Concordia’s Lowy gets honorary degree

It’s a sad reality that university recognition of members of the community – and especially the grand-daddy of them all, the honourary degree – have just as much to do with how generous someone is to the university than how generous someone is to society. Though there are no rules – give a certain amount and you’ll get a certain honour – and the amount of money involved would make buying such things outright prohibitively expensive to all but the most ego-maniacal of  it’s almost expected that a university’s most prestigious donors will be thanked publicly in some way. A seat on its board, a building or program named after them, an honourary degree, or a combination of these.

I explored this issue in an article I wrote for a journalism class in 2005 and had published in The Link, Concordia’s student newspaper. I’ve included it below.

I bring this all up because Concordia has just released the names of its honorary degree recipients for this year, and a familiar name is on it: Frederick H. Lowy. Lowy served as Rector/President of Concordia University from 1995 to 2005, a time when doing so was hardly an easy job.

The community’s respect for Lowy only grew after his departure, when his replacement turned out to be a disaster. People started wishing or the good old days, when the warring factions – students vs. administrators, part-time faculty vs. full-time faculty, Senate vs. Board, were kept at a warm simmer by Lowy’s diplomacy.

In other words, they could have done worse.

And fortunately, there are no obvious conflicts with the other three honorees, one in the business management area (former CP CEO Robert Richie), one in the education field (former École Polytechnique head Robert Louis Papineau), and one in the arts (professor Laura Mulvey). That might be enough to help us forget the fact that three of these four are here for their skills managing a large organization and not, say, fighting malaria in Sudan.

Philanthropists Anonymous

Near the entrance of the J. W. McConnell Library Building, three pillars feature plaques commemorating the financial contributions of students, alumni and government to the building’s funding campaign. A fourth explains the building’s name, citing the “exemplary generosity of the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation.” It makes no mention of who McConnell was or any non-financial reason why the building might be named after him.

Above the plaques, suspended from the ceiling, a gold and copper-coloured display laughingly referred to as art by the university’s administration lists major individual donors to Concordia’s Capital Campaign. The starting price for your name here: $5,000.

At Concordia, high-profile donors are honoured not just with ugly plaques, but prestigious academic awards, honorary degrees, buildings and programs in their name, and in many cases a seat on the most powerful body in the university’s hierarchy.

There is no formal contract in these exchanges. No agreement is made which forces the university to reward financial donors, and these rewards have been given to many who haven’t given the university a dime.

Is this a way of thanking people who have contributed to the community, a teaser to encourage more donations, or is there something about Concordia’s major financial donors which causes them to be praised for reasons other than their material wealth?

In Quebec, where tuition in Canada is at its lowest, the pressure to seek alternative sources of funding is extremely high.

Frederick Lowy, Concordia’s president, says post-secondary education in Quebec is drastically underfunded, and that more money is needed to keep Concordia competitive with other universities across Canada. In Maclean’s magazine’s annual rating of Canadian universities, Concordia is currently rated second-last out of 11 universities in its category.

Most of its low points relate to a lack of adequate funding compared to other Canadian universities, where tuition is higher.

Every year, when the Maclean’s rankings come out, Lowy brings them to the body most concerned about Concordia’s overall financial picture: its Board of Governors.

The Board of Governors is Concordia’s highest governing body. It meets once a month during the academic year to make mostly ceremonial decisions on university governance. It approves budgets, hires senior administrators, and approve major policy changes, but the meetings themselves usually involve little more than receiving reports and rubber-stamping recommendations of committees.

The 40-member Board of Governors is composed of representatives appointed from different constituencies, including faculty, staff, alumni and students. The largest constituency, comprising just over half of the Board, is known as the “community at-large”. Since Concordia is a public university, it logically follows that members of the community should have a say in how it is run.

But unlike the other constituencies, the community-at-large members aren’t appointed by the group they represent. Instead, the Board appoints a nominating committee, composed mostly of community-at-large members, which receives nominations and recommends appointments back to the Board. The Board accepts or rejects the recommendations behind closed doors, and if accepted appoints the person to the Corporation of Concordia University. The Corporation then meets and appoints the person to the Board of Governors.

