Jack Saywell: historian, teacher, builder of York University

Canadian historians are rarely called dazzling, wrote The Globe and Mail’s Sandra Martin May 16 in a lengthy obituary of University Professor Emeritus John Saywell. Learned, astute, influential even, but dazzling? That superlative belongs to opera houses not lecture halls. Yet, dazzling is the way J.L. Granatstein, himself a noted, and crusty, interpreter of our collective past, describes the effect Jack Saywell had on him at the University of Toronto in the early 1960s.

Saywell, a visionary and an astute critical thinker, chafed under the creaky hierarchy of the U of T’s history department, its complacent attitude – as far as he was concerned – to research and scholarship, and the undemocratic way in which heads were anointed by the central administration. In 1962, he was given an offer he felt he couldn’t refuse: Founding dean of arts and science at York University, the muddy academic promise north of the city at Keele and Finch.

Many still refer to Canada’s third largest university as the house that Jack built. “He was very young, very creative, extremely hard working and terribly intelligent, and he really did a magnificent job in creating the foundation of York University,” said his younger brother William (Bill) Saywell, a Chinese historian and former president of Simon Fraser University. Saywell “was a triple threat guy,” said Granatstein. “There aren’t many Canadian academics who are teachers, writers and visionary administrators. That’s what makes him exceptional.”

Yet, for all the students he inspired and the books he wrote, he never realized his dream to become president of York or achieved the lasting popular acclaim he desired as a historian. A superb athlete in his youth, Saywell drove his body hard as an adult and suffered the consequences of smoking, drinking, partying and working 16-hour days. In his mid-70s he had a series of major surgeries and suffered from cardiovascular problems, including aneurysms, which led to his death at 82 on April 20.

York’s mandate was to teach the mass of postsecondary students that ballooned from a few hundred in 1963 to more than 15,000 in 1972. Back then, there were precious few hiring choices. Saywell recruited faculty from the U of T, elsewhere in Canada, the United States and Britain – later being accused of Americanizing the university. But there is no doubt he built solidly, broadly and brilliantly, hiring fresh PhDs, such as Granatstein in 1966, and persuading distinguished scholars, such as Ramsay Cook, to abandon the established history department at the U of T for an adventure in the academic boondocks.

“I had just been promoted a full professor at 36,” Cook said, “and I left,” which has to be a testament to Saywell’s persuasive powers. “And then I found how awful it was driving on the Allan Expressway,” he joked, which doesn’t deny the fact that he stayed at York until he retired in 1996.

Saywell was the faculty’s choice to succeed Murray Ross, founding president of York. James Gillies, the dean of the Faculty of Administrative Studies, had the backing of the board; as often happens, both were passed over in favour of an outsider, economist David Slater from Queen’s University. Slater came to grief in the financial crisis and student uprisings of the early 1970s and resigned in January, 1973, “in the best interests of the University” and was replaced eventually by H. Ian Macdonald. By then, Saywell had resigned as dean and largely withdrawn from university administration.

The final stage of Saywell’s career echoed its beginnings: He went back to researching, writing and supervising graduate students in the history department at York until his retirement in 1999 at 70. “I know lots of people who go into administration and they never come out,” said Cook. “Most of them don’t return to scholarly work, but he did and he did it very well.”

Just Call Me Mitch: The Life of Mitchell F. Hepburn, an exhaustively researched study of the 11th premier of Ontario, won the Floyd Chalmers Award for the best book in Ontario History in 1991 and The Lawmakers: Judicial Power and the Shaping of Canadian Federalism, which Cook says is a “brilliant” reinterpretation of the BNA Act, was awarded the John W. Dafoe Prize for distinguished writing in 2002. His final book, Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960-1973, is an aptly titled polemical road map through the daunting hiring and administrative hurdles in creating a new university.

John (Jack) T. Saywell leaves his second wife, Suzanne Firth [director, Office of Communications, Media & Public Relations in the Schulich School of Business], four children and [12] grandchildren.

New graduates have unrealistic expectations about their first jobs: study

New graduates may be dreaming too big when they collect their diplomas and start looking for their first jobs, a survey of marketing and advertising executives suggests, wrote The Canadian Press May 14 in a widely published story.

About one in five entry-level candidates have unrealistic expectations about how much they’ll make, what responsibilities they’ll have and other aspects of their new careers, according to 250 marketing and advertising executives surveyed by the Creative Group.

Stephen Chan, 24, says that since graduating from York University’s psychology program and landing a job at a marketing firm, he has realized that the idea of a strictly nine-to-five job is fiction. "After hours, you have to keep an eye on the industry because things change really fast out there," said Chan [BSc Spec. Hons. ’09].

But Chan says he’s always known that his first job would be a chance to get his foot in the door and gain some experience, and that it would take time and hard work to land the better gigs.

"I’ve developed the mindset that there is no work-life balance," said Chan. "Your work becomes your life. You have to really enjoy what you’re doing, so the work doesn’t feel like working."

