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The University of Calgary is planning a major expansion, including a new student plaza and residence by 2021.University of Calgary

It was half a century ago that Don Taylor was thrust in front of a class. Still a student himself, he had caught on as a sessional instructor – but didn't know the first thing about teaching.

"I was a 22-year-old kid teaching statically indeterminate structures. I don't even know what a statically indeterminate structure is today, but at that time I did," recalled Mr. Taylor, now 77. "Here I am, having never taught a class in my life. It's absolutely absurd to put a person in front of a class and expect him to teach a subject as complicated as that with no teaching skills. And yet I was there doing that."

The issue of preparing researchers and high-level academics to actually teach material in university classes is no less pressing today, and it led Mr. Taylor and his family to make the largest donation in the history of the University of Calgary. Announced Friday, the $40-million donation creates the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, billed as a first-of-its-kind centre with a focus on boosting the teaching capacity at universities.

"This looks like it's a great opportunity to give a hand up to the education process," Mr. Taylor said. "I think that once this program is developed at the University of Calgary, it will spread like wildfire throughout all universities."

University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon praised Mr. Taylor's generosity. This is now the fifth donation the family has made to her institution, with the gifts totalling $73.5-million.

"It is a transformational gift that will differentiate the University of Calgary in teaching and learning, so this is a banner day for the university," Dr. Cannon told The Globe and Mail.

The donation includes $30-million in capital funding, and another $10-million for information technology funding. The institute is expected to open in early 2016, around the university's 50th anniversary.

The donation comes as universities across Alberta cope with deep cuts delivered in Premier Alison Redford's budget last month. At the U of C, that amounted to a 6.8-per-cent drop in funding, rather than a previously promised 2-per-cent increase. The deep, sudden cuts have spurred protests from university administrators, who say both research and student programs will be heavily affected.

However, the Taylor family's donation – the announcement for which Ms. Redford attended Friday – had been finalized before the budget, and Dr. Cannon said the University of Calgary isn't looking to private donors to make up the government cuts.

"We don't see this as replacing, at all, government investment. It's key. This is value-added investment in the University of Calgary to do extraordinary things," she said.

In 2010, the family gave $20-million to another Calgary postsecondary institution, Mount Royal University. At the time, it was the largest gift in Mount Royal's history as well. But Mr. Taylor stressed that education is just one of four areas his family's foundation looks to support. The others are the preservation of teaching and history, advancement of the arts, and health.

"It just happens that the last couple of large donations have been to [postsecondary] institutions. They maybe hold their hand out a little farther than the other guys do, I don't know," he said.

Mr. Taylor entered the private sector after graduating from the University of Alberta. His family made its money in several sectors, including the manufacturing of heating and air conditioning equipment, real estate and oil and gas. He leads his family foundation with his wife, Ruth. He said his decision wasn't affected by university budget cuts, but urged fellow philanthropists to make similar gifts – and put a name on it.

"There's a number of philanthropists, they try to hide behind a veil of anonymity. I don't particularly think that a worthwhile thing to do," he said in an interview. "I think philanthropists should be putting their name out and showing the rest of the country they're prepared to step up to the plate. Hopefully, that will encourage others to follow."


$123-million to the University of Waterloo

In 2004, Mike Lazaridis, co-founder of Research In Motion, donated $33-million to help create a centre for quantum information research and teaching. Over the years, Mr. Lazaradis and his wife have donated $123-million to the school.

$105-million to McMaster University

In 2003, Michael DeGroote, former CEO of Laidlaw Transport Ltd., donated $105-million to McMaster's medical school. The school was renamed in his honour.

$64-million to McGill University

In 2000, Richard H. Tomlinson, founding director of Gennum Corp., gave $64-million gift to his alma mater. Mr. Tomlinson received his PhD in chemistry from McGill in 1948.