Once this process is complete, the person begins a three-year term, and their appointment is made public. Normally, a governor will serve up to three three-year terms on the Board of Governors, for a total of nine years.

Lowy says that in addition to academic and cultural backgrounds, the nominating committee looks for “people who can spark donations,” either by donating themselves or gathering other donors.

So it’s no coincidence that the community-at-large seats are filled with some of the richest people around: doctors, lawyers and large business owners. Almost all of the 23 community-at-large members are (or were) senior management of large corporations, including the National Bank, Quebecor, Ernst and Young, and the aptly-named Power Corporation.

These people are also among Canada’s most prolific political donors, including some of the heaviest donors to the federal Liberal and New Democratic parties. They’re called upon to lobby and negotiate with the provincial government to try to secure more funding for education.

Jean McGuire, a management professor in the John Molson School of Business, says this situation is very common for private and non-profit corporations alike. She says donors feel more comfortable if they know what’s going on in the organization, and want to make sure their money is used wisely.

She says their motivation for giving to universities isn’t to control them, but help them in their mission. This is why donations and increased involvement in a non-profit organization both come together.

Tim McSorley, the Quebec regional chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, doesn’t quite see it that way. While he agrees that the corporate sector does have a place on the Board of Governors, he believes its weight is too much and is silencing the voices of others who could serve.

McSorley says the unusually wealthy corporate CEOs don’t reflect the economic diversity of the community. “It’s an academic institution,” he says. “It should have a multitude of voices.” He rejects the implication that corporate CEOs are better at managing large organizations and says there are people who know how who aren’t part of the corporate sector.

CFS Quebec has long claimed that corporate CEOs on the Board of Governors have an inherent conflict of interest. They have a say in the organization that trains their future workforce. CFS-Q says this creates a danger that certain programs, like those in engineering and the sciences, will receive more attention if they’re more profitable.

Students have already raised concerns that the needs of fine arts students are being taken away to give more space to computer science and engineering.

As part of the CFS-Q executive, McSorley has been raising awareness about the dangers of private involvement in education, a solution he doesn’t like any better than increased tuition. He says students are providing free labour for large corporations while paying for their own training.

Lowy says that despite the apparent problems on paper, he’s not concerned about corporate influence. He says the Board has no wish to control the curriculum. Instead, he says, it leaves that to the university’s senate, which deals with academic programs and is comprised only of students, administration and faculty. The senate, he says, is free of such corporate influence.

But Concordia’s corporate connections aren’t just through its community-at-large board members. Lowy himself sits on the board of directors of two large companies.

One is Dundee Bancorp, a holding corporation for financial management companies. Lowy sits stone-faced as he describes the nature of the company, his public relations officer looking on nervously. The company’s board of directors includes fellow governors Richard J. Renaud and Normand Beauchamp.

Lowy also sits on the board of Neurochem, a pharmaceutical company, with fellow board member Peter Kruyt.

He is quick to downplay the potential conflict of interest his membership on these boards represents, saying there are “no areas of conflict.”

Lowy is also quick to dismiss the idea that he and the board members meet in secret political maneuvers. He says that while the executive members of the Board meet often, his relationship to the community-at-large members is “collegial,” not personal.

But Lowy isn’t the only one with these extra-curricular connections. Most of the corporate CEOs on the Board run their own companies, and many sit on the boards of other non-profit and for-profit corporations. Playing a quick game of six degrees of separation yields many connections between these members outside of the university.

Board member Jonathan Wener owns Canderel, a real estate company. Canderel employed the services of the Davies, Ward, Phillips and Vineberg law firm, as well as fellow Board member Lillian Vineberg. The law firm, meanwhile, has another Board member, Rita Lc de Santis, as one of its partners. Similar connections attach at least 15 members of the Board’s community-at-large contingent together.

Concordia’s president doesn’t pretend that dangers don’t present themselves. But when it comes to the pressures of sacrificing integrity, he points to an entirely different problem: personal favours.