Eileen Mercier: ‘It’s all about multitasking’

Any doubts about Eileen Mercier’s ability to manage a life crammed with half a dozen boardroom posts, nine children and 20 grandchildren are dispelled shortly after she steps into her elegant Toronto condo, wrote The Globe and Mail May 14 of the 1977 MBA graduate and honorary member of York’s Board of Governors.

Delayed by a faulty parking door at Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the chairwoman of Canada’s third-largest pension fund quickly makes up for lost time by getting down to business in her kitchen. 

As Mercier gathers plates and assembles sandwiches, she rhymes off decades-old details about her upbringing and career. She pauses only to wag a finger when sharing some wisdom.

“My mother always said if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person,” she said of the former operating room nurse. “It’s all about multitasking.”  

She has made her mark as a forthright financial executive who, behind the scenes, has stood up to some of Canada’s most adventurous entrepreneurs, including Reichmanns and Aspers, pushing them to downsize, restructure or refinance their leveraged businesses. For the past 16 years, she has been a blunt and vocal conscience on more than two dozen boards, challenging executives and directors when she believes salaries are exorbitant, financial results opaque or corporate behaviour too risky. Since 2007 she has chaired Canada’s most rambunctious pension fund, Teachers, which frequently signals its corporate displeasure by selling or preparing to sell such underperformers as BCE Inc. and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.


Earned her undergraduate BA in English at Waterloo Lutheran University. Earned her masters degree in English from University of Alberta, and an MBA from York University in Ontario.

Political scientist asks: Is the government party over?

In the 1970s, I wrote a book on the Liberal Party in the Mackenzie King-Louis St. Laurent era, wrote Reg Whitaker, distinguished research professor emeritus at York University, in a Globe and Mail commentary May 16. I titled it The Government Party, a phrase that has in various forms entered the lexicon of Canadian politics. As recently as 1993 to 2000, the Liberals were able to win three successive majority governments. Yet after May 2, the party’s very survival is in question. How did the Liberals shrink from a colossus straddling Canadian politics to a struggling marginal party?

In truth, they had long ceased to hold their traditional status. Perhaps it is the very concept of a government party that has met its demise.

With the apparent demise of the government party model, the question is whether the Liberal Party has any role left to play. It could be the spoiler that ensures perpetual Conservative electoral majorities by dividing an opposition that constitutes a majority of the country but a minority in Parliament. Or it could merge with the NDP to form a more effective opposition to the Harper government.

British exchange student values year at Schulich

Attending a foreign university for all or part of your degree may make sense on financial and academic grounds, but there are other benefits to be gained, reported Britain’s The Daily Telegraph May 14.

In terms of personal development, few experiences can have such a positive impact as living in a foreign country and getting to grips with a different educational culture.  

Often the cultural differences begin in the classroom, as Dave Richardson discovered. Originally from Carlisle, the 24-year-old is now in the fourth year of a bachelor of business administration in management at Lancaster University. Students on the "study abroad" version of the course go to a top North American, Australasian or Asian university for their second year, before taking on a managerial work placement in their third. Richardson, who ended up at the Schulich School of Business at York University, Toronto, found the Canadian teaching methods both stimulating and daunting. 

"It was a completely different style of learning, and very much focused on class participation," he says. "There were no ‘mug and jug’ style lectures and a percentage of our marks were given for what we contributed in class. 

From his base in Toronto, Richardson took full advantage of the opportunities to discover more of the continent. "I went to Niagara Falls, Montreal, Vancouver and then down the West Coast of America," he says. "When else would you have the chance to do all that?" And being well travelled leaves more than good memories – it can lend graduates an edge in the workplace. After his year abroad, Richardson went on to spend his third year as a marketing intern at Dow Jones in London. "Being familiar with the North American lifestyle and work ethic was a big advantage," he says. "I was dealing with people from the US on a day-to-day basis. We had common ground, and I knew how they would react to things."  

York grad’s mom honoured with award

Marcia Gordon might be a guardian angel for her daughter, Tamara Gordon (BAS Spec. Hons. ’09), but the North York woman didn’t expect to snag the Mothers of Distinction Award Saturday, reported Metroland’s Inside Toronto May 13.  

The inaugural award, handed out by non-profit Mothers of Distinction Foundation, recognizes moms who have made outstanding contributions to their family and community.  

Marcia’s devotion to her daughter was put to the test nine years ago when, at age 16, Tamara was involved in a ski accident that left her a quadriplegic. Marcia stood – and slept – by Tamara’s side throughout her daughter’s hospital and rehabilitation stays, along with assisting her when she was able to come back to their Don Mills Road apartment. Marcia also helped Tamara with school assignments and took notes to assist her daughter during her time at York University.  

On air

  • Jamie Cameron, professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, talked about the Gibbons case, in which Ontario launched a lawsuit in 1994 against a group of protesters some say were terrorizing staff and patients outside an abortion clinic, on CBC Radio’s “Sunday Edition” May 15.