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McMaster University Campus in Hamilton on July 24, 2018.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Sixty years after graduating from McMaster University with an arts degree that paved the way for a career in the top levels of government, banking and telecom, Lynton “Red” Wilson is donating $50-million to launch a leadership college at the school.

McMaster said it is the largest gift ever given to a liberal arts program at a Canadian university.

Mr. Wilson, former chief executive officer of BCE Inc. and vice-chair at Bank of Nova Scotia, announced on Friday his family foundation will back construction of a new building at the 30,000-student school in Hamilton, to be known as the Wilson College of Leadership and Civic Engagement. The college will offer students a curriculum drawn from social sciences and humanities, along with shared living space and public- and private-sector internships.

“To borrow a line from Walter Gretzky, we want to teach students to think about where the puck is going,” said Mr. Wilson, who served in the federal foreign service and as a deputy minister in the Ontario government before his corporate career. The 82-year-old said: “We have many dedicated, hopeful leaders, but they are up against threats that tear at the fabric of civilization, allowing cynicism, inertia and negativity to gather momentum.”

McMaster said in a news release that it will begin offering Canada’s first undergraduate degree in leadership and civic studies in September, 2024. The university has selected a site for the new college and plans to engage architects later this year.

“For Red, the college is part of a journey of giving to McMaster,” university president David Farrar said in an interview. Mr. Wilson earned an economics degree in 1962, joined the school’s board of governors in 1983 and was chancellor from 2007 to 2013. “This gift supports McMaster’s vision of developing students into leaders who are ready to tackle Canada’s most complex issues,” Mr. Farrar said.

Undergraduate students from all faculties will be able to take courses at the new college. The donation will also allow the university to hire a professor as the Wilson chair in leadership and civic studies.

Mr. Wilson said his inspiration for the new college goes back to his experience in the 1970s, when he went to futurist conferences as chief economist at John Labatt Ltd. “I learned that in business, a key challenge is to look 10 to 15 years ahead, and prepare for that future,” he said.

The former McMaster football player said that while no one political or business event sparked his donation, “I see the ball being fumbled now on leadership, and I’m worried we’re not at the top of our game.”

Mr. Wilson said his fondest memories from his undergraduate years at McMaster – when the school had 1,250 students – include fiery debates with professors and classmates on where the world was going. As a public servant and banking and telecom executive, he led companies through disruptive technological shifts.

In what he calls his “third career” in philanthropy, Mr. Wilson wants to help students develop future-focused management skills. “The pace of change is accelerating today, compared to what I faced in my career, and we want to give the next generation the tools they need to cope with the challenges they will face,” he said.

McMaster is launching a leadership and civic studies program at the same time billionaire fund manager Stephen Jarislowsky is donating $10-million to hire professors as “trust and political leadership chairs” at five liberal arts-focused universities across the country. The money went to Acadia University, the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières, Trent University, the University of Lethbridge and Vancouver Island University.

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