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Mega-donor Seymour Schulich sets the bar higher for education

Now 77, Seymour Schulich is currently chairman and chief executive of Nevada Capital Corp., a Toronto-based holding company. ‘I think he has given more money to higher education than anybody else in the history of Canada,’ says former University of Toronto president Rob Prichard, a long-time friend.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Some philanthropists donate to one organization or cause, but billionaire Seymour Schulich took a different approach.

Over the past two decades, he has donated to multiple Canadian universities (often setting gift records at the time) with professional faculties, research centres and halls – buildings not so much – named for him, his family or friends.

Five years ago, in a dramatic new commitment, he pledged $100-million in scholarships for top students in science, technology, engineering and math. Every year at top universities, Schulich Leader Scholarships go to 50 promising undergraduates – potential "game-changers," according to Mr. Schulich – with $100,000 each for engineering students and $80,000 for those in science, math and technology.

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The cumulative impact – Mr. Schulich pegs his total giving at $350-million (mostly to higher education but also health care) over two decades – has been transformational, say those familiar with his philanthropy.

"From a scale perspective, he has been extraordinarily generous across a number of different sectors and [by] geography," says Susan Storey, senior vice-president of Ketchum Canada Inc., a major fundraising consulting firm. Citing both Mr. Schulich's record and a broader trend of increasingly sophisticated donors, she adds, "I believe we will continue to see a rise in donors who are looking to affect issues that matter across a number of different variables."

Former University of Toronto president Rob Prichard, an occasional informal advisor to Mr. Schulich, describes his long-time friend as "an exemplary benefactor."

"I think he has given more money to higher education than anybody else in the history of Canada."

Dr. Prichard credits Mr. Schulich with "this quite amazing idea that he could name faculties and, in effect, build a virtual Schulich university."

If the various Schulich faculties at six different universities across the country were relocated to one campus, they would represent a mid-size Canadian institution of 16,500 students.

Known for his plain-spoken language and wry humour, Mr. Schulich is blunt about his twin motives for giving.

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"I wanted to be counted among the great Canadian philanthropists," says Mr. Schulich, whose donations began in 1995 with a gift of $15-million (then a record for the higher education sector) to the York University business school that now bears his name. But that gift (now part of close to $40-million donated to York by Mr. Schulich) came only after his overtures to name a business faculty at three other universities fell through.

As important as cementing his own legacy, Mr. Schulich says his philanthropy is driven by a desire to prod other wealthy Canadians to share their riches. "I know I have had an influence on a lot of guys," he says, confident of tracing about $550-million given by others because they used his lawyer to draft donation contracts.

Notably, he rarely gives to buildings (York's business school is an exception), with his name instead attached to diverse faculties – business, medicine and dentistry, engineering, music, chemistry, law and education – at six different universities in Canada.

"It doesn't seem like there is method to my madness but there is," he says, of the diversity of recipients. "I started out trying to pay back the schools and areas that had done me the most good."

One in particular is McGill University, where, as the first in his family to attend university, he earned two degrees and received a $1,600 scholarship (part of which he profitably reinvested and financed a trip to Europe).

In 2005, with a life-long fondness for McGill, he responded to an appeal from then-president Heather Munroe-Blum to invest in the university's music faculty. He gave $20-million for the music faculty that now bears his name, with the funds used for scholarships, a contribution toward a new music building and a concert hall named for Mr. Schulich's wife Tanna, an amateur violinist.

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Of that hall, which hosts numerous concerts annually, he gripes, jokingly, "it gets more publicity than my music school gets."

Other targets of his giving can be traced to his business career, which began at Shell Oil Co., before he moved to Eastern Securities Ltd., and later joined a large pension-fund management company for 22 years. In 1985, with then-business partner Pierre Lassonde, he co-founded two gold royalty companies where the two pioneered the concept of royalty payments in the mining sector. Now 77, Mr. Schulich is currently chairman and chief executive of Nevada Capital Corp., a Toronto-based holding company.

"I made a lot of money in the oil business," says Mr. Schulich, of his 2005 decision to donate $50-million to the University of Calgary's School of Engineering, renamed in his honour.

"At that particular time, no one else wanted to do it, so I did it," he says.

Sometimes the rationale is personal, such as $1.5-million in 2010 for a new library named for former Ontario premier Mike Harris at Nipissing University. "It happened because I wanted to reward Mike Harris," says Mr. Schulich, an admirer. That year, he also gave $15-million to the education faculty of the North Bay, Ont., university, declaring at the time of the announcement that "small universities are worthy of support. Northern universities are worthy of support, and teachers are worthy of support."

Dalhousie University became a significant recipient, says Mr. Schulich, because early in his career he worked for Halifax-based Eastern Securities Ltd., and because of the Maritime roots of his wife, Tanna Goldberg Schulich. With a $2-million gift from the Schulichs, largely for scholarships, Dalhousie named the Goldberg Computer Science building in 2008.

The following year, Mr. Schulich gave $20-million to the university's law faculty, renamed for him. But, significantly, the building that houses the faculty remains the Weldon Law building, which opened in 1966 and was named for its founding dean, Richard Chapman Weldon.

"The faculties go on a lot longer than the buildings," says Mr. Schulich.

When asked to recount his philanthropic contributions to higher education, Mr. Schulich is most animated about the Schulich Leader Scholarships. "Of all the things I have done I wish I had thought of this in the beginning," he says, given the direct benefit for high-achieving students.

As a scholarship recipient at McGill, he recalls the anguish of losing the aid when he missed maintaining the minimum marks by less than one percentage point. With the Schulich scholarship program, winners do not lose funding unless they fail or drop out of school.

Asked to assess the impact of his philanthropy in higher education, Mr. Schulich sounds surprisingly ambivalent. "I don't really know," he says. "The truth is I have planted a lot of seeds and I hope some of them bloom."

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