Reflections on Legacy – Father Donald Campbell

English essayist and literary critic Samuel Johnson once said “If your determination is fixed, I do not counsel you to despair. Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”  These words certainly apply to Father Donald F Campbell, the Founding President of the University College of Cape Breton – later to become Cape Breton University – who passed away on Monday 29th April at the age of 88.  So this week, as we prepare for our Spring Convocation, it is fitting that Cape Breton University (motto: Theid Díchioll Air Thoiseach or Perseverance Will Triumph) remembers what an immense debt of gratitude we all owe to our Founder.

Father Donnie’s passing came just one week after my own installation as CBU’s sixth President, and the symbolism of that temporal coincidence has certainly not been lost on me, as I contemplate living up to the legacy of a such a visionary and wholly decent man.

Some years ago, I was responsible for an executive education program at York University, the Sustainable Enterprise Academy.  Over a period of five years several hundred corporate executives from Canada and around the world attended the Academy, learning how to reconcile principles of sustainability and social harmony with their more conventional personal and corporate mandates of driving up profitability and shareholder value.   This remains one of the most challenging paradoxes of our times, for if business people do not discover ways to improve environmental quality and social justice while also making money for their investors, the world will be in serious trouble.

One of the stories that the Director of the Academy, Brian Kelly would share with the business leaders in our events was that of the premature publication of the obituary of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and a spectacularly successful entrepreneur in his own right.

Under the headline, Le marchand de la mort est mort (the merchant of death is dead) a French newspaper published Nobel’s obituary a full eight years before his actual demise, having mistakenly reacted to the death of Ludvig Nobel, Alfred’s brother.  The French paper noted that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before”.    According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, many commentators have speculated that this event spurred the liberal and pacifist-leaning Alfred Nobel to endow what would ultimately become the most set of prestigious prizes for human achievement in the world today.

In the context of creating sustainable business institutions, the point that my colleague was trying to convey, was that we all have choices in our lives, but that we must not confuse the concepts of destiny: who and what we become in our lifetimes, with legacy: what we bequeath to future generations based on the life we have led.  Of course this was an open invitation to the participating business executives to lead their organizations in harmony with the needs of society and the planet and thereby build a more powerful personal legacy, both for themselves and for future generations.

At Father Donnie’s funeral Father Greg MacLeod offered the parable of the talents as an appropriate story to illustrate Donald Campbell’s philosophy on University education.  The parable tells the story of two servants who made the most of money given to them by their master versus one who did not.   Similar to the challenge of how to achieve sustainability in business described above, the parable of the talents does not advocate a simplistic message exhorting the maximisation of financial return on investment.   Father MacLeod interprets the parable as an invitation to make the most of our natural human abilities, noting that Donald Campbell was deeply dedicated to ensuring that every young man and woman from Cape Breton would have the opportunity to make the most of their talents through a University education.    And that in turn, the development of those talents would be in service of society – not simply individual financial benefit.  Happily, this gift of a University education in Cape Breton is now extended to students from around the world.

And so as we prepare to graduate hundreds of students in the Class of 2013 next weekend, let us pause again to reflect on Father Donald Campbell’s legacy: for sure, a wonderful University established through a great deal of personal and collective perseverance by Father Donald and many others.  But perhaps more important still – our Founder exemplified a set of values and advocated a style of education predicated on service to society, the local economy and to the cause of world harmony which will resonate for as long as Cape Breton University exists.