education at all stages of life from kindergarten to primary and secondary school and through university at both undergraduate and graduate levels. One of the great results of this kind of education is that you learn that learning never stops.

Stephen A. Jarislowsky, C.C., G.O.Q.
June 2021

Here at McMaster we must be guided by the great traditions of this University, but in this rapidly changing world we must be prepared to break new ground and discard old rules where necessary.

Henry “Harry” Thode, 1961, quoted by Peter George, 1995

Chapter 1 (Preview)
The Drive to Distinguish

The Big Secret

It was one of the best-kept secrets in the history of a university that was once home to a small piece of the Manhattan Project. As more than 1,000 people gathered in the McMaster University Student Centre on the morning of December 17, 2003, fewer than two dozen of them knew exactly what to expect.

Peter George, the president and vice-chancellor of the university, sat in the front row of the chairs which provided reserved seating on the floor of the three-storey atrium. He wore the kind of dark, well-tailored suit that prominent men typically wear on occasions like this – occasions that make careers, make the news and, as it would turn out, alter the trajectory of an entire institution.

George had arrived at McMaster University in 1965 as a young lecturer in economics and, in many ways, had grown up at the university known affectionately as “Mac.” His career had progressed with pace, seeing him serve as associate dean of graduate studies and then dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. He had left campus briefly to lead the Council of Ontario Universities, but returned in 1995 to claim his dream job. He would complete his service as the university’s president in 2010 to begin a retirement that would be too brief, but busy with family, fishing, community service and an undiminished passion for all things McMaster.

The early part of George’s presidential tenure had been challenging, both professionally and personally. His first days as president in 1995 coincided with historic cuts in government funding to post-secondary education in Ontario, just a few months after his wife Gwen had been diagnosed with cancer. Still, George’s leadership had infused the campus with the palpable sense of ambition that was his trademark. Before McMaster could pursue its recalibrated aspirations, however, George knew the university needed money … historically large sums of money.

One of the World’s Best

In 2021, McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario is demonstrably one of the world’s top universities, with internationally recognized credentials in research, teaching and global citizenship. The prominent Times Higher Education ranking recently listed McMaster at number 69 in the world. McMaster is one of just four Canadian universities in the top 70 and the three ranked higher are located in the country’s largest cities – Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal – and, on average, have more than double the student population. A medium-sized university located in Canada’s 10th-largest city, McMaster has achieved a world rank ahead of high-profile institutions including Fudan University, the Ohio State University, Dartmouth College, Georgetown University and Sorbonne Université.

The Times Higher Education ranking and others like it lean heavily on quantifiable measures of university accomplishment including research output, knowledge transfer and international connections. As a result, rankings often reflect research achievement to a greater degree than other measures of university performance. McMaster’s ascent, however, is not the result of an exclusionary dedication to research. In 2018, the university became just the second institution to win the Global Teaching Excellence Award after being a finalist in the award’s inaugural year. Against a diverse international field of nominees, McMaster earned top spot based on its history of pedagogical innovation including the development of problem-based learning, as well as its ongoing commitment to high-impact learning through initiatives like the Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Excellence in Teaching. Then, in 2019, McMaster placed second worldwide in the inaugural Times Higher Education impact ranking. This ranking recognizes the contributions that universities make to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by evaluating 17 individual spheres of impact involving issues such as poverty, gender equality, sustainability, climate action, well-being and peace and justice. More recently, Times Higher Education ranked McMaster 38th in its annual list of most international universities, a ranking that measures the diversity of each institution’s student body and faculty cohort as well as the university’s engagement with global issues through research.

As recently as the 1980s, McMaster University’s understated objective was simply to be “Canada’s best medium-sized university,” so how did the university start competing with the best in the world?

A Tradition of Taking Innovative Risks

The simple answer is that McMaster has transformed itself on the strength of leadership. A series of McMaster leaders, separated in most cases by at least a generation, has instilled in the institution a character capable of ambition. Those leaders then made bold decisions at watershed moments in the university’s history. The result is a university that has risen on the momentum provided by a half-dozen transformative leaps scattered across more than 13 decades.

In our collective imagination, impactful leaders in all fields often seem to possess traits that are unteachable, even undefinable. Certainly, there are leaders like that – people who appear almost supernaturally infused with magnetic drive, intelligence and vision. Those leaders, however, are mythologically rare. On the other hand, the leaders who have reshaped McMaster University have worked with attributes that can be learned, developed and repeated. They have delivered profound change and impact using tools and strategies that are accessible to leaders of all kinds, in organizations of any shape and size.

