Chancellor legacy adds up for Cowin, Western

Western Chancellor Jack Cowin recently reflected on his time as the “ceremonial head of the university,” which ends June 30.

He admits the math may not make sense, but it has added up perfectly for Jack Cowin.

“I am 76 years old. I was here 50 years ago. For three years,” said the Western Chancellor, only days away from ending his tenure. “Three years in to 76. That is a relatively low percentage of your life. But if you think back on it, and ask yourself what years were really dramatic in your background, those three years were disproportionate in their influence, in the people, in all those various things that continue for me today.”

It has been an eye-opening tenure for the kid who once sat with his father watching Mustangs football games from the hill overlooking the stadium.

Born in Windsor, Ont., Cowin, BA’64, LLD’00, was the first in his family to attend university. A two-sport athlete, he had opportunities to play football at American universities, but a local coach talked him into coming to Western. At Medway Hall, his interactions with international students piqued his curiosity in the wider world.

Fifty years ago this year, in 1969, a 26-year-old Jack Cowin moved to Australia with his family to establish a business with the support of loans from 30 Canadians. Today, he has grown that initial investment into a food empire as Founder and Executive Chairman of Competitive Foods Australia Ltd.

In 2015, Cowin became the university’s 22nd Chancellor. He succeeded Joseph Rotman, who passed away earlier that year. Over the last four years, he has thrilled in his connections to people outside his usual orbit half a world away.

He found it “refreshing to come back and see the enthusiasm of students, young people ready to leap off the dock into life.” He enjoyed interacting with honorary degree recipients, many of whom he would not normally interact with in his life.

Then there is his deeply forged connection with President Amit Chakma.

During the last few years, the university has seen how powerful that Chancellor-President relationship can be when the two positions are aligned in a unified vision for the institution.

With their eyes set on a more globally minded Western – in terms of student body, faculty makeup, research, even reputation – Chakma and Cowin have helped move Western “onto the global stage.”

“One of the primary roles of the job is the relationship with the Vice-Chancellor – the President of the university – and I do have a fantastic relationship with Amit. The whole academic world is so different than the external world. I tried to become an outside perspective for him. We have been quite close. I didn’t pretend to tell him what to do; he has the job of running it. But I tried to give him someone to talk to that he may not have normally been able to talk to.”

In Chakma’s darkest hour, as he wrestled with resigning over the presidential compensation crisis, Cowin was there. Loud and supportive. The President often credits the Chancellor for his encouragement during those moments.

“That was such a delicate time for him,” Cowin said. “I saw my role as to support him, encourage him to hang in – remind him the sun will come up in the morning.”

While many of his contemporaries have retired – “enjoying a book on the porch,” he laughed – Cowin remains firmly “on the treadmill” of the day-to-day operations of his businesses. But his Chancellor post has offered him perspective on himself at this stage in his life.

“I have learned so much more about the giving back aspect of life. Some of that was the position, some of that is me being in the last quarter of the footy game – if life is a footy game,” he laughed.

He was influenced by a conversation with Canadian businessman and philanthropist John MacBain, whose $200-million donation to McGill University in February stands as the single-largest gift to a Canadian university. MacBain has a roadmap, Cowin said, where he wants the last cheque he writes to bounce on that day he dies because he has given the fortune away.

“We all get immersed in our day-to-day activities. But my time as Chancellor has given me a window into things I had not thought about until I had this exposure to other people and their experiences with what they have done,” he said. “I did not have a full comprehension of the whole giving thing – how important it is, how beneficial it is.”

While referred to as the “ceremonial head of the university,” the Chancellor position has evolved through recent tenures. John Thompson. Rotman. Cowin. Soon Linda Hasenfratz. These men and women are part of a new wave of modern chancellors who see their responsibility beyond the ceremonial (and having the stamina to sit through roughly a thousand hours of Convocations).

Few can question Cowin’s unwavering support of Western, even across oceans, from his service as Chancellor, to his dedication as the Chair of the International Advisory Board.

He has served as both a donor and mentor through the Jack Cowin Award. Students in receipt of this award demonstrate athletic and academic excellence. The award allows the student to conduct a three-month internship with Competitive Foods in Australia. He and his wife Sharon, BA’64, also created the Jack Cowin/Lone Star Coaching Excellence Fund designed to support Western’s efforts to retain and recruit top-level head or assistant coaches for its varsity teams.

In October 2018, Cowin helped honour President Amit Chakma by donating $5 million to support Western Engineering and name its newest building the Amit Chakma Engineering Building.

It is a new phase of life he is embracing as his Chancellor chapter closes.

“Sometimes you are so busy slaying dragons in life, you don’t get a chance to reflect. This job has given me the opportunity to do just that.”

He continued, “To think I would one day go to Western, become a football player, graduate, then somehow 50 years later be chosen as Chancellor of that same university. That is the biggest honour I have received in my life.

“It all flows back to the three out of 76. It is amazing how important the university experience has been in my life.”