Lowy says the most common request involves parents who want their children’s admission rejections or failures overturned. Lowy says it’s difficult to say no to such requests, especially when they come from friends of the university, but that aside from providing an explanation of the university’s point of view, he never gets involved in such matters.

The matters he and Concordia’s academic administration do have a say in is the awarding of honorary degrees and the naming of buildings and facilities. Some believe these symbolic gestures are an acceptable way of thanking donors, while others are uncomfortable with the idea of universities selling their good name to the highest bidder.

Former governors Francesco Bellini, Dominic D’Alessandro, Leonard Ellen and Alan B. Gold have all received honorary degrees after donating millions to the university. The university’s policies currently forbid giving honorary degrees to sitting members of the Board of Governors.

Honorary degrees are given to people who have contributed to the community. Lowy says they are given to Concordia graduates who have “done important things in life” or are “leaders in their field.”

Though major donors are among Concordia’s honorands, most degree recipients are not donors to the university.

McGuire dismisses the idea that degrees are given as a result of donations. The awarding of such degrees are decided by faculty councils, not senior administration. McGuide says the possibility of future donations has never been raised at these meetings.

Lowy says people would feel insulted if honorary degrees were purchased instead of being awarded based on merit.

“You can’t really sell the degrees,” Lowy says. “It’s not a bad idea,” he adds with a laugh.
Honorary degrees are awarded for service to the community. But the naming of buildings, rooms and programs are more directly related to the donations received to aid in their construction.

The Richard J. Renaud Science Complex, which opened on Concordia’s Loyola campus in 2003, was named after Renaud, a current member of the Board, largely due to his financial contributions. About a dozen facilities and programs are named after major donors for the same reason.

The largest known donation came from Molson Inc. in 2001. Eric Molson, Molson’s chairman and Concordia’s chancellor, announced that the brewery would be giving $10 million to Concordia’s business school. In return, the Faculty of Commerce and Administration would rename itself to the John Molson School of Business, after the man who founded the brewery over 200 years ago.

When it comes to naming buildings after donors, Tim McSorley is hesitant to immediately denounce the practice in general. He says naming a place isn’t a problem in itself, but a symptom of the need for funding from the private sector.

McGuire doesn’t think the deal benefits Molson. She says the company could just as easily have started a foundation named after itself. “Most of the people who are giving money already have prestige.”

But McSorley has some reservations about Molson. “You have 30,000 people going to Concordia who know their commerce school is called the John Molson School of Business,” he says. “When you think of how much beer students drink…”

4 thoughts on “Concordia’s Lowy gets honorary degree

  1. princess iveylocks

    K, as a [retiring] academic, I’d like to point out that altruism does not equate innovation, intelligence, or even initiative. “Fighting malaria in Sudan,” while considered noble by many, isn’t necessarily any less self-serving than navigating high business for profit here in Canada… nor does it automatically denote a uniform level of skill.

    Beware the lazy liberalism cliches! Making railways safe, teaching engineers how to build roads, and progressing society through understanding gender are laudable accomplishments — don’t denigrate them because someone decided intervening in a culture a world away should be morally superior to using one’s talents in other ways.

    Reply
  2. Fagstein Post author

    I’m not saying business management isn’t something that should be rewarded, especially since Concordia has a strong business school.

    But it’s a bit over-represented here, compared to scientists, artists and other people whose accomplishments might be worthy of academic praise.

    Reply
  3. Tim

    “When you think of how much beer students drink…” *sigh*

    On the one hand, I want to say that these are, after all, university students. Obviously to be attending one an institution of higher learning means that these individuals have excelled in the arts of reasoning and critical thinking—certainly enough to be incapable of making a sophomoric corollary like “I like my school so I must like a beer by the same name.” I mean, obviously…

    But on the other hand, I’ve sat in on the University’s student council meetings, and chaired a faculty’s student council for a time… If you want to shake your faith in education, watch students sitting in “deliberative” assembly. *sigh*

    Reply

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