This book describes a leadership approach that has become – episodically – part of the McMaster University legacy. It is the tradition of breaking with tradition.

The most recent McMaster University leader to embrace this approach was Peter George. During George’s time as president and vice-chancellor from 1995 to 2010, the qualities of McMaster’s particular brand of transformative leader were on full display, including ambition, team building, prudent financial management, tirelessness and, most critically, the fortitude to plot a new direction. In fact, as a student of McMaster’s history and already three decades into his McMaster career when his presidency began, George wrote in the McMaster University 1995/96 Annual Report, “While we value tradition, McMaster has never been bound by it. Our record as an innovative risk taker … is well established.”

Those two sentences could very well be the manifesto for all of the university’s most transformative leaders. In 2009, as the end of his presidency loomed, George remained committed to that transformative instinct when he wrote in the McMaster Times, “A university that doesn’t create change isn’t doing its job.” To George, and to the transformative McMaster leaders who came before him, taking strategic risks was essential. Trying new things, despite obstacles and inertia, was at the heart of impactful leadership.

Identifying, pursuing and implementing the right new things, however, has never been simple. It’s one of the reasons true change occurs so infrequently. Even at an institution like McMaster University, which has a tradition of breaking with tradition, truly transformative initiatives are generational events. The university averages one about every 20 years. These transformations succeeded only when the bold leap forward was stewarded by leaders with particular skills, attributes and approaches. That’s why we will examine not just what happened during these transformative leaps, but who enabled the leaps and how. The leaders most responsible for McMaster’s transformations have come from a kaleidoscope of backgrounds, eras and scholarly fields with often stark differences in their styles and personalities. Still, they have shared a number of characteristics that define a leader who is capable of creating and seizing opportunities to transform.

Transformative Leadership as a Transferable Skill

The qualities that have characterized the most influential McMaster leaders can be taught, learned, emulated and adapted. They include attributes that are both commonplace and rare. Among the most familiar are setting ambitious goals, building strong teams, attracting investment and establishing magnetic programs. These principles are the table stakes of leadership at any university worth its standing. As such, they are critical, but not definitive. These are the principles that help establish and sustain universities of quality. Ascending into the top five percent of globally ranked universities, however, requires something more.

The first of those traits is the drive for intensification. If the standard operating procedure is to think big and work hard, for example, the transformative leader thinks bigger and works harder. It is a difference of degree. It is the willingness and ability to perform with elevated intensity, endurance and effort. It is the difference between a strategic plan that plots improvement and one that is boldly aspirational. It is the difference between a fundraising campaign that anticipates growth and one that demands historic results. It is the difference between the comfort of gentle organizational inertia and the discomfort of undisguised ambition. It is about doing the same things, but doing them better. It is an approach that echoes the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger.

The second trait of a transformative leader is the increasingly rare ability to encourage, demand and defend disruption. Typically, large institutions of all kinds cultivate and choose leaders exactly because they minimize disruption. Those leaders inevitably drive their organizations to the middle, to indistinction. Transformative leaders look more to the future they want to achieve than to the status quo they wish to maintain. These leaders challenge governance structures that foster continuance over ambition. Rare leaders lend little value to traditional disciplinary boundaries in a world where meaningful challenges demand multidisciplinary solutions. Rare university leaders value and invest both in student learning and in scholarly research, uniting the two solitudes whenever possible. Rare leaders pursue financial strategies that support long-term vitality over short-term gain or the mere avoidance of financial disaster. Rare leaders know that every constituency within the university – researchers, teachers, students, staff, administrators, alumni, donors and community – has an irreplaceable role in the progress of the institution.

The magic of McMaster University’s transformative leaders is that they have invested the university’s common qualities with uncommon intensity while championing bold positions and approaches designed to lift the institution in transformative increments. These are the qualities that have made McMaster’s most influential leaders and while this is McMaster University’s story, it can also be the story of any university.

These pages describe the leaders and decisions that built McMaster University through the leaps that have redefined the institution since its founding in 1887. This is the story of the transformative leaders who made McMaster University.

The first was William McMaster.

