70, was born in Sudbury and grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where
his parents worked in a hardware store. He attended Harvard University
on a hockey scholarship and succeeded in academia, in the words of a
former colleague, “on brains and hard work.” His life has been one of
continuous public service, and those who know him say that David Johnston would not have accepted his new role if he didn’t believe he could
make a difference.
When the Governor General gives the keynote address to a meeting
this fall of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada on the
occasion of its 100th anniversary, at McGill, it will be a homecoming of
sorts, not only to McGill but also to AUCC. He was actively involved in
the association during his years as a university president and served as its
president (now called chair) from 1985 to 1987.
As Governor General, Mr. Johnston has focussed on another anniversary – Canada’s 150th birthday coming up in 2017. He has repeatedly
challenged Canadians to imagine a “smart and caring nation,” one where
“all Canadians can succeed, contribute and develop their talents to their
fullest potential.” He has proposed three pillars for this vision: supporting families and children, encouraging philanthropy and volunteerism,
and – the one he has talked about most often – reinforcing learning and
In the following interview with University Affairs, conducted at Rideau
Hall in mid-August, the Governor General said the greatest challenge
facing Canadians in achieving this vision is “complacency.”
Q: In some of your speeches as Governor General, you
have talked about reconciling accessibility to education
with the excellence of our institutions. What do you
mean by that duality?
A: It’s John Gardner’si famous question: Can we have
equality of opportunity and excellence too? I think we can. I think Canada
is pretty well advanced on that path, as seeing those two objectives as
mutually reinforcing and not mutually excluding.
It may be we are a little further advanced in understanding the equality
of opportunity. I know of no nation that has worked as hard as this one
has in making opportunities available to the full spectrum of the population, including our newest members. This is not to say we don’t still have
challenges. We still have enormous challenges, and aboriginal education
is one glaring example. But if you look at a comparative and historical
scale, we’ve done reasonably well, and we must not be complacent, we
must do much more.
On excellence, what we have to do is realize that these things aren’t
antagonistic. By providing opportunity you’re not diminishing the elitism
that is excellence but in fact you’re expanding, first of all, the physical
number of people who can contribute to excellence and, secondly, by the
positive reinforcement that comes with more and more people having
higher and higher aspirations to actually reach a higher standard. I think
we have to accentuate that aspiration for quality and excellence and not
preclude that, because we’re working so hard on accessibility, we somehow lose sight of that. We have to do the trigonometry, the triangulation
of causing those two pathways to reinforce each other.
Q: Is there a way you could see our universities taking up that challenge?
A: I see it every day. One thing Canadian universities have done well is
collaborate in complex inter-institutional research enterprises. I go back
30 years when Fraser Mustardii first began developing the Centre of Excellence concept in Ontario, and out of that came CIFAR, the Canadian
Institute for Advanced Research, and then came the federal [Networks
of ] Centres of Excellence.
It’s harder to do that combination of a number of institutions, including
private-sector partners, in many other jurisdictions, including the United
States where the rivalries are substantial. I think it’s easier to do that in
Canada where, number one, by nature we’re collaborative, and two, we
realized that for a critical mass and scale we can’t rely on a single institution. We’re driven to collaborate. I think we must continue that kind of
example, just as one where, by working smarter, working collaboratively,
we achieve much higher levels of excellence than we would if each of our
universities were on its own.
Q: It’s just been announced that you will be leading the AUCC delegation
to Brazil in April 2012 and attending the Conference of the Americas on
International Education. Why did you want to accompany the mission?
A: Well, I’m thrilled to do that. First of all, I think there’s a remarkable opportunity for Canada in participating in educational ventures around the