George Connell, LLD’85, the renowned Canadian biochemist who served as president of both Western University and the University of Toronto, died Friday at the Kensington Gardens nursing home in Toronto, according to media reports. He was 84.
A native of Saskatoon and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Connell earned his PhD in biochemistry in 1955 at the University of Toronto, where he stayed for the next 22 years. He served as associate dean of medicine, vice-president of research and planning as well as chair of the university’s budget committee.
Upon his arrival as Western’s sixth president in 1977, Connell began restructuring the administration to group responsibilities and enhance managerial efficiencies. He helped create a sense of Western’s corporate identity as an institution with a dual commitment to both teaching and research.
“There are many signs that we are in the midst of a major transformation in business-university relationships in Canada,” Connell told The Empire Club of Canada in October 1985. “The ivory towers and the corporate towers are no longer remote from each other and intellectually isolated. The traffic between them is now very busy indeed. The joint enterprises are too numerous now even to count. The reason? Both sides see very clear benefits from these associations – the sharing of physical and intellectual resources can be as advantageous to universities as to corporations.”
Admired for his academic leadership at Western, Connell also developed strong relationships with the university Senate and Board of Governors while adjusting to a time of declining government support. He actively campaigned within the community for help and developed alternative funding sources during a time marked by financial restraint and uncertain student enrollment.
Connell continued in that 1985 lecture, entitled From the Ivory Tower to the Corporate Tower: “The state of public support for higher education in Canada is critical. During the last five to ten years, I believe that every university in Canada has actually lost ground in the struggle for quality in education and research. The cold fact is that quality in education costs money. If we are to meet the demand for quality in the highly educated work force, there will have to be a radical change in public policy for universities, both in Queen’s Park and in Ottawa.
“The fact is that no university in Canada, including my own, has resources that come close to those of the major universities of the United States. Our performance has been reasonably good in the circumstances. That cannot last.”
At Western, Connell also served on the Fisher Committee that produced a report on the future role of Ontario universities.
On campus, many remember Connell as one of the early promoters of the ‘most beautiful campus in Canada,’ when he designated all the trees in the manicured areas of campus as The Sherwood Fox Arboretum in 1981.
In 1990, Connell, and his wife, Sheila, received the Western Family Citation, as part of Western’s annual Alumni Award of Merit celebration.
Connell was happy at Western – so happy, in fact, he declined Toronto’s first offer of the presidency in the early-1980s. “George loved Western, and Western loved George,” Robert Prichard, former U of T president, told the Toronto Star today. “He was confident U of T would be fine with someone else as president.”
He returned to Toronto in 1984 to assume the presidency at his alma mater.
Connell is survived by his wife, Sheila; and four children, James, Thomas, Caroline and Margaret.
Funeral arrangements have not been set.