The Senator Sold Dry Goods

Like the university that bears his name, William McMaster had humble beginnings. The late Charles Johnston’s wonderfully thorough first volume of the university’s official history, McMaster University: The Toronto Years, chronicles in detail the future senator’s economic and political rise. McMaster emigrated from Ireland as a young man in 1833, arriving in Toronto more than three decades before Canada would become a country. He found work in a business owned by Robert Cathcart, who traded goods for furs with the First Nations near Penetanguishene, Ontario north of Toronto. McMaster’s job involved buying and sending manufactured goods from the city. As the business evolved, Cathcart moved the entire operation to Ontario’s capital and McMaster worked his way into partnership in the firm. When the founder retired in the 1840s, McMaster had a business of his own. He grew the firm and with it, his ambitions. In April 1867, McMaster was one of the founders and the first president of the Bank of Commerce, an antecedent of today’s CIBC, Canada’s fifth-largest bank.

William McMaster had become a self-made mover and shaker. In fact, when the new nation of Canada convened the first Dominion Senate, he was called to service and now, more than 150 years later, some members of the McMaster University family often refer to the institution’s founder simply as “The Senator.”

The Senator had big plans for his community and country. In Johnston’s words, “He was indeed as good a personification as any entrepreneur at mid-century of the phenomenon known as metropolitanism. The urge had seized him and his well-placed fellow citizens to transform Toronto from a severely circumscribed lake port and warehouse into an expansive community capable of dominating the raw materials and markets of a limitless hinterland.” William McMaster, the wealthy, community-minded citizen, had big aspirations. Equally important to our story, he was also a Baptist.

According to the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec (the present-day incarnation of the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, which played a vital role in the early history of McMaster University), Baptists “share many biblical convictions with other Christians. … However, the distinctive combination of beliefs held among Baptists can readily be identified and have come to be known as ‘Baptist Distinctives.’” Among these Distinctives are a belief in religious liberty and a conviction that the church must be separate from civil governments. These two values influenced significantly the character and progress of McMaster University for its first seven decades.

As William McMaster rose in prominence and wealth, the relative paucity of post-secondary options for Baptist learning became the primary focus of his metropolitanist interests. According to Johnston, “McMaster attached great importance to the need for improved educational facilities for the country in general, as well as for Baptists in particular.” The goal of improving those educational facilities became, “a goal as precious to McMaster as the promotion of his business interests.” At his side, and perhaps even leading the way in this pursuit, was William’s second wife Susan Moulton McMaster, formerly of Newburgh, New York, who was, in Johnston’s words, “anxious to infuse into Canadian Baptist life the unity and energy with which she felt the American body was amply endowed.”

Together, William and Susan began working and donating to create Toronto Baptist College. The plan was that this dream college would relocate, reinvent and expand the theological arm of the Canadian Literary Institute then located in Woodstock, a farming community in southwestern Ontario. With the McMasters as the new institution’s leading benefactors, Toronto Baptist College opened its doors on Bloor Street on October 4, 1881. As the three faculty and 20 students entered the front door, they would have been able to look up and see the words “McMaster Hall” carved into the stone of the impressive new building located just steps from the University of Toronto and next door to the future site of the Royal Ontario Museum.

William and Susan were just getting started.

First Philanthropist

To the McMasters and other leaders in the Baptist community, the inauguration of Toronto Baptist College stoked what Johnston characterizes as a “groundswell for floating an independent Baptist university.” That groundswell gathered momentum for the next half decade in no small part due to William and Susan’s advocacy and funds.

Their dream became real – at least on paper – on April 22, 1887, when the Ontario Legislature passed into law a bill that united Toronto Baptist College with Woodstock College to create a new institution called McMaster University. In advance of the final reading of the bill, The Senator had made it clear that he was personally committed to ensuring the financial security of the fledgling university. In fact, his generosity had reached an unprecedented level just a few weeks earlier when he had signed a new will that left the bulk of his estate to the about-to-be-born institution.

William and Susan McMaster were able to enjoy their shared achievement for exactly five months. On September 22, 1887, The Senator died suddenly. Johnston describes the moment with one of the most compelling sentences in the first volume of his history: “At one stroke the university that McMaster had promoted was instantly financed but at the cost of his vigour, direction and imagination.” That one stroke also embedded a legacy of transformational philanthropy into the foundation of The Senator’s eponymous university. The McMaster University family has always been keenly aware that philanthropists have the power to transform the university because that is exactly what the university’s first philanthropist did.

