A citizen of the world shares his history

As York’s president emeritus, H. Ian Macdonald’s history is forever woven into the fabric of the University. So it seemed fitting, that on the occasion of his 100th convocation, York should honour Macdonald with a doctor of letters honoris causa.

With humour and passion, Macdonald thanked the University, saying he still had plenty to offer. He also spoke of his life lessons – those he learned from his students and those cultivated during his history with York University. He challenged graduands to be citizens of the world and to help create a Canada that would be a model for all other countries.  

Left: H. Ian Macdonald. Photo by CSi/photograds.com

The son of immigrants who left school at age 14 and immigrated to Canada, at age 16,  before the First World War to an uncertain future, Macdonald thanked his parents for their sacrifice and the many opportunities they provided for him.

An economist and academic who held senior posts in the Ontario government, Macdonald was York University’s third president and vice-chancellor. He presided over York’s dramatic growth into one of Canada’s largest and most distinguished universities (1974-1984). Currently, he is the graduate program director of the Public Administration Program at York’s Schulich School of Business. Among his many honours and awards are his Rhodes Scholarship and his place in the Order of Canada as an officer.

Macdonald is also the recipient of numerous other honours for his work in public administration and his participation in projects and purposes essential to the preservation of the planet, its resources and the well-being of the planet. In spite of the many honours he has received over the course of his life, Macdonald spoke of his students and of his continuing "love affair" with York University.

"The mystery writer Agatha Christie was married to a distinguished archaeologist. When asked what it was like, she remarked, ‘Oh it is wonderful, the older you are, the more interesting you become’. This may or may not be the reason for my receiving an honorary degree, but it certainly explains my continuing love affair with York University and my reason for continuing to teach. I love York University and I hope all of you do as well," said Macdonald.

"During my lifetime, I have done all kinds of jobs including hard physical labour but nothing is as hard work as teaching that is well done," said Macdonald.

Speaking of lessons learned from his students, Macdonald provided anecdotes about some unique students he had encountered over the course of his career. When first a professor, he taught a young man who was a few scant years older than he was. The young man, a millionaire in his own right, intrigued Macdonald who asked him why he was attending university when he was already so successful. "He replied that he wanted to better understand how he did it," chuckled Macdonald.

Another student, who had earned his degree at age 88, offered this sentiment to Macdonald, who, once again had inquired why he was attending university. "He told me that he wanted to be better prepared for the afterlife than he was for his first life," said Macdonald.

And then there was the A+ student who announced to Macdonald that he intended to deliberately fail his exam because he did not know what failure felt like. Ever resourceful, Macdonald pointed out to the student that he would in fact be succeeding. "Needless to say, he was crushed when I pointed that he would be succeeding in meeting his objective if he were to fail" said Macdonald to laughter from the audience.

Joking aside, Macdonald expressed how each student has offered something back to him, allowing him to continue to learn and grow as a teacher. "What do these stories add up to? A university is a place to comprehend the wider community of which you are a member," said Macdonald. "To strive always to prepare yourself to be a contributing member of that community, to never stop searching for the truth, to succeed in your objectives as you have all done so magnificently today, and to continue the pursuit of high ideals."

"We often ponder the role that Canada should play in the arena of world giants. I believe that our role should be to create and maintain a society in Canada that is truly the envy of the world, as a source of inspiration and proof that a post-industrial society can be civilized, tolerant and humane," said Macdonald.

"I do want to conclude with a grandfatherly message and to endorse the ancient injunction, ‘To thy own self be true’," said Macdonald. "You, our graduates, will be living through one of the most interesting times in the history of the world. You must be players in the total transformation of our society. I envy you greatly. Seek out your own direction and follow your own instincts."

Convocation ceremonies take place this week, daily through Saturday. You can watch live Webcasts of the ceremonies while they are on. Archived versions will also be available.