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Hugh Segal: the new master of Massey College

Looking forward to "working with bright young people who are asking new questions about problems that we have had for a long time"

Hugh Segal is the fifth master of Massey College (photo by Johnny Guatto)

When Hugh Segal walks into Massey College as its new master on July 2 he will be thinking about the vision the founders of the college had but also the “great privilege” he will have in helping shape future leaders of society.

Segal, 63, becomes the fifth master of the college, succeeding John Fraser, who held the post for 19 years. Segal resigned from the Canadian Senate on June 13 to move to Massey, where as chief administrative officer he will govern the college along with senior fellows. (Read more about John Fraser's time as master of Massey.)

Massey College is a graduate students’ residential community affiliated with, but independent of the University of Toronto. About 80 spots are available every year, including 20 for resident and 40 for non-resident junior fellows. Junior fellows are full-time students at U of T, either registered with the School of Graduate studies or pursing professional degrees such as law, medicine or dentistry.   

Segal was appointed to the Senate by former Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005 but is just as well known in political circles as an intellectual tactician and adviser to high-profile politicians such as former prime minister Brian Mulroney and former Ontario premier William Davis.

After consulting with many people including Massey Fellows and a rigorous application process, Segal says he chose to leave the Senate 12 years before retirement for three distinct reasons.

"It was the vision of the founders – the Massey family, (former U of T president) Claude Bissell, Robertson Davies (Massey’s first master) about a graduate college that was interdisciplinary on purpose. In other words, this was having the best and the brightest, whether from medical school, law school, the arts, hard science, and engineering who are already doing well or they wouldn’t be in graduate school.”

At Massey, the focus is on the “real truths” between the “narrow stovepipes” of the graduate’s individual discipline, “the real truth about life and society.” That focus often translates into public service, whether in politics, or “courageous journalism, or scholars at risk.” Massey attracts a “rich mix of the best angels who inspire folks to make a difference in other people’s lives.”

His second reason for coming to Massey is the “quality versus quantity” argument. In a speech to the Quadrangle Society at Massey in March, Segal talked about the “digital response loop, which is more about milliseconds and form than content and reflection,” and, he said, a “benign but very powerful enemy of civility.”

He said “respecting and responding to the views of someone with whom you disagree takes time and reflection. Re-tweeting a 140-character retort takes neither. Digital oppression of young people, the vulnerable or marginalized may not be more cruel than other oppressions but the intrinsic incivility of its indecent haste just makes it seem worse in the world where perception often counts more than fact.” 

Massey, Segal said in an interview, allows “everybody to be a bit more reflective, to discuss issues in greater depth,” pointing to the Grand Rounds program that looks at issues and their policy, economic and social justice implications. “It’s a deeper cut, not a stone ricocheting at the top of the water.”

His third reason is that it “gets me back to what I did at the Institute for Research and Public Policy, working with bright young people who are asking new questions about problems that we have had for a long time – like national security, or migration, or how you deal with immigrants or refugees fairly, or the role of music and poetry in a civilized society.

“To note that I can help to energize these debates, to encourage them at the best known intellectual institution – Massey – at the top ranked university in Canada – is an immense privilege.”

He says he will spend a lot of time consulting with others to get their “aspirations and perspective” before looking at “constructive innovations” at Massey. “As a Bill Davis conservative, I believe in incrementalism,” eating one piece of the Kit Kat bar at a time, as Davis used to suggest, and saving the rest for later. (Davis is a senior fellow at Massey.)

At the speech at Massey last March, Segal talked about the college “protecting and advocating for the underlying values of civility,” things such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press that are under attack today.

The other thing he will think about as he enters Massey on July 2 is “my responsibility to protect the very best of the past’s traditions and to modernize and innovate to keep those traditions relevant in the world we live in today.”

Fraser said Segal’s “unique background” and his respect for tradition make him an ideal successor.

“He understands the principal  imperative” of Massey, that the junior Fellows are the brightest in North America. “He understands the community of town and gown. I expect great things from him.”