Following his installation as Western’s 21st chancellor at the university’s 300th convocation last week, Joseph Rotman sat down with Western News reporter Adela Talbot after two days of convocations to discuss his new role and the challenges facing postsecondary education. To this day, Rotman fondly recalls and credits a Philosophy class – taken more than five decades ago – and a professor on campus for instilling in him not only a solid values system and way of thinking, but most importantly, a love of learning. It’s a relationship with Western that has helped define a man considered one of Canada’s most prominent businessmen and philanthropists.
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How do you view your duties as chancellor and what do you hope to contribute to Western during your term?
The ceremonial procedures, which because of the (convocation) experience I had yesterday and today, I find very meaningful. I, therefore, look forward to participating in these, because connecting with the students was an incredibly meaningful interaction for me. It was much more than I would have expected.
I hope to provide some assistance to the president, in providing advice in areas where there are difficult situations – whether it be with political situations or student situations. I think I’ve had a great, broad experience in many areas, and with a lot of grey hair, you get a little bit of wisdom. I think I can be a little bit of help to him.
I would love to reinforce, in whatever way I can, the culture that people refer to as ‘the student experience’ here. I happen to be a great beneficiary of that and I made reference to that in my remarks yesterday (at convocation). But if there are things I could do that would help enhance and improve it – as good as it may be – I will do them. The student experience to me is critical because it is my humble opinion a positive experience creates a positive attitude to being here, which leads to an interest in learning.
Finally, I hope I am able to find areas within the university where I can assist in attaining greater international excellence, recognition and positioning, as we have done already with the (Rotman) Institute of Philosophy. A perfect example of this is my interest in the area of the brain, and I know Adrian (Owen) and Mel (Goodale) from the Brain and Mind Institute, and have offered to be of assistance to them in developing their institute as an international entity in a global context.
What challenges do you feel universities today are facing?
There’s obviously the financial situation. The importance of ensuring every student who is qualified has a position is absolutely critical. First and foremost is ensuring there is aid, loans, fellowships and scholarships – I don’t care what we call them – that help students who have the capabilities, to ensure they can attend.
Universities are facing the challenges the world is facing – the rate of change, the degree of change, which is occurring. The problems that are out there, that I referenced in my remarks (economic crisis, the poor state of the job market, new shifts and developments in technology), make everything you do more important in terms of finding the right answers.
What I tried to emphasize is the increased importance of understanding universities are the source of the solutions to these problems.
I don’t think, historically, we have, as a country, fully appreciated that. The Americans do, and they draw on their academics in every aspect of business, government, more so than we do here in Canada.
That may be another area I could help lead in – recognizing solutions to problems have to be solved by the best and the brightest, which are at the universities.
Working in teams – multidisciplinary ones, because silos no longer come up with the right answers – will help find the solutions as will looking to academia as the place to go. I believe that’s the only place the solutions will come out of.
Certainly you exemplify this, but why is it important for alumni to keep ties and support their alma mater – relationally and financially?
No matter what they do, there are connections within the university that will help them. I just spent a few minutes talking to the retiring chair of the Alumni Association and he talked about his term, and how it helped him be connected as an alumnus, and how those connections helped him build up his career. I think there is a pure self-interest in remaining connected because of the relationships, but also the kind of relationships that a university will bring to you.
I talked about being partners with a university – in particular areas of business, you have problems you would never have anticipated, that no one in your organization has any appreciation for, and no experience in. Where to go? Why not go to your alma mater? If they’ve got 10 experts, it’s not a bad place to look.
I truly believe – this is my own personal value system that my father taught me – that this university transformed my life. And one teacher left with me the value system, the thinking system that has stayed with me forever, and is still with me. I think there’s a bit of an obligation and I tried to tell that to students. It’s hard when you’re starting out, to feel an obligation (to give back to your university) but I truly believe that there is one.
Aside from your first-year Philosophy class experience, what is your favourite memory or experience while at Western?
I had many good memories, such as the friendships I developed. I learned to love opera here. We lived in a rented house on Central Avenue. There were four of us and every Saturday afternoon, because two of our roommates were very much into opera, we put our four radios across the front of our living room to create stereo and the four of us would sit and listen every Saturday afternoon to Texaco at the Metropolitan Opera. Out of that, I learned to love opera and I still do.
What advice do you have students who are still here, or just joining the campus community?
I’ll give them the same advice I gave to my son – have fun.
I think it’s important the student body knows I feel very honoured to have been nominated and recommended to serve. I feel it a great pride to be in this potion and I will do my best for them.