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St. Francis Xavier University’s distinctive mark for graduates, the X-Ring.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The mystique of St. Francis Xavier University is captured by its distinctive X-ring, a stark black X on a gold band, worn by grads around the world. Awarded in an exclusive, private ceremony, it has the power to open doors to jobs and relationships, and has helped to build the school's unique brand.

The ring's design has not changed since the 1940s and its magic was evident in Calgary just a few months ago when Brian Mulroney, the former prime minister and graduate of the class of '59, spoke at a fundraising dinner. The place was packed. Mr. Mulroney marvelled that 600 people in the Western city came out to support his alma mater – the tiny university with a student population of only 5,000 tucked away in a remote corner of Nova Scotia.

As universities across the country struggle with less provincial funding, St. FX is promoting itself as the Canadian version of an American Ivy League school, with the help of a devoted alumni that includes high-profile grads like Mr. Mulroney and Frank McKenna, and a legion of "believers" – generous donors who have never attended the school.

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"There is a very egalitarian spirit there," says Mr. McKenna, the former New Brunswick premier and former ambassador to Washington. "It's a very strong crucible for social innovation and leadership, and so it punches above its weight."

But it hasn't been easy of late for the Antigonish, N.S., school founded in 1853. Earlier this month, its iconic, long-time president Sean Riley, 60, announced he was stepping down after a 17-year tenure during which he raised nearly $250-million and transformed a crumbling campus into a state-of-the-art facility. Dr. Riley was a Rhodes Scholar, banker and head of a manufacturing company before returning from Toronto and Montreal to Antigonish. Mr. Mulroney describes him as a "transformational president." Dr. Riley suffered a debilitating stroke last June, from which he has mostly recovered, though he still struggles to find his words.

"Sean Riley," Mr. Mulroney says, "… became one of the leading educators in Canada, but because of his business background he was also a driving force in the economic expansion of St. FX."

The university previously faced a $4.5-million deficit, but is poised to balance its $110-million budget next year. Deep provincial funding cuts and a bitter three-week strike earlier this year by the university's 400-member faculty had taken their toll. At the same time, Mr. McKenna finished his term as chair of the board. He looks back on the year as a "perfect storm of events that conspired [against the school] – essentially we had these draconian funding cuts from the province and we had four collective agreements all coming together."

"I think if our brand wasn't so strong," he says, "it would have [had] more impact."

Mark Wallace, CEO of Medgate Inc., a Toronto software company, is replacing Mr. McKenna, knowing he has serious shoes to fill. Mr. Wallace credits Dr. Riley, Mr. McKenna and Mr. Mulroney with developing "that national brand" for the school.

"I think there is a small dent [in the university's brand] that can be repaired by all stakeholder groups getting behind the common cause," says Mr. Wallace, class of '79. "We can't have another setback like that. … We will turn a new page because we have no choice."

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Rob Bennett, a senior executive with Emera, the power company based in Halifax, and an X grad, says this is a call to arms. "It's a time of challenge and change for St. FX and the alumni will rally behind it."

While X grads are extremely loyal, the Antigonish school has also attracted "believers" – donors who have never attended the school, such as Onex's Gerry Schwartz, but who give to the little university because they believe it's an investment in Canada's future. About half of the donors who give more than $1-million are so-called believers.

Mr. Mulroney, who raised $12-million for the school in 1979, attended at a time when most of the students were "poor boys" and "very grateful for the opportunity to get a university degree and translate it as best they could into success. And so because of that there's a great deal of appreciation for the university who accepted them and made our lives different," he says.

The university has evolved considerably since those times. Founded originally as a Catholic university, it is now striving to promote its image and atmosphere as not unlike the U.S. Ivy League schools – not in the terms of elitist exclusivity, but with the intimate feel of the campus, community spirit and academic excellence.

Last May, St. FX allied with three other universities – Acadia in Wolfville, N.S., Mount Allison in Sackville, N.B., and Bishop's in eastern Quebec – to form a strategic partnership to promote their small, residential, mostly undergraduate universities as smarter than the bigger institutions across Canada. Eventually, the U4 League, as they are calling their group, will collaborate in courses and programs and increase partnerships in promoting higher-quality teaching and administration.

"We feel that this type of university is going to be more important in the future, because universities are getting bigger and bigger and bigger," Dr. Riley says.

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Mr. McKenna met his wife at St. FX, and his three children attended and met their spouses there as well. "We think that these four [universities] have unique characteristics and the effort is to emulate, in a much more modest way, the Ivy League in the United States, to create a prestige around the brand that would be very restricted by scarcity of supply," he says.

Kathleen Metcalfe, 25 and the holder of an X-ring, is now in Chicago pursuing a post-graduate degree in psychology. Poised to become part of the next generation of X leaders, she credits X culture with instilling in her the confidence to go outside Canada to study. "We're all over the country," she says about the friends she made at X. "There are really meaningful bonds between us."

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