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Pierre Lassonde, co-founder of Franco-Nevada Mining Corp., who is giving a major gift to York toward expanding their Engineering School photographed at York University. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Pierre Lassonde, co-founder of Franco-Nevada Mining Corp., who is giving a major gift to York toward expanding their Engineering School photographed at York University. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

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Mining entrepreneur's university donation digging for 'renaissance engineers' Add to ...

This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

When mining entrepreneur Pierre Lassonde announces a $25-million gift to York University on Tuesday, he’s hoping it will do more than build a new engineering school – he wants to help groom a generation of “renaissance engineers.”

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It’s a term he credits to his late wife, who saw the engineer of the future not just as a problem solver or functionary builder, but a sort of modern Michelangelo – expert and agile in more than one discipline, but also eager to consider and communicate how engineering relates to matters of sustainability, health, safety and civil society.

“You are an engineer, but at the same time you are an artist and you have to be able to tell the world how what you’re doing is going to benefit the world,” Mr. Lassonde said, leaning across a boardroom table at the Toronto offices of the mining and energy royalty company Franco Nevada, where he is chairman.

Mr. Lassonde, 64, never studied at York but was swayed by Seymour Schulich, his long-time business partner and Franco Nevada co-founder, whose generosity has helped push York’s business school to prominence, and who recently promised a $100-million scholarship endowment for 20 universities in Canada and Israel.

“We made our money together, and here we’re going to go down in history together, I think, by creating something very special in engineering, entrepreneurship and business,” Mr. Lassonde said.

York has wanted a full-scale engineering school since 1963, yet still has only about 300 students in specialized programs such as geomatics engineering. Now it is spending $100-million, including Mr. Lassonde’s money and $50-million from the province, on a new faculty and building expected to hold 2,000 students by 2020.

Mr. Lassonde is hoping that York engineering will grow to be a leader in interdisciplinary learning and industry partnerships.

“I wouldn’t accept being second to anybody, and this is our aspiration,” said York president Mamdouh Shoukri, a former engineering dean.

Mr. Lassonde said he would hate to see graduates trained the way he was 40 years ago at École Polytechnique in Montreal, with a narrow focus on sciences and little or no exposure to business and economics, social and environmental concerns, or soft skills.

“You didn’t have to worry about environmentalists, you didn’t have to worry about what you did with your garbage – you just threw it out – and you didn’t have to worry about using water and whatnot. Forty years later, life is very different,” he said. “A great part of engineering today is to sensitize students that whatever they do will have an effect on people.”

He knows it is not a new idea that grads should be flexible, entrepreneurial and socially conscious. Engineers are already required to complete an eighth of their studies in humanities and social sciences, and cross-disciplinary programs have proliferated. In the past decade, the University of Waterloo has added engineering streams such as mechatronics, nanotechnology and management, all of which are based partly in other departments. Its systems-design degree even has a faculty member jointly appointed from the philosophy department.

But while many schools have made similar efforts, most now realize what matters is how seamlessly a variety of ideas and issues can be woven into curricula alongside the bedrock elements, said Tyseer Aboulnasr, dean of applied science at the University of British Columbia.

“You could say interdisciplinarity means that I just take a course in another subject, and I check this box, and we all move on,” she said. “With time, you actually start making it real.”

Mr. Lassonde has a history of making multimillion-dollar gifts, including to the University of Toronto, but this is easily his largest. Some funds will go to scholarships and some to creating a hub to cultivate student entrepreneurs – similar to one he founded at the University of Utah, which has since launched 42 companies.

Even as he signs over his latest outsize cheque, Mr. Lassonde plans to continue his donations to education, driven for the past 15 years by the same mantra: “Canada’s natural resource is not our oil, it’s not our minerals, it’s not our forests: It’s our young people,” he said.

“If you try to compete against China on wages, you’re gonna be a poor country. You’ve got to compete on brains.”

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