My Last Lecture Lessons Learned from by decree


									                     My Last Lecture: Lessons Learned from
                              45 Years at McMaster

                                   Peter George

                  Presented during Citizenship Engagement Week
                           Wednesday, March 3, 2010

I am honoured to be here with all of you to share with you my thoughts and

reflections on a life devoted to education. But I should tell you that my academic

career began very humbly in a very small school.

You see, my grandfather was the lighthouse keeper on Toronto Island and we

lived in that magical place from the time I was very small until I started high

school in the city. So every day I walked to a three room school house with my

dog by my side.

Things were a little more relaxed back then and so my teacher saw no reason

why my dog couldn’t attend school with me. So I spent my first years in school

with a faithful companion under my desk.

His name was “Mac.” So although I may not have gone to school AT “Mac”, I

went to school WITH Mac from the very beginning.

My parents were young people during the depression and really regretted not

having more opportunity to better themselves through education.

So as the eldest son, after High School, they were very anxious for me to attend

university. Maybe a little over anxious; they had me skip two grades and I was

only 16 when I began, ready academically but pretty immature socially and quite


And I was (perhaps like some of you) the first person in my family to go to

university. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they expected great things of

me, especially my mother, who was a very smart lady who lived in a time that

offered few opportunities for women and education.

I went to the University of Toronto because my family could not afford for me to

go away to university, so I lived at home – maybe like some of you, too?

And so I started classes still shy of my seventeenth birthday, and with great

excitement and some fear and trepidation walked in the door of...

McMaster Hall – at the University of Toronto!

Yes, the building where I began my undergraduate career was the original site of

the University in which we all now live, learn and work.

In the early 1880s, Senator William McMaster’s bequest financed the building of

McMaster Hall on Bloor Street and when Mac moved to Hamilton in 1930, it

became a part of the U of T – until the year after I graduated when it became the

home of the Royal Conservatory of Music as it is today.

So throughout my undergraduate career, I walked the halls of McMaster, even

while attending U of T.

I started out with “Mac” under my desk and continued with “Mac” all around me.

If one was a believer in destiny, at this point you might pause and scratch your


Now I realize my life trajectory might be different than yours. But I didn’t have

much time to pause back then. By the time I was 22, I was a graduate student

with a wife and a baby son who I was supporting with scholarships and what I

earned as a TA.

I needed a job, and so when McMaster offered me one the next year, I took it. I

didn’t think about destiny or Mac under my desk or McMaster Hall. I thought

about supporting my family and getting a job after long years of study. Maybe

having some money for a change or paying off debts (student loans back then

were called “parents!”)

I started teaching at this university at 23 years of age. My wife Allison says this

explains why so many of the people who come up to me or her in the

supermarket saying I was their teacher are now as grey as I am! I was 23 when

they were 20!

I am certain I wasn’t the most fascinating prof. My first lecture I was so nervous I

zoomed through three classes’ worth of lecture notes in 20 minutes and then

stood there like a deer in the headlights. My former students tell me I got better

over time, but I certainly never thought I would spend the next 45 years at Mac,

and I never DREAMED of being President of a university, especially this one I

love so much.

It was a bit disconcerting when a few years later someone wrote a best-selling

book about people who are “elevated to the level of their own incompetence.” It

was called “The Peter Principle!”

While I hope I am not an example, it’s safe to say that at that point in my career, I

was just glad to have a job, some food on the table and a roof over the heads of

my young family.

A few years later, with the joyful addition of a daughter completing Gwen’s and

my family, our lives looked pretty set, you might even say predictable. I would

finish my PhD degree, publish some books and make full professor, we would

raise our kids and be empty nesters in our 40s and enjoy a long lovely career

and retirement together.

But life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans!

One day a colleague from Toronto called me at the Economics department

looking for someone who was willing to go and work in Africa for a year. The

Tanzania Tourist Corporation was looking for an Economist and I tried in vain to

convince several of my colleagues to go, to no avail. One night I came home

frustrated at my lack of success and my wife Gwen just looked at me and said

“Well, why don’t WE go?”

