with Stuart H. "Kip" Cobbett, Chairman of McGill's Board of Governors

"Today we live in a knowledge economy where intellectual capital is a very important thing," says Kip Cobbett, Chairman of McGill's Board of Governors. / Photo: Claudio Calligaris.

“We can no longer survive by being hewers of wood”

By Neale McDevitt

If you pricked Stuart “Kip” Cobbett’s finger it would undoubtedly bleed red. But the chances are it would be McGill red. Few people have connections to the University that run as deep as McGill’s newest Chairman of the Board of Governors. Back in the days when McGill could appoint some city councillors, Cobbett’s grandfather, Hansen, was one such appointee. No fewer than four Cobbett family members sport McGill degrees, including Cobbett himself (with two BA’69, BCL’72), his father and his son and daughter. Cobbett has been an active member of the McGill Alumni Association for many years, and has served as Chair of the Advisory Board of the McGill News; Chair of the Board of Visitors, Faculty of Arts; member,  Audit Committee of the Board of Governors, and lecturer in the Faculty of Law.

And that’s just his volunteer work. Cobbett is a partner with the Canadian law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP, where he was managing partner and chief operating officer until last September.

You’re a very busy man. Why take on the position of Chairman?

Actually the timing is perfect. I’m a little less busy in my professional life at the moment because, last October, I stopped being managing partner and chief operating officer of the law firm.

McGill is a wonderful Montreal, Quebec and Canadian institution. I’ve always enjoyed being active in volunteering whether it is with McGill or, before that, with other institutions. I guess I just can’t say no [laughing].

What does the BoG do?

For most things with respect to operations of the University, the buck stops with the BoG. It is the highest governing body of the University.

The Senate runs the academic side of the University, but the BoG is ultimately responsible for everything to do with finances, operations and that sort of thing. We’re there to have general oversight, to approve big-picture matters, strategic matters, etc. And, of course, the Principal reports to the BoG.

How often does the BOG meet?

We have five or six meetings throughout the academic year. When the Board doesn’t meet, there are always committee meetings. We have a very effective system of committees.

What are the priorities for 2010?

There are a number that come to mind. There’s the Principal’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning. We’re moving on to the implementation phase now. We’re putting a student centre in the basement of the McLennan Library Building and trying to turn McTavish Street into a student-centered area.

Sustainability is also a major focus, as is research. We’re also looking at ways in which to increase McGill’s involvement in the community, particularly the Montreal community.

What  about infrastructure renewal?

Talk about silver linings in recessionary clouds. The government has stepped up with a lot of money for infrastructure renewal and we’ve got more than $100-million worth of projects on the go, which is marvelous because our infrastructure has been neglected for a while.

Any other priorities?

You can’t ever leave funding off the list of priorities. And there’s Campaign McGill.

Are any of these issues of particular interest for you?

Given the fact that I’ve been a lawyer and businessman for 30 years, the funding area is probably where I can bring most to the table.

We just have to find ways in which to reduce our reliance on government money. We can never eliminate it, we can never replace it – and we don’t want to replace it. But government resources are getting stretched – whether it is health care or pensions or other public expenditures. Taxes are about as high as they can go. To expect governments to keep putting money into education is difficult, so we have to find other resources.

Why is McGill so important?

Today we live in a knowledge economy where intellectual capital is very important. We can no loner survive by being hewers of wood and drawers of water.

McGill is consistently one of the world’s top universities. To have that kind of institution based in Montreal, for a lifelong Montrealer like myself, it all kinds of falls together.

What are your recollections as a student?

When I was going to McGill in the 1960s, it was a very different place than it is now. I think it is a much happier place now than it was back then because there was a lot of student unrest.

I had a great time as a student and I freely admit that I was not a particularly assiduous student when I was an undergraduate [Laughing]. That changed when I went to law school.

Tell us about your involvement in the entertainment industry.

I was an entertainment lawyer starting in the mid-1970s. In addition to being a lawyer, I ran a film and television company for seven years, Astral Bellevue Pathé, now known as Astral Media. I was President of their film and television operations from 1985-1992.

Which is the tougher industry?

It really is an apples and oranges thing. They each have their own challenges.

Is law today too specialized?

I think we’re guilty of channeling our young lawyers too soon. I had the good fortune of starting my law career at a small firm with just four lawyers and two students and I was one of the two students. When you work in a small firm, you do everything.

Today you have a securities expert, a tax expert, an environmental expert, a real estate expert – in a way we’re driven to do that because of the demands put upon us by clients for rapid response. Now, if you’re doing a transaction, it is usual to have a team of 10-15 lawyers because you have all these specialists involved.

I’m old-fashioned. I think the young lawyers lose a little bit because for me, part of the joy of being a lawyer is that you’re doing tax one day and real estate the other. It’s like that in medicine now, you have specialists in knees, backs, brains – our knowledge has become so refined that it is very hard to be a generalist.

Has law become more difficult?

Law is a marvelous career, but it is very tough and, in some ways, I think it is tougher now than it has ever been. Like any service business, the demands for rapid turnaround or immediate response are incredible.

Firms like Stikeman Elliot are transaction firms and if you’re in the transaction business now you’re expected to work seven days a week. You’re on call all the time. If you’re in the middle of a transaction, it doesn’t matter if it is Saturday or Sunday.

It’s demanding but it is also incredibly rewarding. It is intellectually stimulating, you meet so many interesting people, and you are dealing with a lot of interesting high-end problems.

What about law as a gateway to another profession?

Fabulous. If your mind is suited to the study of law and you have a faculty for it, you approach problems a little differently. We think logically, but good lawyers think out of the box, so we also think laterally.

Kip Cobbett’s first job

Believe it or not, I was a cowboy in Alberta. It was the summer before I started at McGill. I was 17 and I went out there with a friend. He had a job as a cowboy lined up and he convinced me to come along. At first I was put to work on the ranch weeding the vegetable garden – a job for which I was wholly unsuited. I had grown up in downtown Montreal, so I didn’t know a weed from a potato plant.

On the third day, one of the regular cowboys broke his leg and they asked me if I could ride. I lied a little bit and said sure. I had had a few lessons as a kid, but it was with a proper English saddle. To be thrown upon a relatively untamed horse and go galloping over the plains in Alberta was quite something. I think if I had known what I was getting into I would have been a lot more nervous. But when you’re 17, it’s kind of “what the heck?”

I was a cowboy for two months. It was in the middle of branding season, so I was rounding up calves, branding calves, moving tons of hay. It really was quite an experience.

But I remember sneaking out of the bunkhouse and into the bathroom and lathering the inside of my thighs with Noxema and hoping one of the real cowboys wouldn’t find out what this little eastern wimp was doing [laughing].