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Chancellor David Peterson: U of T's extraordinary ambassador

Peterson (right) with Professor Franco Vaccarino (photo by Ben Nelms)

As the 32nd chancellor of the University of Toronto, former Ontario premier David Peterson has travelled more than 143,000 kilometres, presided over 181 convocation ceremonies, shaken the hands of at least 80,000 students and helped launch the biggest fundraising campaign in U of T history.

“The Honourable David Peterson has given truly exemplary service to the University of Toronto as Chancellor for six years,” says U of T President David Naylor. “He has been a tireless volunteer, extraordinary ambassador, master of countless ceremonies and champion-in-chief for the University of Toronto and its 500,000 wonderful alumni around the world. Put simply, when it comes to connecting with people and lifting their spirits, David Peterson is an absolute magician.”  

It’s hard to imagine many former Ontario premiers donning a wig the colour of candy floss in a bid to inspire support for the CIBC Run for the Cure campaign for breast cancer research. But Peterson’s unstoppable enthusiasm and good humour in service of a good cause gets results. He had the honour of accepting the Ontario University Challenge Award twice on behalf of the university, as U of T led all Run for the Cure groups in donations with $110,000 and $80,000 in 2010 and 2011.

“There is such a generosity of spirit, a generosity of service with the chancellor,” says Barbara Dick, assistant vice-president, Alumni Relations. “He has been selfless with his time but also so generous with his praise – he never talks about himself. Instead he talks about the talents of others: the talents of the university leadership, the faculty, the students, the talents of alumni.”

Rebecca Noone agrees. She graduated with her master’s in museum studies in 2011 and has curated the Chancellor’s Art Exhibit for the past three years.

The April tradition which Peterson founded six years ago shows a support for student artists which is both thoughtful and inspiring, she says. The result is an exhibit known for its contemporary, sometimes edgy feel – which gives the chancellor grist for his renowned wit.

“He likes to tell me ‘you’re filling my office with all this weird art’,” Noone says. “But the art stays up all year and he gets so many compliments. During convocation, when his office functions as a kind of green room for the dignitaries in the procession, people comment on the art and the chancellor will say ‘So, you’re saying my art collection is better than yours’.”

The ceremonial head of the university, the chancellor is elected by the alumni’s College of Electors for three-year terms and presides at convocations, confers University degrees and acts as an ambassador to 500,000 U of T alumni across the globe.

 “He says part of his job is to gather the flock of alumni around the world, but I think he’s been a cross between a shepherd and a pied piper - not only does he gather but he attracts,” says Dick.

“He has rekindled a sense of excitement about the university today with people who hadn’t had an active connection with the university for a long time – particularly in far-flung corners of the world.”

A graduate of the Faculty of Law in 1967, Peterson received an honorary degree from the university in 1994 to recognize his contributions to public policy and innovation – contributions he has continued to make while serving as chancellor.

“The Chancellor has been a great supporter of the School right from the very beginning,” says Professor Mark Stabile, director of the School of Public Policy and Governance (SPPG). “His aspirations for Toronto to compete with the great policy schools around the world have helped us define ourselves and set appropriately lofty goals. His advice and work as a member of advisory board has provided strategic direction for the School and inspired our students.

“Finally, his legacy at the School, through the Peterson Program in Public Sector Leadership, will take SPPG to a new level of public engagement not only for government but with the broader community, making the School the 'go-to' place for debate on the policy issues of the day.”

Peterson is also known for his love and support of sport at the university, and his role in securing the Pan Am Games for Toronto demonstrated the breadth and depth of his internationalism and leadership, says Professor Franco Vaccarino, vice-president and principal of U of T Scarborough.

“We’re building a big facility here on the UTSC campus and we’ll be hosting the aquatics competition,” Vaccarino says. “I remember the day he arrived with this big international Pan Am group – you could just see the leadership role he played. That accomplishment, the effort that went into bringing those games to Toronto - that was huge.”

But it is Peterson’s unique blend of statesmanship and wit that provides some of his most memorable moments.

“When the Dalai Lama came to visit, I hosted an academic event,” says Vaccarino. “We had professors and researchers presenting their research on mindfulness and then His Holiness the Dalai Lama got up and delivered a kind of commentary on mindfulness and the research that was being done.”

At the end of the session, Peterson exchanged gifts with the Dalai Lama, presenting him with a U of T scarf and receiving “a very beautiful white scarf” in return, Vaccarino recalls.

“Chancellor Peterson thanks him for the scarf in his inimitable warm and gracious way and then, without skipping a beat he pretends to look at a tag and says ‘Ah, made in China!’,” Vaccarino says. “The Dalai Lama had this huge smile on his face and it was just the sort of moment that only the chancellor could create – defusing any political tension with that joke. The Dalai Lama was just basking in the glow of his warmth and authenticity.

“Chancellor Peterson is just such a genuine, warm, good person.”

And nowhere does that warmth show more strongly than convocation, where Peterson’s keen sense of curiosity and interest in people can combine with his wit to provide memorable moments.

“I came back from leave early this year just to see the great man in action one last time,” says Trinity College provost and vice-chancellor, Professor Andy Orchard.

Orchard dubs Peterson: “the man who put the chance in chancellor in the sense that one never quite knew what he would say, but were always sure that he would put a smile on someone’s face.

“He certainly supplied me with many memorable graduation moments, some perhaps unprintable, others possibly actionable. I am still recovering from the time when I was sitting next to him and he asked a graduating student what she was going to do next, and when she said she wanted to become a beautician, he just pointed to me and said “Is there anything you can do for this guy?”

“There wasn’t, of course: we both had nothing to say.”

Vaccarino has also shared the stage with the chancellor at Convocation Hall.

“For those eight to ten seconds, when students come up and shake the chancellor’s hand, I would have thought it would be impossible to have a meaningful short conversation but Chancellor Peterson does it - the kids leave the stage beaming,” says Vaccarino.  “He’s very funny in those moments and would frequently tell the UTSC students ‘listen we’ve got the principal right here next to me, so tell me what’s wrong with the campus and we’ll get this thing fixed right away!’.”

It is that ability to connect – with students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters - that has made Peterson such a memorable chancellor, says Dick.

“He makes people realize they should be proud because our university is engaged in the kind of work that will help to make the world a better place,” says Dick. “And he makes everyone realize they are part of something bigger than themselves.

“I think that is part of the magic and power of his leadership and was the hallmark of the ambassadorial role he played.”

You can watch the full-length video of the flash mob tribute to the Chancellor and his reaction here and see a photo tribute here.

Read more here about Boundless - the campaign Peterson helped launch - which has reached more than half of its $2-billion goal and seeks to expand U of T’s global leadership capacity across critical areas of knowledge.