A Gillies Who Was a Laird: Reflecting on My Relationship with Jim Gillies

When you attend the celebration of someone’s life, you reflect on the person described in the reminiscences of the speakers and you call up your own reminiscences of your relationship. So it was with James Gillies, founding dean of the Schulich School of Business, a colleague of mine from 1979 to 1990, and a friend thereafter. Walking into the Schulich School foyer, an electronic notice board was messaging about Jim; I noticed a quote from a former colleague looking forward to remembering Jim and connecting with other former colleagues, and with a start I saw my own name. So the event started on a very personal note.

I met Jim in early 1980 when he returned to York after the defeat of Joe Clark’s government, which he had served as economic policy adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office. I had helped Clark win the party leadership three years before. We could have connected on a political basis, but I sensed that Jim felt bruised by the way the Clark Government fell and his own political career ended and wanted to move on. So our relationship became one of academic colleagues, though I was very much his junior.

As his colleague, I witnessed, and learned from the traits he displayed. He was optimistic and cheerful. He made big plans, whether for research grants to solicit, books to write, or ways to build the faculty and the university. He was often successful in achieving his plans because he was persuasive, with a charismatic eloquence. He was a superb raconteur, bon vivant, and the life of any party. But he was also an intellectual who was excited by ideas and read widely.

I regarded him as something of a Conservative Party grandee out of the pages of a C.P. Snow novel (The Masters, Corridors of Power). He had an abundance of contacts and friends in the business and political communities who graced his opulent annual Christmas party. Jim also had a cottage on an island in Georgian Bay, always drove a late-model Cadillac, invested wisely (benefiting from the long recovery in bond prices that started in the early Eighties), and was clearly very wealthy, but never flaunted his wealth. One colleague mentioned at the celebration that Jim didn’t know how to make coffee or barbecue a steak, which also fits the grandee image. (One personal recollection: I brought a girlfriend to one of his Christmas parties who so thoroughly charmed Zena Cherry, then the doyenne of the Toronto social scene, that she promised to write-up our wedding in her column.)

In an episode of Upstairs Downstairs, Hudson the Scots butler used a word I have never heard before – a gillie – which by context I realized meant an attendant on a fly-fishing or hunting expedition. I laughed at how much the surname Gillies was a misnomer, as Jim was clearly a laird.

I moved politically to the left after my “Joe Clark experience.” Jim and I disagreed about conflicts between labor and management, such as the 1981 US air traffic controllers’ strike and salary negotiations at the university. But I never found Jim to be disagreeable, and I hope he felt similarly about me.

In the early Eighties I was doing quantitative research in transportation economics, using the Faculty’s VAX mini-computer to solve systems of simultaneous non-linear equations. Jim’s oldest son David was studying computer science at Waterloo, and Jim had the insight to recognize David’s potential as my research assistant.

Hiring David turned out to be a great decision. He set up computer simulations that ran overnight, instructing me to log in to my account from the terminal at home around midnight, type “runh,” and go to sleep. By dawn, the data would be ready for me to interpret. I recall one occasion where I found David playing pinball after lunch. He told me he was rewarding himself for completing an analytic proof of a relationship I had hypothesized. The proof was incorporated into the paper, and was just the sort of analytic result that gives referees and editors confidence in the empirical work (See Sandford Borins, “The economic effects of non-optimal pricing and investment policies for substitutable transport facilities,” Canadian Journal of Economics, Feb. 1984, pp. 80-98). I congratulated David and joined in the game.

When Jim returned to the Faculty of Administrative Studies, as it was then called, he had the potential to become the school’s eminence grise. One initiative he and I and some colleagues in the policy area undertook was to design the curriculum for a robust public administration stream. We were unsuccessful, as other colleagues thought this would lead to a costly duplication of the curriculum. Other management faculties reached similar conclusions, and public management programs became stand-alone entities, while management faculties identified themselves more explicitly as business schools.

In 1984, Jim was on the search committee to select a new dean. President H. Ian Macdonald chose Alan Hockin (whom I memorialized in my post of April 1, 2015). Jim preferred another candidate. His relations with Hockin were initially distant, but eventually they collaborated fruitfully in York’s proposal to the Ontario Government to establish a Centre for International Business.

Dezso Horvath, who was selected as Dean in 1988, in his remarks at the celebration, observed that too often academic leaders ignore or marginalize their predecessors. To his great credit, Dezso recognized the disinterested advice and valuable contacts with the business community that Jim had to offer, and Jim truly became the eminence grise. This began in Jim’s 65th year, and became a major source of personal renewal. He kept going to the office until 2013 when, at age 87, he was incapacitated by a stroke.

After my move to the University of Toronto in 1990, I obviously saw much less of Jim. We last met for lunch five years ago. He was working on a history of the Faculty and was interested in my recollections of Alan Hockin’s deanship (1985-88) from my perspective as Associate Dean. It was a story of dissatisfaction with the status quo but no consensus on how to move forward. Jim was a sympathetic listener.

Jim was a charismatic and decent person who contributed in a major way to making Canada a better place, to quote the motto of the Order of Canada. Most importantly, he founded a management faculty that has become a nationally and internationally significant business school. He was a valued colleague, and our lives intersected in many meaningful and beneficial ways. I’m gratified to have been present to celebrate his life and recall my connections to it.

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