Five years ago, alumnus Joseph Rotman (BA’57) and his wife Sandra donated $1.4 million to the area of Philosophy of Science in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, creating a $1 million endowment fund for a Canada Research Chair in the Department of Philosophy and supporting two annual graduate student awards.
This past month, Rotman again contributed to the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, creating the Joseph L. Rotman Institute of Science and Values, envisioned as a centre for the sustained examination of significant issues in contemporary society.
Together, the contributions come to $4 million.
Toronto-born Rotman has had a career in the oil business and experience establishing a host of companies, most noticeably Clairvest Group. The 74-year-old has been appointed an officer of the Order of Canada and in 2008 was named the new chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Western News reporter Paul Mayne discussed with Rotman his passion for higher education and what he hopes will come of his most recent donation to the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
What sort of impact do you see the Rotman Institute of Science and Values having?
When you see the advancements in science, whether it be in genetics, stem cells or information technology, you see such a rapid transformation of society in ways that, in my lifetime, has made the world totally different.
What’s happened, in my humble opinion, is that we haven’t kept up with what I call the philosophical society value perspective, of how do we ensure that all of these things are at least addressed, debated, questioned in the tradition of philosophy – truth, beauty, values, all of these things.
WN: Is this an academic area that tends to get overlooked at the post-secondary level when it comes to philanthropy?
The whole area of science and values is something that very much has been overlooked, if not totally overlooked. My hope is that this (Institute) will play a small part in helping to profile the importance – it won’t solve the problem globally, it’s not big enough – but I hope it can profile it if we do it at standards of excellence that will start to bring that perspective into the debate.
It’s about convergence. We’ve now brought engineering and health care together; information technology in with health care – we couldn’t do genetics without the computer software people. So there’s a whole convergence taking place and my hope is this part of the debate, in my humble opinion that has not been adequately addressed, be brought into the equation. It has a critical role to play.
WN: So you see debate as a critical part of higher education?
I am of the view that one of the great weaknesses of our information technology today, with our computers and email, is it doesn’t give people the time to think. It’s all about speed; it’s all about instantaneous resolution of issues, which is totally contrary to my view of the world. The importance of reflection is one of the things I learned while at Western.
WN: During a recent visit to Western you spoke to some Philosophy students, many of whom said you showed a genuine interest in their studies. Why the keen interest?
I think students in my era, and this era, are great. I see a lot of them today because I love mentoring. But when I was at Western, one man, one professor, Dr. Alison Johnson, head of the department of philosophy, changed my life. He transformed me from a person that was not interested in academia to someone who loved it.
I did train as an academic for my doctorate. I taught at the University of Toronto for a couple years, but then I went into business.
The interest in students and education, and in particular the students, is the importance I believe each of us has in helping young people. It’s the educational system and it’s these students that are the future. It’s important that we, like Doc Johnson did for me, help them grow as individuals. I can picture him (Johnson) in front of me and I can tell you I think of him often in difficult situations because he taught me to ask questions.
So it’s the importance each one of us have in mentoring, not only our own children, but a more broad interest in the development of young people.
WN: Many students are here for three or four years and then their active relationship with the university ends. You continue to have a strong connection. What is the bond for you?
To me, education and health care are the two main cores where society needs to really grow. You can’t create a great society if they’re not healthy; you can’t create a great society if they are not educated. They are part of that virtual circle.
So my connection is not only with Western, but with U of T, some other universities and research institutes, and I believe very much in the importance of education as one of the fundamental cores that we as citizens, and governments, must support. I am very grateful and feel lucky that I am able to help in this particular way with Western.
WN: Your philanthropy for post-secondary education is well documented. What motivates you to continue supporting higher education?
Higher education leads to improvement, whether it is in the sciences, which helps us with genetics; it’s in engineering with information technology; and hopefully now bringing in the philosophy of science into the debate. That’s part of what education helps do and that’s the role educational institutions must play to further society. I want the academics to flourish.