William McMaster’s bequest turned out to be approximately $900,000. There are several ways to calculate the value of that 1887 gift in contemporary dollars. Simply compounding the gift at the average inflation rate of 3.00 percent, for example, produces a value of more than $45 million today. If we isolate the inflation rates to the segments of the economy most involved in building a university (real estate, construction and salaries, for example) or we look at purchase-power equivalency (what $900,000 could purchase in 1887 and how much that same purchase might cost in 2021), the current-day value of the bequest climbs to something closer to a quarter of a billion dollars, which sounds like the kind of investment that might be required to start a university.

A New University

Even with its firm financial footing, the young McMaster University was noticeably ill at-ease with certain elements of its identity. This kind of tension would precede important transformations throughout the institution’s history and would inspire the university’s most creative risk taking and boldest moves.

The first of these tense eras developed out of the argument between denominational learning and a more expansive view of the university’s educational mission. Funded almost exclusively through Baptist churches, the Baptist Convention and William McMaster – whose stated goal was to create a “practical Christian school of learning” – the new university owed its very existence to the Baptist community, Baptist principles and Baptist dollars. On the other hand, Johnston relays that the founding Act of 1887 “also laid down that as far as the student body was concerned ‘no compulsory religious qualifications, or examination of a denominational character shall be required.’” McMaster University was both profoundly Baptist and indisputably nondenominational.

As a result, the university never had the opportunity to grow comfortably into its adolescence. Instead, its vision and values were stress tested frequently by challenges both collegial and hostile, particularly from some of the Baptist churches that were so heavily invested in the university financially and ideologically. Because the application for the university’s charter had been made on behalf of the Baptist denomination and because the Baptist Convention and its member churches were the primary sustaining funders, McMaster University and its leadership were legally and practically accountable to the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec. This arrangement, Johnston notes, “was destined to have a profound influence on the institution and proved to have both advantages and disadvantages. Most notably, accountability to the [convention] kept the university in close touch with the denominational community whose financial and moral support was vital for its development, [but it] also meant that if some delegates at the annual assemblies of the Baptist Convention were so disposed the university’s affairs could be the subject of prolonged and bitter public debate.” In fact, these intense confrontations, often spearheaded by the conservative firebrand Reverend T.T. Shields, “threatened the very life of McMaster.” The essence of these debates was a fundamental question of mission: Did McMaster University exist to contribute to the development of new knowledge or was its mission simply to teach existing Baptist orthodoxy?

Looking at the accomplishments of McMaster University today, it is easy to imagine that the university’s early leaders were bravely progressive men (they were all men in those days) while those on the opposing conservative side of the debate were situated beyond the walls of McMaster Hall. This, however, was not at all the case. In 1895, the university’s second chancellor, Oates C.S. Wallace, opened his inaugural address by stating emphatically, “McMaster University exists for the teaching rather than the pursuit of truth.” Not exactly the mission statement of a great research university.

T. Proctor Hall, a physician educated at Woodstock College and an acquaintance of Wallace’s, provided direct counterpoint when he wrote, “When once that spirit – that a ‘university exists for the teaching rather than the pursuit of truth’ – has laid hold of an institution its zenith has been reached. Like perfectionists in character no advance is believed possible, no advance will be made.” To Hall’s way of thinking, McMaster University would have stagnated a mere eight years after its founding if chancellor Wallace had his way.

This identity struggle continued for more than a decade until 1909, when it appears that the vision promoted by Hall and others triumphed, though not completely. After a special meeting of the McMaster University Senate on May 29, 1909, the university felt compelled to issue a statement that McMaster remained beholden to its Christian principles while embracing a vision that would allow the university to pursue a knowledge-generating mission as well. The statement’s first two sentences in particular could serve as the vision of a great university today:

“McMaster University stands for freedom, for progress, for investigation. It must welcome truth from whatever quarter, and never be guilty of binding the spirit of free enquiry. As a Christian school of learning under Baptist auspices, it stands for the fullest and freest investigation, not only in the scientific realm but also in the realm of Biblical scholarship. Holding fast their historic position on the personal freedom and responsibility of the individual, refusing to bind or be bound by any human creed, rejecting the authority of tradition and taking their stand on the word of God alone as the supreme and all-sufficient rule of faith and practice, Baptists have ever been ready to accord to all students of the Sacred Scriptures the largest possible measure of freedom consistent with loyalty to the fundamentals of the Christian faith.”

