Macdonald and Gillies receive honorary doctorates

Two distinguished high fliers – one literally, as a former fighter pilot – received honorary doctorates Feb. 3 at convocation ceremonies for those receiving advanced degrees from the Faculty of Graduate Studies and York’s Schulich School of Business.

In the stylish Seymour Schulich Building, graduating students listened to inspiriing words from recipients James Gillies, the founding dean of the business school, and George Macdonald, a retired Canadian Forces general.

Here are some highlights from their addresses.

James GilliesJames Gilles

A colourful former dean of the Schulich School of Business, University Professor Emeritus Gillies reminisced during the morning ceremony about how he found himself at the as-yet unbuilt Keele campus 40 years ago – and how his first sight on a frigid March day of the “windswept, freezing cold, empty land” where York was going to be constructed almost put him off coming to the University.

Right: James Gillies addresses convocation

It took some persuading to get Gillies away from the University of California at Los Angeles business school, not to mention the warm climate of LA, but after a trial period at York, he made the final leap and accepted a permanent job to develop York’s business school at the persuasion of Founding President Murray Ross.

“Forty years later, here I am,” he said. “And what a 40 years it has been. On that windswept vacant acreage now stands this wonderful University…. A forest of elegant buildings and supreme facilities…the home of hundreds of creative academics – an institute of higher learning of which thousands of graduates can be proud.”

Gillies eagerly took hold of Ross’s dream that universities should be institutions that are “the servant of the people who supported them and should accommodate themselves to their needs.”

Today, said Gillies, York’s vision is now fairly widespread in Canada and becoming so in European and Asian countries. “But we should never forget that it was not the popular or common position when York was founded.”

Gillies then praised Schulich Dean Dezsö Horváth for his “brilliant and inspired leadership” which has led Schulich to become one of the top business schools in the country and one of the 10 leading business schools in the world outside of the United States.

“As the school prospered, so has the University…. At the same time, it has never lost the vision first expressed and acted upon by Dr. Ross and perpetuated by presidents like Lorna Marsden – that York is an institution for all the people; that while accepting the great and neverending duty of developing and disseminating knowledge and serving as a home for freedom of expression of ideas – it is much more.

“It is a vehicle to help everyone in society, regardless of their…background or economic circumstances, to be the best that they can be…and, most importantly, to realize that they can be more than they ever thought they could be.”

George MacdonaldGeorge Macdonald

A man who daringly flew with the Canadian Forces as a fighter pilot and much later in his career found himself supervising the Canadian military’s response after the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks, George Macdonald received his honorary doctorate from York in the afternoon convocation ceremony.

Left: George Macdonald speaks after receiving his honorary doctorate

Macdonald, now a consultant with CFN, a firm specializing in relations with the Canadian government, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations, said he wanted students and their families to gain insight into just what the tribute really meant to him.

Joining the military at age 17, Macdonald completed an engineering degree, took pilot training and began his career from there. He said with his family he moved 14 times to four different provinces and three other countries, and undertook 25 different jobs or courses.

His experience is typical of many service members, Macdonald pointed out. So is the “turmoil” that military families often experience due to the demands placed upon them, not the least of which is the burden carried by spouses who stay home with the children when armed forces members are away on missions.

Macdonald spoke, too, of the “unlimited liability” a military person faces, meaning “you may ultimately be ordered to do something which could cause you to lose your life.” This sacrifice is not always confined to wartime, he said, but on peacekeeping missions.

With a flash of humour, Macdonald said Canadian Forces personnel are like the rest of us – they have growing families, try to improve themselves through education “and are ardent hockey fans”. But, more seriously, he added, they also shoulder the daily duty of providing national defence for the rest of the country.

Macdonald called upon people to take an active part in the democratic process “which produces the defence policy in the first place”, so that the government can apply what the electorate feel is the appropriate emphasis on defence.

Overall, Macdonald said he found his long military career fulfilling, although he had to make sacrifices in his personal life along the way. “In many ways we are asking the younger people in the forces to make even larger sacrifices in the interests of Canada and Canadians.”