I can honestly say that my life changed forever for the better that night. At 28

years old with two small children (6 and 3) off we went on an adventure that was

to turn my previously sheltered life upside down in the most positive way


I learned so much during my time in Africa! Now every year I have about 30 or

40 students ask me to help them with some worthy project – they want to go and

build homes or help provide health care, do earthquake relief, participate in civil

society or learn about microcredit in places all over the globe.

Instead of giving one of them $4000, I give all 40 of them 100 dollars and

encourage them to raise the rest of the funds from their family and friends and by

the fruits of their own labours.

American poet Walt Whitman writes “give alms to all who ask” – while the

students aren’t exactly asking for alms – they are asking me to believe that by

taking themselves out of their own environment and being a “world citizen” even

for a few weeks or months, they can transform the way they think and feel about

this planet and its inhabitants.

I believe this with all my heart so I always say “Yes.”

I believe I became a world citizen when I went to Africa. I realized something

that perhaps I had known intellectually but never really felt in my bones, and

that’s that the tiny slice of privileged life into which I was born is but a fraction of

what it means to be human. And a very privileged fraction at that.

I learned that I had been granted a privilege by an accident of birth and that

privilege bears with it responsibility. That in order to really understand who we

are in our souls, we need to break down the barriers between us, and reach

across great divides to do so.

In a country where water is carried on the heads of women and children for

miles, I appreciated for the first time the abundant water that simply comes out of

our taps. I learned to notice and be grateful for healthy food, clean water, for the

ability to vote and choose a government. And above all – for education, which is

valued so much more highly in the places in the world where it is harder to obtain

than it is on this continent.

I learned to listen before I speak. Many times I sat down in councils with local

villagers in Africa and observed in wonder how carefully and graciously they


There was a level of respect and engagement in community that I had never

before experienced. I wondered if I had ever really listened well to another


I learned to ask questions that would help people find their own answers rather

than parachute in and offer my own solutions. These skills have helped me

immeasurably in my career. I remember the saying my mother taught me “Better

to be silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and leave no doubt!” (I

now know it was first uttered by Sir John A. Macdonald!) Never did I learn this

more than in Africa, where I was graced with the life lesson that you first have to

do enough listening to make what you have to say worth hearing.

I learned other lessons about different cultures and different ways of being. For

example, it’s the custom in parts of Africa for men to hold hands with each other

walking down the street, something with which my uptight WASP upbringing was

not very familiar! I amazed myself in actually getting comfortable walking hand in

hand down the streets of Dar es Saalam with my 6 foot 3 inch - 240 pound

Tanzanian boss with a shaved head, a Wachagga from Kilimanjaro District who

had been the first black District Commissioner in colonial Tanganyika. He tested

my sense of world citizenship and cultural respect by doing the same, taking my

hand while walking down Bloor Street when he visited Toronto and I hope I

passed the test; although that was about 35 years ago so we did get a few looks.

But the people I met in Africa were hungry for education. As when 30 years later

Allison and I traveled in India, we were amazed that the children wanted not

chocolate or toys but pencils, any pencil they could get their hands on was as

precious as gold, because it meant they could write!

Do you know that right here and now, you have an education that is the envy of

the world? That just by being in this room you are already one of the luckiest

.001 percent of people alive on this planet?

As the poet Mary Oliver says “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild

and precious life?”

I want to tell you what a few Mac grads have done with their “wild and precious

lives.” Perhaps they will inspire you as they have me.

People like this handful of heroic doctors who have put themselves in harm’s way

repeatedly to bring aid to the most at-risk members of our global family. They

are people like James Orbinski ’89, Samantha Nutt ’91 ’94, Eric Hoskins ’82 ’85

and Richard Heinzl ’87. They have led and founded organizations like War Child

and Doctors Without Borders. They have accepted Nobel Peace Prizes and

Orders of Canada and they are incredible examples for us all.

Yet because of the privileges that have been bestowed upon all of us – a

prosperous and peaceful home nation, access to free health care, clean water

and food, and above all, the benefits of a wonderful education – we have all been

invited to humanity’s table – to listen and to share, to learn and to give back. We

all have an open invitation to become global citizens. We just need to answer

the call!

Maybe you will fly into the most war-ravaged places on earth, but you can also

fulfill your citizenship goals without ever boarding an airplane. We need

volunteer doctors in the middle of a war, but we also need coaches for youth

basketball teams.

