March 26, 2024 | Alumni | Volunteer & Awards

‘Yes’ opens more doors than ‘no’: An interview with Paul Cadario, recipient of the Rose Wolfe Distinguished Alumni Award

Head shot of Paul Cadario wearing a suit


Paul Cadario (BASc 1973, Hon LLD 2013) is one of the University of Toronto’s most dedicated volunteers, a former president of the University of Toronto Alumni Association and a fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. He spent his professional life working for the World Bank and has been a volunteer and mentor to U of T students for more than five decades. Dr. Cadario is a past recipient of the University of Toronto’s Arbor Award, the Engineering Alumni Medal and an honorary degree.

Read more about his achievements and the Rose Wolfe Distinguished Alumni Award

Mark Sedore, senior communications advisor at the University of Toronto, chatted with Dr. Cadario about his experiences as a student member of the Governing Council, his travels around the world as president of the UTAA, the importance of the Canadian public service and why being a volunteer mentor is so meaningful to him.

You are unquestionably one of the University of Toronto’s most active volunteers. Why have you given so much of your time to U of T?

Many years ago, I was asked to be on the Governing Council as an alumni representative. But I live in Washington, D.C., so it didn’t seem practical for me. But the head of Alumni Relations back then would call every year and say, “Paul, you’ve got to be on Governing Council.” And every year I would say, “No, I'm busy. I travel. And I don't live in Toronto.”

But finally, I agreed, then served three terms and was on the executive committee. And, frankly, it was wonderful!

I would always fly up to the meetings and during the travel time could read all the material. So, with the edges of my pages turned down, I’d inevitably say something in the meeting like, “I'd like to ask about annex four.” And some other members came to rely on the fact that I would have read the entire agenda and usually that meant nothing terrible was going to happen.

I finished on the Governing Council after nine years. After my final term ended, I got a call that said, “Paul, we're setting up an advisory group for engineering and we’d like you to be on it.” And ultimately I said, “Sure, I would love to.” But after a while it was restructured and all of a sudden I found myself as the chair of the Dean's Advisory Board. Again, I was flying back and forth. Then over and over again, over the course of years because there was often a term limit or it was an ad hoc committee someone from the university would say, “Well, Paul, now that you have free time, maybe you'd like to …” or “Could we please invite you to join us on …” And my view has always been: “Yes” opens more doors than “no.”

And I have always enjoyed it. I don't think I was ever involved with any university committee or task force that I didn't find engaging and where I didn't meet really interesting people and have an opportunity to contribute.

I find that engagement with young people which is one of the things that these U of T volunteer opportunities often allow always reminds us why we're there. And it opens the opportunity for gaining other perspectives.

Over the years, you’ve done a lot of mentorship of students at U of T. What is it about mentorship that you find rewarding?

Well, there's first the perspective of younger people. And people from all backgrounds and from all over the world. And I ask myself and them, “What are they preoccupied with? And how can I be helpful?” Sometimes, you really are helpful. And other times you say, “Well, actually, we're not here to talk about my views of global affairs; we're here to discuss some questions you're asking yourself professionally or you're having difficulty with.” And you give students an opportunity to be reflective about their academic progress or their career goals, which, I find particularly with grad students, are maybe not as clear as they could be.

That’s also why it’s important to provide mentorship to people who don't otherwise have mentors. What students’ academic supervisors do is help them focus early in their work about their seminal contribution to knowledge. And I've not been an expert in any of the fields that I've mentored in. But mentors give students an opportunity talk about areas their supervisor might not think about.

Also, grad students are really busy. Time is precious to them, and I like to give a good hour and buy them a cup of coffee. Because students are taking time out to meet me when I'm in Toronto, and I prefer to meet in person.

What would you say has been your biggest impact as a mentor?

Well, a mentor plays many roles, depending on the mentee’s needs, which might be short, medium or long term. One mentee, a graduate student, was describing just how busy he was. And I said, “What does your wife think about that?” And he said, “I don't know.” And I said, “Well, maybe you should ask her.” Because it struck me that he was more than a little overextended between being a full-time student, having a full-time job and his spouse also had a full-time job. And they were newish Canadians, still getting settled here.

Three weeks later, I got an email from his wife saying, “Thank you for asking that question!” [laughter] It was just a one-line message. But I don't think you enter a mentorship program thinking you're going to be a marriage counsellor.

But, as a mentor, you do the work that needs to be done and you present the best advice you can give.

Did you have a mentor at university?

When I was a fourth-year undergrad I got involved with governance matters and became good friends with Don Forster, who was the vice-president and provost. I was on a search committee and the budget committee, which he chaired. But the idea of having students on Governing Council was pretty controversial in 1972/73. It didn't sit well with some of the faculty, and while Queen’s Park had not agreed to parity in this new unicameral system, the faculty members did not get the control their leaders were seeking. It was a good structure that has served U of T well for decades.

Paul Cadario stands at a podium with his hand on his chest, giving a speech.Don was quite adamant when he formed the budget committee that year that there would now be parity between students and faculty as equal members on it. He truly took the views of students to heart and allowed us to weigh in on, for example, the budgets of faculties. We were encouraged to challenge administrators and ask our own questions.

I remember quite vividly being sent to visit a dean who did not show great knowledge of his budget in his meeting with the committee. Don’s office set up a follow-up meeting, and another student committee member and I were sent to get more information. So this other student and I trot up to the dean’s office. And we were not received well. We were asked, “So, who else is coming?” And the answer, of course, was, “Nobody. The provost sent us and we have questions about your budget.” And, in truth, the dean did not demonstrate great knowledge and the meeting did not go well for him.

