Senator Michael Meighen, Campaign McGill Co-Chair

"McGill is Canada's university both inside and outside our country," Michael Meighan said. "You look back with prode that you graduated from such a fine place." / Photo: Claudio Calligaris
McGill is Canada’s university both inside and outside the borders of our country," Michael Meighen said. "You look back with some pride that you graduated from such a fine place."

By Neale McDevitt

Michael Meighen arrives for an interview with the McGill Reporter and introduces himself with a handshake that is both firm and warm. But this should come as no surprise. Appointed to the Senate in 1990 by Prime Minster Brian Mulroney, Meighen signed up as one of Campaign McGill’s co-chairs last year and the combination has given the native Montrealer lots of practice pressing the flesh.

However, after just a few minutes with Meighen it becomes evident his is more than just the practiced warmth of a seasoned politician – Meighen likes people, pure and simple. Intelligent, forthright, self-deprecating and quick to laugh, Meighen quickly turns the 30-minute formal interview into a casual conversation. Regardless of whether he is chuckling over memories of his days as a McGill undergrad or discussing the effect shaky world markets might have on the Campaign, the quality that comes through most is his passion for and commitment to his alma mater. And it is a passion. Earning a BA here in 1960, Meighen balances his Campaign co-chair duties with his responsibilities as a member of McGill’s Board of Governors. That dedication and commitment came to a head in Oct. 2007, when Meighen and his wife Kelly made a $5-million gift at the launch of Campaign McGill.

You are one of the Campaign’s co-chairs along with Yves Fortier and Eugene C. McBurney. Why three?

To use a football analogy, I see us as players, coaches and cheerleaders. We split it up among three of us for a number of reasons, not the least of which is because it is too big a job for one man.

What qualities do each of you bring to the table?

Because we have to reach pretty far – after all we have over 200,000 alumni all around the world – this has to be a team effort. This is why people like Yves [Fortier], who travel all over the world, will be key to our success. Gene [Eugene McBurney] knows the country very well, particularly the mining sector. John McCall MacBain, who is our international advisor, underlines the fact that a lot of our gifts are expected to come from outside Canada. And, of course, much of the work on the ground is being done by Marc Weinstein and his dedicated team.

But it goes well beyond that even. It is crucial that everyone who is associated with McGill is involved regardless of the amount of their donation. We’ll be launching the campus community campaign in 2010 and I hope everyone – right to the person who is the most recent hire on staff – feels the campaign is important to them, not just to the University.

Not only are you devoting a lot of time and effort as Campaign co-chair, you and your wife Kelly also made a generous gift of $5 million at the launch of the Campaign one year ago. Why are you so committed to McGill?

On a personal level, my motivation comes from my genuine affection for McGill and Montreal – and I see the two as inseparable. Montreal was where I was born and practised law, and I had three wonderful years at McGill. Being of Irish origin, loyalty is either a positive quality or a defect depending on how you look at it [Laughing]. I’ve always felt a great loyalty to McGill.

And I’ve been particularly inspired by Heather Munroe-Blum’s leadership. She is a remarkable individual and she has done wonders for the University. When she put the question to me, both in terms of financial support and in terms of being a co-chair, it was impossible for me to say no.

Third, I’ve got two sons at McGill, so obviously there is an emotional tie on that front. As far as I can determine, they are both having a wonderful experience. Of course, we don’t get all the gory details [Laughing]. We learn what they want us to know.

What are your sons studying?

Hugh is in third-year Law. Getting those two degrees, Common and Civil Law is a great advantage to him. Max is in second-year Arts, living right downtown which is an experience I never had. I would venture to say that he is enjoying the student life as much as he enjoys his classes. [Laughing]

Why did you earmark your gift for student services?

As good as McGill is, there are areas in which it can improve. As well as we do in the Maclean’s survey, one of the areas we don’t score as high is in student support. I’ve always had the impression that McGill can improve in terms of motivating, guiding, helping, supporting and counseling – particularly undergraduate students.

I know the Principal takes this area very seriously – as witnessed by her establishing the Principal’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning. From what I can determine, the administration is determined to put the task force’s recommendations into effect and has already begun to do so.

How will the tumultuous state of world markets affect the Campaign?

I haven’t seen enough people since the markets started to dive to make a definitive judgment on how much the Campaign will be affected. It’s not going to help, that’s for sure. I’d say it might will more of an effect in the low- and mid-range donations, at least in the short term.

But I think people who have agreed to make a substantial donation to McGill have pretty much already made up their mind. The campaign runs until 2012 and we all know that markets will go up and down. And we also know there is no perfect time to launch a campaign because there are always other campaigns to contend with. But that’s fine because givers are givers. In fact, it creates an atmosphere of giving in the community.