We need people to work in health clinics for the homeless. We need volunteers

to welcome refugees to a new country. We need people to tutor math skills to

children. We need someone to restore indigenous plants to our watershed. It

matters not what you do, only that you do it!

The call of the world is for everyone to hear, and for those lucky enough to be

able to give back – to answer.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I came back from Africa feeling myself to be not just a professor but a lucky

participant in the greatest endeavour of human kind – to learn and grow in

community with one another. I felt myself to be not just a Canadian, but a human

being in a vast community of human beings. (When we left for Tanzania, we

were warned about culture shock; no one told us that the real culture shock was

coming home to Canada!)

And I have given my life to education because I believe it to be a most worthy

endeavor. Without it on its simplest level, people cannot communicate with each

other. When we learn, we learn about ourselves and others, we learn about our

history and our planet, and its people and probe the very nature of our universe.

We gain knowledge and understanding, pose problems and provide solutions,

solve mysteries and grow a sense of awe for the mysteries we can never solve.

It does not stop all wars but without it there can be no understanding that leads to


It does not heal the planet but without it we have no idea even how to begin to


It does not right all the wrongs of the world but makes righting wrongs more

possible and more probable.

I gave my life to education because there is nothing better than bearing witness

to the opening of the human mind and spirit.

I have loved being surrounded by students for 45 years, and not just the students

who are the same age I was when I came here, but all of you who have grown

along with me.

I have enormous respect for the students, staff, faculty and alumni who have

been with me on this incredible journey of life long learning, bringing honour and

esteem to our university and inestimable good to our world. I could use up the

rest of this last lecture outlining their many accomplishments.

Yet at the same time, when I assumed the helm of this university, we were, as

the old Chinese saying goes, living in “interesting times.”

Within weeks of my beginning my Presidency, we were in the throes of the

“Common Sense Revolution” – distinguished, in my opinion, by its utter lack of

common sense, and utter disregard for the social contract of our shared

community. Within weeks huge cuts to public education were announced,

forcing an unheard of crisis in the university’s budgetary planning.

Ironically, my Presidency is ending amid the worst global recession since the

Great Depression of my parents’ youth, causing, some would say, an unheard of

crisis in the university’s budgetary planning.

But I believe, as the saying goes, in “Postponing pessimism for better times!”

We made it through that first storm and I have no doubt at all we will weather the

next and weather it well. As a friend pointed out to me, “You’re not responsible

for the weather, but you do have to safely guide the ship – in storms as well as in

calm seas.” And that I believe, with great help, I have done. And during those

calmer passages we have seen an unprecedented era of growth and prosperity

for our beloved university.

But did you know that when I began at McMaster and even as I rose through the

ranks to be a full professor and Dean, our stated aim was to be “Canada’s best

medium sized university?” While each stage of our growth has been important,

to me if you will pardon the analogy, that is like saying your goal is to be the best

average guy in town, or the most impressive boring woman you know.

It reminds me of the story of two travelers on their way to Japan who were

standing at the rail of the ship looking out upon the sea. After a few moments,

one of them turned and walked away, disappointed. Throughout the day, the

man returned to the deck and then turned and walked away in disappointment

again and again. Finally the second traveler asked the fellow traveler what it was

that made him so downcast. The man replied that he’d been told that at this point

in the journey he would be able to see Mt. Fuji. But he feared the haze over the

water was not going to lift, robbing him of a sight that he so longed to see.

Taking him by the arm, his shipmate led the man back to the rail of the ship and

said quietly, "Look higher." The traveler, raising his eyes above the haze, saw,

the great mountain in all its majesty.

I hope that my time at McMaster has been a time of “looking higher” or, as the

saying goes, of our “reach exceeding our grasp - or “What’s a heaven for?”

When I look around me at the bright faces of our students, the excellence and

dedication of our staff, the passion of our best professors and the enthusiasm

and accomplishments of our alumni, I see no reason for Mac not to be the best

university in the world. We have all it takes right here; all we needed was hope,

and a vision, and the determination and will to make it happen. I have done my

best for 45 years to make it so. Now it is up to all who will come after.

I know there are some of you who were reminded, as we laid plans to grow this

institution, of the saying “For years we have been standing at the edge of an

abyss -- Now is the time to step boldly forward!”

