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Do you want to live forever? Buy a chair (02/06)

Sir Edward Robert Peacock was the son of a minister in Glengarry County, Ontario. He made a lot of money in business and figured out how to live forever. His story might interest Northern Ontario Business’ most successful and civic-minded readers.

Sir Edward Robert Peacock was the son of a minister in Glengarry County, Ontario. He made a lot of money in business and figured out how to live forever. His story might interest Northern Ontario Business’ most successful and civic-minded readers.

Dave Robinson-editorial columnist-Northern Ontario Business

Peacock graduated from Queen’s University in 1894. After a short career as a teacher, he became a manager for Dominion Securities, then a vice-president of Brazilian Light and Traction (the forerunner of BRASCAN), then president of the Mexican Light and Power Company, a director of the Bank of England, a partner in Barings, European director of the CPR and the Hudson’s Bay Company, and a director of the Rhodes Trust. Peacock even served as Receiver General to the Duchy of Cornwall, which means that he oversaw the finances of the royal family. George V made him a knight of the realm in 1934.

Peacock got very rich, of course, and eventually retired in England where he died in 1962 at the age of 91. That might have been the end of the story, but Sir Edward wanted his name to live on, and he wanted Queen’s to become a great university, so he bought three “chairs” for Queen’s.

“Chair” is an academic code word. Peacock didn’t buy fancy-padded chairs for the library, or even a throne for the chancellor. He funded the Sir Edward Peacock Professorship in Political Science, the Sir Edward Peacock Professorship in Economics and the Sir Edward Peacock Professorship in Econometrics. For as long as Queen’s University exists there will be three Sir Edward Peacock professors making speeches, doing research and teaching the next leaders of Canada. And every speech, paper, book and course by these professors will say that the author or teacher was the Sir Edward Peacock Professor at Queen’s.

If you can endow a chair you have obviously been unusually successful, but having your name on a chair says something more. It says you are a builder and a visionary. For hundreds of years “men of substance” have left a permanent mark by building their universities one chair at a time. The fields reflected the interests of the donors, the needs of the university, and even current fads. Oxford University has chairs in birds, poetry, marketing, philosophy, theatre, and Internet studies. There is a visiting chair in Opera Studies, a Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Professorship of Management, a Reuters Professorship of Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law, and an Action Research Professor of Clinical Neurology.

So far, Laurentian’s only endowed chair is in cancer research. Lakehead has one in Finnish studies and committee collecting funds for another in Italian Studies. It seems that the business class of Northern Ontario doesn’t hasn’t discovered chairs yet, although there have been some substantial donations for buildings.

In 2000, the Government of Canada invented a new kind of musical chairs to get around a constitutional problem. Education is a provincial responsibility, but provincial governments had been doing a poor job of supporting university research. The feds introduced a program to fund 2,000 research professorships by 2008. The Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program invests $300 million a year. Lakehead and Laurentian have each won seven of these new chairs. The University of Northern British Columbia, which opened in 1992, has eight. The University of Waterloo has 42 and Queen’s University has 48.

One of the key goals is to keep our best thinkers in Canada. We could use something similar to keep our best thinkers in Northern Ontario. Chairholders do research, but they also contribute develop the regions capacity by teaching and supervising students and by co-ordinating the work of other researchers.

Wonderful as they are, Canada Research Chairs are not as good as the traditional privately endowed chairs. Funds are committed for seven years or less. If a new government loses interest, Northern universities could find themselves out in the cold. In the long run, the only secure base for Northern culture and economic development is the support of Northerners.

So what is the sticker price to get your name on a chair? How much does it cost to guarantee that a field you think is important gets attention? The care and feeding of academics able to produce deep thoughts on demand costs about $150,000 a year and the price is rising as the competition for talent increases. With a five-per-cent return on capital, you need a capital fund of just three million dollars to ensure your immortality.

There will be privately endowed chairs in Northern Ontario sooner or later. It will be interesting to see who makes the first move.

Dave Robinson is a professor of economics at Laurentian University. He can be reached