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School of Public Policy & Governance sets sights on world-class status

Former Premier, U of T Chancellor Emeritus and alumnus, David Peterson is one of the driving forces behind SPPG

Pictured, from left to right: Mark Stabile, Director, SPPG; Meric Gertler, President, University of Toronto; Louise Arbour President and CEO of the International Crisis Group; Katie Millan, Master of Public Policy student; David Peterson, former Premier of Ontario and U of T Chancellor Emeritus.

Pictured, from left to right: Mark Stabile, Director, SPPG; Meric Gertler, President, University of Toronto; Louise Arbour President and CEO of the International Crisis Group; Katie Millan, Master of Public Policy student; David Peterson, former Premier of Ontario and U of T Chancellor Emeritus.

Barack Obama is sitting under a tree on the University of Toronto’s Front Campus, a stone’s throw from Convocation Hall. A handful of students are gathered around him. The topic of conversation shifts from sustainable healthcare to income disparity to climate change to global conflict, the tone easing between lecture and discussion and debate. This scene hasn’t played out just yet, but it — and others like it — will very soon, if David Peterson has his way.

Peterson, the former Premier of Ontario as well as U of T Chancellor Emeritus and alumnus, is one of the driving forces behind the university’s School of Public Policy & Governance (SPPG). The school was established in 2006, the same year Peterson became chancellor. It was borne out of a need to educate the most effective and forward-thinking practitioners and leaders in public policy so that the most challenging issues confronting governments at all levels can be addressed head-on. And it has quickly become a national hub for policy discourse, bringing researchers, professors, students, and government, business and international leaders together to engage in policy discussions across many areas of expertise.

But Peterson’s — and the school’s — aspirations are far loftier than educating people for the civil service, or even leading Canada in the field of public policy more generally. “SPPG is not about training bureaucrats,” Peterson states unequivocally. “It’s about using political instruments to make a better world. It’s about bringing in the best thinkers to instruct and guide the next generations of problem solvers. I envision a time when Barack Obama, after he’s left office, will come to the school to teach for three months, or Tony Blair or Nicolas Sarkozy or Stephen Harper. Great minds teaching and mentoring great minds.”

Peterson pauses for a moment before taking things a step further. “In the grand scheme of things, SPPG is a fledgling school, but our ambitions are to give it world-class status on par with the Harvard Kennedy School. Kennedy School North, I guess you could call us.”

The key to realizing this vision, he believes, lies in the ability to “capture and nurture the idealism and creativity” of the best and brightest students from across Canada and around the world, and “quite frankly, that takes funding.”

Many people talk the talk. Peterson, for one, also walks the walk. Not only is he a member of the SPPG External Advisory Board, he is also one of its most generous supporters. His donations to SPPG’s $25-million fundraising campaign, which is part of the university’s historic $2-billion Boundless campaign, have helped establish the David Peterson Program in Public Sector Leadership.

He also established the David Peterson Leadership Lecture, which was delivered for the first time on January 9 by Louise Arbour, who is the president and CEO of the non-profit NGO International Crisis Group. Arbour is also a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. She spoke on the subject of the international peace agenda, security doctrines and international criminal justice, which was received with a standing ovation by a packed house of students and faculty.

“It was a very uplifting lecture, stunningly good, which made for a terrific inaugural event,” Peterson says, proudly.

“But it’s only the next step in realizing the vision that [SPPG Director] Mark Stabile has for the school.”

“Our goal is simple — to be among the best policy schools in the world, to make a meaningful and lasting impact on policy discourse on both a national and an international level, and to train the next generation of innovative policy leaders,” says Stabile. “And David Peterson is helping the school realize this vision through the example he has set as one of this country’s leading public figures, through his extraordinary generosity, and through his personal interactions with the school’s faculty and students.”

“My whole life has been about public service — it’s the second-highest calling after teaching,” Peterson says. “It’s about committing your life, your energy and your resources to solving the problems that we all face, not just your own problems. We need original thought, original ideas and innovations, and we are looking to the work being done by the faculty and students at SPPG to solve these problems. ”

Students in the Master of Public Policy Program come from a range of backgrounds, from law and economics to engineering and political science to history and literature. But they all have one thing in common, says Katie Millan, an MPP student who spoke at a dinner honouring Peterson after the Arbour lecture.

“At our core, we’re all problem-solvers, and very curious,” she said during her remarks. “We have been trained to move between disciplines, and we can function in the context of economic, statistical, social and political analysis.”

Millan’s passion for public policy was sparked long before she entered SPPG. The Cadario Scholarship in Public Policy recipient was a Legislative Page at Queen’s Park when she was in seventh grade. During her undergraduate program in Canadian political science and history, she interned at two Ontario ministries before working as a community relations officer in the Ministry of the Attorney General. Currently, she’s coordinating the SPPG+Ford Conference, a student-run initiative with the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

“I can’t overstate the sense of collective responsibility we feel as students at the School of Public Policy and Governance to take on the important conversations and challenging decisions,” Millan said. “On behalf of my fellow students, I would like to extend a sincere ‘thank you’ to David Peterson for recognizing the value of a school like ours, for encouraging and supporting the kind of students — and citizens — that we are, and for shaping us into the policy professionals we hope to become. Through his generosity, we have been able to explore new policy areas, push ourselves to new positions of leadership and develop a stronger understanding of what it takes to succeed.”