I know some have said I have an “Edifice Complex” and want to leave a legacy of


I still hear complaints about the loss of the “sunken garden” which made way for

our world-class medical school and hospital – although it disappeared long

before my watch. I liked it too!

But all the buildings and changes and plans and growth have not been not an

end in themselves, but a mere means to serve that Spirit of Understanding and

Education, that Spirit of Engagement and World Community I first learned so

much about in Tanzania and tried to live by when I returned.

It does give me joy to see the Student Centre. Not when I look at the empty

building as I walk through it late at night on my way home; but when the foyer is

filled with students talking, laughing, sharing their interests in clubs or groups;

when I see them clustered in twos or threes studying in its many cubby holes and

meeting rooms.

Before I was President, the student centre was supposedly in Wentworth House

and then in Hamilton Hall, except that few students ever went there. Yet by

1995, six generations of students had been levied and taxed in student fees to

build a gathering place they never got to use.

So yes, I considered it a matter of personal integrity to build it and I am glad I

kept that promise every time I see it doing what it REALLY was designed to do –

which is build community in the next generation of human beings to be set forth

to lead this world. It is the “heart” of student life at Mac, and we would be poorer

without it.

I am proud of the Student Centre and of being “student-centred”. I never gave up

on the vision of having the student at the centre of all we do, of holding all our

plans up to the light of what creates an ideal learning environment for the next

generation of hearts, minds and spirits.

And I am proud of the 70% ratio of student use of the Athletic Centre – we were

much bigger couch potatoes in my day as an undergrad – but if you didn’t have

it, you couldn’t use it. So yes, I am glad that my efforts helped make it possible.

And I am thrilled when I see you all there, working on improving your mind, spirit

and body as the good gifts that you are.

I have also had an “Open Door” policy which many of you availed yourselves of –

students, faculty, staff and alumni. My vision was an accessible Presidency, and

Allison and I started our marriage living in the President’s Residence and weekly

welcoming regular gatherings of the whole McMaster community to our doors!

I wanted to help build an inclusive and diverse community in our university. The

Mac that my two oldest children attended in the 1980s was different than the one

my youngest daughter born in China had better be planning to attend! It is

already much different and welcomes her with a student body that better reflects

the diversity of the world that I so want her to see as her whole human family.

I also wanted to bring Mac closer to Hamilton, increasing the alignment of Mac

with our city’s needs, by expanding without compromising our research and

educational mission. I believe that we have together built a wonderful

partnership with the city of Hamilton and are an integral part of its future.

I know that it has not been possible to do any of this without garnering some

criticism. This is an occupational hazard when you are willing to lead, especially

in the academic environment which somehow wants to set itself aside from the


In some people’s minds once you become an administrator, you go from being

“Socrates to Bureaucrates” – forgetting all you learned about yourself and others

along the way.

This I believe is a common misconception about leadership: that when you learn

how to manage, you somehow forget how to work; that when you become a

Principal, you forget how to teach; when you are willing to lead you cannot recall

what it is like to be a part of the whole.

I am, and always will be, a teacher and, thanks to my time in Africa, and

reinforced by countless international visits since, a citizen of the world. It is what

I believe we all are called to be for and with each other.

At the same time, criticism can offer valuable lessons. One is that we all need to

learn to eat crow and pretend it tastes like turkey! Trust me, if you can learn to

do this, you will have an easier life and a more successful career.

I have also learned that a real leader is willing to give credit and to accept blame.

It is a lonely privilege to share joyfully in the collaboration when things go well,

but stand alone in owning the mistakes, but that’s the job of leadership. If you’re

not up for it, don’t aim higher.

I have had some lighthearted moments in all of this, even when it comes to

critics. One that stands out is the woman who phoned me irate because “The

McMaster geese are eating my lawn.” “How do you know they’re McMaster

Geese?” I asked her.

“Because that’s where they live!” was the answer.

I asked her to describe them to me, which she did, a little perplexed. The only

answer I could give of course was “Ma’m, those are not McMaster geese. The

McMaster geese have maroon heads and grey neckbands and are wearing little

Mac T shirts.”

Would that all the criticisms we receive were so easily dismissed!

But I have learned that you can’t avoid mistakes. Mistakes are a part of life. It’s

what you learn from them that counts.

