Chancellor Rotman

‘Accidental philosopher’

Joseph L. Rotman, Western chancellor and Canadian philanthropist, dies at 80

By Jason Winders

When Joseph Rotman turned 60, he faced a decision on how to define his life’s second act.

Starting in his father’s heating business, located on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue, Rotman grew a fortune over three decades as an oil trader, merchant banker and investor. When it came time to step away from the business world, he focused on advice from his earliest days:

“My father taught me that the most powerful way to inspire others to give is for them to see people giving in their community. He taught his children, and lived his life, on the belief that writing the cheque was the easy part. It is the giving of one’s time and ability that is more difficult.”

At that moment, he committed himself fully to public service – philanthropy, volunteerism, even public policy. He clustered his new life’s work around key passions. Within health research, he fueled discovery and pioneered public policy. Within innovation, he created and shaped national and provincial agendas through collaborations across the country. Within postsecondary education and the arts, he cemented a legacy from which generations after him will benefit.

To each passion, he dedicated – quite strategically – all his resources.

“What I found is, when I turned 60, and had the opportunity to make a decision of how to spend the rest of my life, what became important for me was I wanted to see my role in a way that was going to have a positive and enduring impact on society.  Fortunately, I had the freedom to make that choice. My only regret is what happens to most people – you don’t start thinking about your legacy until you’re close to the end.

My advice for each of you is to consider ‘venture philanthropy’ as a vehicle, as a means, as a path and as a way to think, as early as possible, so that your desired legacy becomes a catalyst for action, not later, but today.”

Born Jan. 6, 1935 in Toronto, Rotman was destined to become “an accidental philosopher.”

When he graduated from Forest Hill Collegiate in 1954, his highest mark was a C+. Nevertheless, he applied to the University of Toronto’s Commerce and Finance program. He was not accepted.

“You might not be aware,” he often mentioned when relating this story, “but this group at U of T is now called the Rotman Commerce Program.”

Undeterred from continuing his education, Rotman, BA’57, LLD’09, chose Western.

“Instead of Western being a second choice,” he told Memorial University graduates in 2013, “it turned out to be the best thing to happen to me, and has remained a most powerful influence on my career and whatever success I have enjoyed.”

Once on campus, Rotman registered for a Philosophy course. Admittedly, it was a matter of strategy, not personal interest at the time. He had not taken the subject in high school, and, therefore, did not have a C- or a D as a past record.

In the classroom, Alistair Johnson, the head of the department, was his professor in the first-year course, and he took a personal interest in the young Rotman. By the end of the first year, Rotman was enraptured by philosophy. In that discipline, he learned to think and ask questions.

Until his final days, Rotman credited Johnson for changing his life.

“Today, I can honestly say I would not have had the success I have had without that philosophy training.

Because of that, I have made it my personal mission – be it through where I donate my time and money or how I live my life – to promote the virtues of the discipline. For me, philosophy is more than a passion; I have an unshakeable belief in its value as I do in the value of a university education, no matter your pursuit.

But I am not so blind as to think my opinion is shared by all.

You read the papers. University educations, particularly ones in the humanities, are under attack. They question our ‘value’ in the world. They view us as weathered volumes stored on dusty shelves, pulled down only during our time on campus when they pack us away to make room for other items in their post-graduation lives. They see what we have to offer as stagnant, stuck in a time of tunics. To many, we are quaint.

But we know that isn’t true. The questions we ask, the answers we explore are as relevant, as modern and as necessary today as at any other time in our history. In fact, the ‘value’ earned through the intellectual heavy-lifting necessary for a university degree bears the hopes of a better future.

Our problem is simple; we’re not very good at sharing that message.

I am proud of my training as a philosopher. I want to share the insight I gained at Western, the orderly thinking I was trained to employ there, at every opportunity.”

Following graduation, Rotman stayed connected to Western for the remainder of his life.

In 1999, he established the Rotman Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science, to enhance the research and training capacities in the origins and nature of scientific theory and the impact of scientific theories on society.

In 2008, his $4 million donation established the Rotman Institute of Philosophy, an internationally recognized forum in which philosophers and other humanists engage scientists on problems of global relevance, and to address issues faced by society.

In 2009, he was presented an honorary degree from Western.

In 2012, he was named the university’s 21st chancellor.

“My goal as chancellor is to try and help the university achieve excellence – the very basis of what makes any university great – the ability of its students and scholars to think creatively, independently and usefully. Western has been one of Canada’s great academic powerhouses for many years. I see all kinds of potential to expand its strengths and reputation across the country and well beyond.”

Joseph L. Rotman died today. He was 80.

Western President Amit Chakma said Western lost a great friend and supporter. “Joe stood among a small group of great Canadians who contributed in many extraordinary ways to the betterment of our country.  He was one of those rare leaders who dedicated much of his time, business acumen and personal wealth toward a wide range of philanthropic endeavours, which had transformative effects on the arts, health care and higher education in Canada.” 

Western has lowered its flag to half-mast in honour of Joseph Rotman.

The funeral service for Joseph Rotman will be held on Friday, January 30 at 1:30p.m. at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Please check the Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel website for more details.


Biography: Joseph L. Rotman

Born in Toronto, Joseph L. Rotman, earned a BA from Western in 1957 and an M.Comm. from the University of Toronto in 1960. During 1960-61, he studied at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in the Ph.D. program. He was awarded an honorary LLD from Western in 2009. The Rotman Institute of Philosophy – Engaging Science, based within Western’s internationally-ranked Department of Philosophy, is named in his honour. In 2012, Mr. Rotman was named the 21st chancellor of Western.

Mr. Rotman was also Chair of Roy-L Capital Corporation, a private family investment company. He launched his business career in 1962 and has been involved in establishing a number of private and public companies active in oil trading, petroleum distribution, oil and gas exploration, merchant banking, real estate and venture capital. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1995 and inducted into the Canadian Business Hall of Fame as a Companion in May 2009.

In July 2008, Mr. Rotman was appointed to a five-year term as Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Crown Corporation that for more than half a century has been the principal conduit of federal support for Canada’s professional artists and arts organizations.

Demonstrating his immense passion for the sciences, Mr. Rotman also served as Chair of the Ontario Brain Institute and Chair of Grand Challenges Canada, a unique and independent not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the health of people in developing countries through innovation.

Throughout his career, Mr. Rotman applied his business experience to the advancement of Canadian life sciences research and the development of Canada’s innovation and commercialization capacity by providing financial support and entrepreneurial guidance to the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care and the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

He was also recognized as a co-founder of MaRS (Medical and Related Sciences Discovery District) and served tirelessly in various leadership roles with Aggregate Therapeutics Inc., Canadian Institute of Health Research, Canada Gairdner International Awards, Innovations Foundation University of Toronto, Ontario BIOCouncil, Ontario Genomics Institute, StemCell Network and The Ontario Brain Initiative.

A co-founder of the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, Mr. Rotman previously served as Chair of the Board of the Art Gallery of Ontario (1993-96) and a board member (1991-2000), as well as a board member of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards (1996-98).