Scarborough business owner donates $2 million to U of T for Tamil studies

Sinhala and Tamil New Year in Sri Lanka (photo by Amila Tennakoon via Flickr)

One of U of T’s earliest Tamil alumni has given a historic donation of $2 million to support Tamil studies program.

The gift from Ravi Gukathasan, who is CEO of Digital Specialty Chemicals Ltd. in Scarborough, is the largest single cash gift from an alumnus in U of T Scarborough's history. It will fund an annual post-doctoral fellowship in Tamil studies as well as scholarships, event programming and digital archiving. 

“I want UTSC to be a star when it comes to the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, its culture, its language, its perspective in the world,” says Gukathasan. “We have the biggest Tamil diaspora in the world in Scarborough. They need to be proud.”

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UTSC alumnus Ravi Gukathasan's gift to the university will fund an annual post-doctoral fellowship in Tamil studies as well as scholarships, event programming and digital archiving (photo by Ken Jones)

He also sees his gift as a leadership example for other members of the Tamil community to follow. 

“I applaud Dr. Gukathasan’s initiative and passionate support of UTSC and am confident that his generous example will stimulate other alumni, not just alumni from the Tamil community, to step forward with game-changing donations,” says U of T Scarborough Principal Bruce Kidd.

The 10-year commitment will fund the $1.25 million Ethan and Leah Schweitzer Gukathasan Fellowship, named for Gukathasan’s two teenage children as well as provide $500,000 for a programming fund, $150,000 for a digital fund and $100,000 for scholarships. 

“The gift will add hugely to our ability to expose our campus to what’s going on in Tamil worlds,” says Bhavani Raman, associate professor in the department of historical and cultural studies and chair of the tri-campus Tamil Worlds Initiative programming committee. “We will be able to support young and upcoming scholars from all over the world with the postdoctoral fellowship as well as other visitors.” 

She notes that a previous substantial gift from Gukathasan has already allowed U of T Scarborough to sponsor a Tamil studies conference, hold regular public programming on Tamil subjects and work with the U of T Scarborough Library to enhance its Tamil-language collection. She expects to be able to greatly expand such initiatives including the digitization of Sri Lankan Tamil works for global access. 

“Beyond U of T, the gift will be a big resource for Tamil studies because there are very few post-doctoral fellowships dedicated to this field,” she says. “My guess is we’ll get many applicants from outside Canada.”

Gukathasan grew up outside Jaffna in Sri Lanka’s Tamil north, then left with the family for the U.K. in 1974. They later re-emigrated to Canada, settling in northern Scarborough, and in 1978, Gukathasan entered what was then Scarborough College, founded just 13 years earlier.

“I was one of only two Tamils in the whole school,” he says. 

After gaining his PhD in chemistry at U of T, Gukathasan founded Digital Specialty Chemicals, a highly successful enterprise located on Coronation Drive in southeastern Scarborough, where he has also created a small park and decorated the lobby with Indigenous art. 

He’s very proud of his two children with fellow chemist and alumna Caroline Schweitzer whose names are on the gift. Ethan, 18, recently entered chemical engineering at U of T, while Leah, 17 and in Grade 12, wants to study at U of T in evolutionary anthropology.

Gukathasan sees his gift as just the start. “I’m hoping others will follow suit with more money,” he says. “I hope we can keep building this program and make it very, very well-funded and well-rounded.”

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