What do you say to people who hesitate because their $200 is just a drop in the bucket?

You know what? By itself, $200 really is just a drop in the bucket. But $200 multiplied by thousands becomes something much more significant. If I do it and my neighbour does it and my cousin does it – then we’ll raise a lot of money.

I hope that everyone feels like this campaign is their campaign because it is. And it won’t succeed unless we all feel like we have a stake in it.

Also, before people write their cheque or sign the pledge – what ever the amount – they should ask if perhaps they could do a little more. We can all spread our gifts out over a period of time – and it makes it is less daunting. If everyone thinks that way it will make a heck of a difference and we’ll get to our objective of $750 million and beyond.

What are some of your fondest memories of McGill as a student?

Although I had some excellent professors, many of my best moments happened outside of the classroom. [Laughing]

Strangely enough, one of those great teachers was Professor Cooper in History who flunked my friend Peter Cundill, which was partially responsible for Peter making his very generous gift because ever since he flunked that course, Peter developed a real interest in history. It’s funny how these things work. He’s read voraciously.

Student life was very exciting to me. I lived at home, but I was very involved in campus activities – whether it was a member of the Scarlet Key or playing on the squash team. Many of my friends I have today are people I met at McGill.

So McGill is not just a collection of classrooms?

Absolutely not. Especially for students who come from outside of Montreal. The city is a huge part of the McGill experience.

When you say “I’m from McGill” outside of Canada, people relate to that. They don’t react the same way if you’re a graduate of any other Canadian university. McGill is Canada’s university both inside and outside the borders of our country. Naturally, you look back with some pride and affection that you graduated from such a fine place.

Does this pride in McGill make it easier to solicit money from McGillians?

Sure it does. People like belonging to a winning team. Like the Montreal Canadiens – graduates from that team have stayed very loyal. I think most McGill grads are very loyal.

That being said, sometimes I think that we downplay our success. We get mesmerized by the leading universities in the U.S., we get mesmerized by Oxford and Cambridge – and they are undoubtedly very good schools. But so is McGill. Survey after survey ranks us right up there with the world’s best.

How difficult is it for McGill to retain that status as a public university?

The fact that we are a public university as opposed to a private one presents both challenges and opportunities. And that’s why this campaign is so vital. If we are among the best and we want to retain our position, then being public and being in a jurisdiction where tuition fees are considerably lower than the Canadian average means people have to step up to the plate.

Do Canadians feel entitled because of the social systems they enjoy here and therefore don’t feel the calling to support institutions?

I certainly think there are residual feelings along those lines. But I think we’ve seen a change over the last little while. Look at the money being raised in various campaigns. Look at the changes in the tax legislation, capital gains for example. Lots of people had big chunks of money that were tied up, maybe they inherited it, but if they sold it they’d lose so much and the institution that they were looking to make a donation to would lose so much in capital gains taxes. So that has really unlocked vast amounts of money.

Where do you stand on tuition hikes?

Opinion is very strong here that the lower you keep tuition fees the easier it will be for people to go to university. Well, one answer to that is that Quebec, with the lowest fees, has one of the lowest degree-completion rate in the country. Nova Scotia, with the highest rates, has the highest completion rate.

When I tell people that my son is paying $1,668 for a third year law course, they don’t believe it. I give (Premier Jean) Charest full marks for breaking that dam, in a small but significant way, and allowing universities to increase fees slightly. It’s had a tremendous psychological affect, I think and has brought in some $4 million to McGill.

It is a very tricky area because people think you are advocating fat-catism and preventing other people from going to university – but that’s not the case at all. The proudest achievement of McGill will be when we reach the point where no one who has the necessary marks to get in will be turned away because of financial reasons. That is the goal we are all working toward.

Michael Meighen’s first job

In my second summer at McGill, I worked on an oil rig in northern Alberta which was pretty rough. When I arrived in Judy Creek northeast of Edmonton, there were double bunks. It was dark and I was shown to a trailer that housed the bunks. I climbed on top of one. The next morning I heard a voice from down below saying “Hey kid, lean over, I got something for you.” I leaned over the edge and he put his two feet under my mattress and kicked me right off the bunk. That was the introduction to my foreman.

In my third summer at McGill, I worked as a cabin boy on a tugboat in B.C. They told me that they played a joke on the last cabin boy, a kid from interior B.C. When they went down to Seattle they told him the customs officials would come onboard and ask him if he were a Communist. This was 1959, so this was a serious question. They got him to say that “No, I’m not a Communist but I guess it’s a pretty good thing because both my parents are.” Of course, when he said that, the customs officials didn’t let anyone off the boat so they all had to stay onboard instead of going to shore. [Laughing]