St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Wikipedia

A gift for the (medieval) ages...

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  • March 22, 2020

Like many bright, young undergraduates, Tony Comper startedwith an ambitious course load last fall, but found he had to back off as the year wore on. 

But unlike the bright, young undergraduates he sees at class, the 74-year-old retired banker and philanthropist decided to finance the work of his favourite professor.

So Comper made a multi-million dollar gift to the University of St. Michael’s College to install Dr. Alison More as the first Comper Professor at the Catholic college. 

Comper has attended More’s classes and been impressed. He gave the money because he wanted to ensure More remained for years to come to teach undergraduates at St. Mike’s.

“I don’t want to trivialize it, but it’s kind of like if you have a hockey team and you’ve got a superstar,” Comper told The Catholic Register. “You would kind of want to sign him for a long period of time, right?”

More’s credentials are impressive. She came to St. Michael’s from the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent. An expert in the history, development and use of Latin through the Middle Ages, she researches the social and religious culture of late-medieval northern Europe.

In medieval studies circles, More’s commitment to St. Michael’s for the long haul is exciting news.

“This is as close to a Cinderella story as it comes in the academy,” Athabasca University professor Marc Cels, vice president of the Canadian Society of Medievalists, said in an email to The Catholic Register. “A retired millionaire banker takes a few courses at a university and decides to endow a professorship.”

Comper graduated from St. Michael’s in 1966 with a B.A. in English literature. He went on to graduate school fully intending to become a university professor.

“That didn’t pan out,” he said.

But his career at the Bank of Montreal went rather well. From management trainee in the 1960s, Comper rose to president and chief operating officer in 1990. By 1999 he was chairman and CEO. 

His career in philanthropy began before his retirement, serving as chair of the University of Toronto’s “Campaign for the University of Toronto” from 1995 to 2004. He’s been chair of the University of Toronto’s Governing Council, a vice-chair at St. Michael’s Hospital and serves on the board of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. 

With his wife Elizabeth, Comper founded FAST — Fighting Anti-Semitism Together. This band of business and community leaders speaks out against anti-Semitism. What makes it different is that none of them are Jewish.

In 2010 the Compers were made Members of the Order of Canada. Elizabeth died in 2014, but Comper continues the work in philanthropy. 

When Comper retired in 2007 at age 62, it provided the perfect opportunity to return to his alma mater. But he had to decide whether to study his first love, English literature, or further a fascination with medieval studies.

“The flip of the coin was, should it be English literature or should it be medieval studies?” he said. “It turns out that I had already 42 titles in my library in medieval studies.”

A friend told him, “You should study medieval studies because you really enjoy it.”

“At this stage, I’m still auditing the courses. I’ve been so engaged in a number of other things I don’t know whether I’ve got the full allocation of time to write essays and papers and exams and things of that nature. I may get there,” he said.

Long-term signings like adding More are a big focus at this stage in a process of renewal at St. Mike’s, said college principal Randy Boyagoda. 

When Boyagoda arrived in 2016, he spearheaded an effort to bolster undergraduate education. By 2017 the Basilian-founded college had hired six new professors, More among them, to teach in four undergraduate programs — medieval studies, book and media studies, Celtic studies and Christianity and culture.

St. Mike’s was only able to hire these professors on short-term contracts — an increasingly prevalent and cheaper way to ensure professors for in-demand classes. But it’s not ideal, said Boyagoda.

St. Michael’s doesn’t just want to retail classes to the undergraduate market. It hopes to invite young people into a learning community. But for that to happen, there has to be a community in place, anchored by scholars with a long-term commitment.

“If you encounter a remarkable professor in a class only to realize that that professor is only here for that one class, it’s hard to develop the kind of substantive and continuous academic relationship that you expect and seek,” Boyagoda said. 

It’s not just about a better and deeper experience for undergraduates. There’s a “perspective of justice” that says if the instructor is going to commit to the students the college should commit to them, Boyagoda said. 

Boyagoda and St. Michael’s president and vice chancellor David Sylvester are now focused on making the other five contract professors permanent.

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