So what can you learn from your mistakes? Humility for one. How to change

yourself for the better for another.

For if they really are mistakes, learn from them, make amends and don’t repeat

them! In true McMaster style, make new and innovative mistakes next time!

But there is something I could have applied in my marking that I learned later in

life that has to do with the mistakes you make. And that’s to take off both the top

and the bottom mark.

Because you are never as wrong or bad as your worst critics insist but neither

are you always as wonderful as your biggest fans might believe. Even great

people can make bad mistakes and each and every one of us has the capacity to

do good, no matter how many wrong choices we may have already made.

So be gentle with yourself and others and take off the top mark as well as the

bottom mark. Try to live in the place in between where you try your very best

and may occasionally excel, and if you fail, fail spectacularly.

Be an idealist, presume good intent and always be willing to be freshly

disappointed if others’ intent is not as good as you had presumed.

Don’t live your life by the carrot and the stick. Neither the carrot of praise or the

stick of criticism should be your yardstick of success.

Above all, be true to yourself. My only task in life is to be the best Peter George I

can be. Your only task in life is to be the best Sam or Sarah, Jesse or Jingjing,

Fayez or Kristen, Matthew or Livio or Vishal, Csilla or Eric. Who else can you


I have also learned that nothing else will have more impact on your happiness

and success in life than choosing and surrounding yourself with the right friends,

mates, co-workers and employees. Trust your intuition as well as do your

homework. I believe in reading the book, but being prepared to set it aside if

your gut instinct tells you something different.

Just for the sake of it, I counted up the leaders that Mac has contributed in recent

years to the landscape of leadership in higher education in this country, many of

whom I was fortunate enough to hire, befriend or mentor.

The Presidents of Manitoba, Calgary, York and Queen’s University; the Provosts

or Academic Vice Presidents of Calgary, Carleton, Memorial, Saskatchewan,

Winnipeg and Simon Fraser University, to name the ones that come first to mind,

with no doubt more to come. My thrill at seeing them succeed is almost matched

by my irritation at losing them and having to replace such wonderful colleagues.

I have been able to work with, nurture and benefit from excellence in my

contemporaries, both bosses, employees and colleagues. You can always learn

from everyone you meet – on the way up, on the way down and looking them

straight in the eye across the table.

There are some other tables across which you can look while trusting your

intuition. It may surprise you to know that I asked both of my wives to marry me

on the first date; one when I was 20 years old and celebrating my graduation day

with a few beers and another 35 years later when I was a grieving widower with a

dream job and no one to share it with any more.

Through those losses and those fortunate second chances, I’ve learned that life

is precious, love is precious, and if you don’t take any chances, you won’t find it.

Sorrow and joy are all mixed up together; you can be on top of the world in one

moment and then you can be in the bottom of the valley sometimes in very short


But Love is not a process of reasoning, it’s a mystery. As the Little Prince says

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Trust your heart in matters of the heart.

The whole idea of “commitment phobia” I guess I’ve never understood, a guy

who proposes on the first date. But the choice of a life partner is the biggest

decision you will ever make in your life.

So my biggest advice is “Carpe diem” – seize the day – or the good ones will be


Give love and it will come back to you; in my experience it is returned a thousand

times over.

I know it’s trite but as the saying goes: “Never go to bed mad!” – or as comedian

Phyllis Diller said “Stay up and fight.” I’m joking! But anyone you love is worth

treating with kindness and respect, always. You can have all the awards and

accolades in the world but the only thing that really matters is what your wife and

kids think of you.

I can update that to include partners and friends, colleagues and all in your

closest circle of companionship. Really, it all doesn’t amount to a hill of beans

except the love that you give and share.

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention – so I won’t mention

them. Suffice to say that this is a profession that always leaves things undone at

the end of the day. That’s as it should be, for it’s about nothing less than the

human spirit, which after all is unquenchable.

I have been privileged for 45 years to get up every morning and go to work

believing that this could be the best day ever – and many many days I have

found it to be so. From Mac under my desk, to the walls of McMaster Hall

surrounding me, to the classroom of Africa, to the place where I now stand,

incredibly honored to be part of an amazing university’s transformation, to the

wonderful women and men I have been surrounded by in life and in love, I am

one lucky man.

I wish for you no less a “wild and precious life.”

Thank You.


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