Pensions boss turned policy school head aims to win over doubters

Michael Sabia promises Toronto’s Munk School a boundary-crossing outlook

December 1, 2019
Michael Sabia
Source: Reuters

Schools of public policy are tasked not just with conducting research on government and social affairs; amplifying the impact of that scholarship outside the walls of the university is a key part of their brief, too.

But is appointing a non-academic to lead such a school a controversial move? This is the question being wrestled with at the University of Toronto after it selected Michael Sabia, who spent the past 11 years reviving Quebec’s biggest pension fund, as the new director of its Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

Mr Sabia, the departing president and chief executive of the Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec, will join the Munk School in February. His long career in business and government also includes guiding the development of Canada’s value-added tax as a federal policy official in the early 1990s, serving as chief financial officer at the Canadian National Railway and leading Bell Canada Enterprises as its chief executive.

In many ways, this background might make Mr Sabia well suited to his new role; in an interview, he said he would pursue what he termed “actionable solutions” as director, urging academics and students to drive real-world change at the intersection of topics that include economic growth, technological innovation, income inequality, populism and climate change.

“This school needs to be a bridge between academic research and actionable solutions that change the world, or that have the potential to change the world,” Mr Sabia said.

Toronto’s president, Meric Gertler, acknowledged that choosing a non-academic for such a senior institutional leadership role risked raising faculty discontent.

But Mr Sabia brought Munk a mix of global business and government experience that should “really amplify the school’s impact outside the university”, Professor Gertler said.

Others at Toronto may yet need convincing of that wisdom, said Paul Hamel, a professor of medicine who has warned about the corrupting influence of the corporate world in academia – including at Munk itself.

Professor Hamel was among a group of Toronto faculty and students that protested against the 2009 creation of the Munk School with C$35 million (£20.4 million) in donations from Peter Munk, the late chairman of Barrick Gold, a multinational mining corporation.

The terms of the donation gave Mr Munk and his foundation influence over the academic operation of the school, Professor Hamel said, by mechanisms that included paying the money over time while the politically conservative Holocaust survivor reviewed the school’s activities.

The choice now of Mr Sabia was also concerning, Professor Hamel said, given his corporate background and his record of supporting privatisation efforts while at CDPQ, including the controversial creation of Greater Montreal’s new commuter train network.

Mr Sabia's placement in a position of high academic respectability is especially worrisome at a time when Ontario’s leaders have been looking to move public assets into private hands, Professor Hamel said.

“I think he’s part of a continuum of changing the ultimate worldview or output of the graduates at the University of Toronto,” Professor Hamel said. “It’s going to tend towards very specific types of solutions, which are not about sustainability but about the privatisation of public spaces.”

Mr Sabia faced critics when he entered his current post. An Ontario-born English speaker, his 2009 appointment to run CDPQ, Quebec’s manager of public pension plans and insurance programmes, was denounced by two former premiers of the French-speaking province.

In that instance, Mr Sabia responded by nearly tripling the assets of the nation’s second-biggest pension fund to C$327 billion.

Mr Sabia could win allies at Toronto, Professor Gertler said, by using his extensive network of global contacts in government and business to help Munk school graduates find jobs in both those sectors.

For his part, Mr Sabia described his goals as being focused on fulfilling his sense of a mission to the wider community. Although he has gained a reputation for his pursuit of public-private partnerships, he has also taken some socially focused steps, including leading CDPQ this year in joining a coalition of investors in promising a carbon-neutral investment portfolio by 2050.

“Obviously I’m very aware of the fact that I’m not an academic,” said Mr Sabia, who earned a bachelor’s degree in political economy from Toronto before collecting two postgraduate degrees in the field from Yale University. As a result, he said, “I have a double responsibility to listen and see what people are thinking about and then make those decisions.”

In the end, he said, when staff and students “get a chance to know me and work with me, I think they will conclude that I’m not everybody’s walking-around notion of what a businessperson is”.


Print headline: ‘Actionable solutions’ are top of the agenda

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