President Emeritus Ian Macdonald recognized for his lifetime of public service

President Emeritus Ian Macdonald (at the podium ) speaks to the audience during the IPAC
President Emeritus H. Ian Macdonald (at the podium ) speaks to the audience during the IPAC annual conference

President Emeritus of York University Ian Macdonald, who is professor emeritus of Economics and Public Policy at the Schulich School of Business, and director of the former Master of Public Administration program, was honoured by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) at their annual conference on June 29.

The final plenary session, Sustaining Excellence in Leadership, recognized Macdonald’s public service career and was the highlight of the IPAC conference, which was attended by more than 800 delegates from across Canada and abroad.

In introducing Macdonald as plenary keynote speaker, Moderator Carol Layton paid tribute to his influence as an educator and a former top-ranking deputy minister in inspiring leaders in politics, public service, academia, sport, and international development. “He truly is a living legend.  Over the years, I have enjoyed hearing Ian’s many stories from his time serving under Premiers [John] Robarts and later [Bill] Davis,” Layton told participants.

In his keynote address, Macdonald, head of Schulich’s MBA-level Public Management program, attributed the revival of interest in a public sector career to the rewards of being able to put one’s managerial skills and moxie to work on behalf of the greater good of society.

Recalling his days as a top civil servant, Macdonald told of working alongside a former CEO who had retired early and joined government, and who one day told him: “You’re making more important decisions in a week than I did in a year.” Remarked Macdonald:  “You don’t go into government to get rich. But you have the opportunity to do some really important things.”

A former negotiator for the Ontario government back in the mid-1960s, Macdonald was at the table when the feds and the provinces hammered out a deal to create Medicare, Canada’s publicly funded universal health care program. “Today, when I’m in my doctor’s office, I look around and think, ‘This is pretty bloody good’,” he said. “I’m glad I made a contribution.”

H Ian Macdonald
H. Ian Macdonald

After a long and successful career, Macdonald said he’s concluded that “there’s no definition of leadership. Rather, it’s like a teabag. You really don’t know how it’s going to perform until it’s in hot water.” He said public servants will face increasingly higher standards of accountability and ethical behavior, and that “a professional, non-partisan, public service” remains the bedrock of public management in Canada.

Macdonald’s address was followed by panelists, Maurizio Bevilacqua, mayor of Vaughan, who was president of the York University Student Association during Macdonald’s tenure as York University President; Elisha Muskat (MBA’09), who is co-chair of Emerging Leaders Network; and Saäd Rafi, CEO of the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan Administration Corporation.

A Rhodes Scholar, he began his career teaching economics at the University of Toronto, and was recruited by Premier John Robarts to the role of Deputy Treasurer in 1967, leaving his job as the Province’s first Chief Economist. He served as President of York University between 1974 and 1984. Macdonald was awarded the 2000 Vanier Medal and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

At the end of June, Macdonald stepped down as coordinator of Schulich’s MBA-level Public Management program. This year marks his 60th year of teaching excellence in public administration.