It was 1909 and McMaster University was officially a research institution.

The Drive to Distinguish

McMaster University’s early struggles with its identity – echoed in later skirmishes that we will explore in future chapters – reveal that the university has always been restless. That restlessness has been one of the fundamental forces pushing the institution to evolve from a Baptist foothold on the northern edge of the University of Toronto into an institution internationally recognized among the world’s best universities. McMaster has rarely been satisfied with itself and as a result, it has taken risks that more complacent institutions would have avoided. This has fostered a tradition of aspiration for the future over a dedication to the preservation of the status quo. It has created a university that has embraced distinctive change.

Achieving verifiable, meaningful distinction is difficult, however, particularly for a university in Canada. Tuition fees are significantly regulated. Much of the provincial funding arrives based on per-student rates. Research universities can attract funding that helps differentiate one institution from another, but these grants often fail to cover the full cost of the research enterprise and, therefore, actually drag on other areas of the university budget. In a simple but profound way, the established funding structures do what they are designed to do: ensure that Canadian universities are relatively affordable for students and that they meet a minimum baseline of quality from coast to coast. Unfortunately, those same funding mechanisms also stifle ambition and excellence. James Greenlee, writing in the third volume of McMaster’s official history, McMaster University – 1957-1987: A Chance for Greatness, acknowledges this challenge directly: “Like people, Canadian universities share much of their ‘DNA’ in common. How, then, might one distinguish one from another?”

If there is an answer in McMaster University’s history, it is in the university’s willingness to try – to experiment in ways that have the potential to fail or succeed in equally grand proportions. Those efforts have typically relied on a bold vision, strong leadership and what Peter George often called “the margin of excellence,” which is exceptional financial support, often provided by philanthropy. Those have been the necessary ingredients of McMaster’s several transformative leaps.

Transformation, however, tests an institution. As Greenlee writes early in his volume of McMaster’s history, “institutional redefinition … never went unchallenged. Nor was all sweetness, light, linear progress, and collegial concord. Such things, obviously, are foreign to any inherently dialectical institution; especially one afloat on a rushing tide of social, economic, technological, and other changes. Similarly, as McMaster assumed a new sense of purpose, dead ends, lopsided emphases, and outright failures were not uncommon. Dissent, within and without its walls, was far from rare. All this must be acknowledged and given fair attention.”

That acknowledgement is one of the reasons for this book. This volume tells the story of the people who have led McMaster to overcome dissent and failure in order to distinguish the university through excellence. It is a story we tell to help inspire the current and next generations of leaders – at McMaster and beyond – to face and overcome opposition and setbacks on their way to achieving the transformations that can make exceptional organizations, corporations and, in particular, universities.

The Announcement

The announcement was scheduled to take place shortly after 11 am, yet as the appointed time approached, there was still no indication what the revelation would be. Sharp observers would have inferred the significance of the occasion from the august audience gathered in the McMaster University Student Centre. In attendance were the current and a former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, four Members of Parliament, seven Members of Provincial Parliament, the mayors of the cities of Burlington and Hamilton, two former presidents of the university, the university chancellor and the chair of the McMaster University Board of Governors.

Peter George sat at the centre of the front row with a folder on his lap. To his immediate right was an older, impeccably dressed gentleman. Michael G. DeGroote had built Laidlaw Transport Limited into one of the country’s most successful corporations and had once owned the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League. DeGroote was also an Officer of the Order of Canada and already a legend at McMaster. His $6-million gift to the McMaster University Student Centre – the building where everyone was gathered – had energized a long-delayed project. He had also been the keystone donor and lead volunteer in the late-1980s fundraising campaign for McMaster’s Faculty of Business, now known as the DeGroote School of Business.

When DeGroote walked to the stage, he did so carefully. When he spoke, his voice revealed the strain of a man struggling with ill health. Still, he said that he was making an announcement he hoped would have “a significant impact on McMaster University and the Hamilton community.” He held the edges of the lectern as he glanced down at his speaking notes. “It is a great and humbling pleasure,” he said, “to announce a new gift to McMaster, from myself and my four children, that will support the McMaster health sciences and the medical school. I am proud to tell you that the gift is in the amount of $105 million.”

The secret was out.

At the time, the donation was the largest cash gift in Canadian philanthropic history. It was also the largest cash gift in McMaster University’s history by a margin of $99 million. This was a dramatic public statement that the university was on the verge of a new transformation.