My student colleague and I left the building and agreed outside on the sidewalk that the dean was good for a $750,000 cut. We gave our recommendations to Don, who accepted them. Don was firm that this is how we run the university now, and everybody has to get on board. And after a while they did.

Don was somebody I got to know very well. He gave good advice, and he was the closest to a mentor that I had as a student. Our friendship continued for many years.

Now it’s been nearly 51 years since your graduation. Throughout this time, what do you think your biggest impact at U of T has been?

When I was president of the UTAA, I recognized that we need to have alumni leadership that looks like the university, that we’re not all from Forest Hill and Leaside. So we recruited to the board one of the first Afro-Caribbean Canadians to be on the executive committee, the first Asian-Canadian woman and a young guy who was an investment banker. We wanted to get younger alumni involved because at some point they were going to take on leadership and they should reflect the future alumni.

Also, when I was president, I said, “I think we need to be more supportive of alumni who want to group themselves for reasons other than they went to a certain faculty or college.” So, we helped establish the Black Alumni Association, the LGBTQ alumni group and a number of others. I felt people shouldn’t be wedded to the traditional way that alumni organized themselves, because that’s not necessarily how today’s students see themselves. And student engagement is key to alumni engagement.

There were two other things I did because it was situationally possible for me.

Working for the World Bank, I had some flexibility over where I travelled, so I would turn up at alumni events outside of Toronto in Austin, Texas, or Jakarta. Until then, U of T had never had an event in Jakarta and 70 people turned up! Some of them had driven an hour. There were people from the education sector, civil servants, people in government, wealthy business owners, and they said, “This is really wonderful!”

Chancellor David Peterson later joked, “The whole time I was Chancellor, Paul Cadario stalked me through the whole world!” But no, I just happened to find out where the events were and tailored my own travel schedule accordingly.

The other thing was, when I was president, Barbara Dick [assistant vice-president, alumni relations] called me and said, “Paul, we would like to do an event for the LGBTQ community. Would you like to attend?” Of course I would. And I’d never been to the Drake before, where the event was being held. So I get on the streetcar and arrive and walked in where about 250 LGBTQ alumni had shown up! Advancement had no idea how many people to expect. The evening was spectacular. And since then, the LGBTQ event is always a kick-off event for Alumni Reunion, which is great.

I’m happy to have helped launch that many years ago.

Part of the criteria for the Rose Wolfe Distinguished Alumni Award is that, in your public role, you inspire others. But what, or who, continues to inspire you?

Paul Cadario stands at a podium speaking.Well, Barack Obama is not only a great former president of the United States but also a great world figure who changed the face of American politics. And we’re still seeing the outcome of that. He remains a great inspiration to me.

And if I look back at my career, I would include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation absolutely, because its two founders set a new direction for international development. They showed that private money and philanthropy could be mobilized with a focus on measurable impact and that projects need to be able to do pilots, something small to force promoters of change to say, “Well, what are the specific levers that turn on the most lights,” rather than saying, “Let’s try to do everything at once.” And I think that Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates continue to be people whose voices set an example for philanthropy and other wealthy people, to make the world better, whether it’s girls’ education or communicable diseases or vaccines.

I would also add former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, whose vision of Canada’s prospects in 1968 brought me out to volunteer for our local Liberal candidate on my 17th birthday through to the election. And Jim Wolfensohn, former head of the World Bank, a tempestuous visionary who transformed the very meaning and direction of international development to the global eradication of poverty.

Your own philanthropic giving at U of T has been directed to numerous areas, such as global engineering, public policy and the Paul Cadario Conference Centre at University College. Most recently you made a lead gift to the Experiential Learning Commons. What motivates your giving, and what do you hope your impact will be?

The first question is easier than the second one. In Defy Gravity, the university is prioritizing themes I strongly identify with. Student success and the student experience in particular are very important to me.

With Boundless, the previous campaign, there were also really great projects. The Centre for Global Engineering (CGEN), was dear to former Engineering Dean Cristina Amon’s heart, and I was the chair of her advisory board. We discussed what the program might look like, how it might attract great leadership, and we worked together to get it started. And I was happy to do that with a gift for CGEN for its space and for graduate student support, and then for the professorship.

I’m very privileged to have volunteered and thus been able to learn about all these things. And that’s an advantage of volunteering: you bring people in and then people know your message. And people go and talk about it and get more interested. And then university people go, “If you’re interested in this, then you might be interested in that.” Sort of like the recommendation algorithms with Amazon.

And what do you think the impact of your philanthropy will be?

Well, there’s a beautiful university conference centre that has my name on it, and there are students who will receive my scholarships for many years. So there’s the idea that my money will allow U of T to do great things for a very long time. I like giving gifts that I can see the impact of. There are a lot of people who say, “Well, I’ll leave money to the university as a bequest.” And, yes, I will do that. But I intend to give as much of it away as I can before then.

You’re a tremendous volunteer and alumni leader, but why should other alumni volunteer at the university?

I think there are two reasons. First, the university benefits from people who have a stake in it, whether that’s employees or alumni. And alumni volunteers can do anything, from mentoring to attending lectures or organizing other alumni to give money. So that’s the first reason: simply giving back to an institution you care deeply about.

The second is that you’re setting an example. When you’re a graduate of a world-class university, your affiliation with it should not end when you march across the stage at Convocation Hall and have your picture taken on front campus with your family. Because another way to give back is, as an informed citizen, you have a voice in public issues, including the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education as key to Canada’s innovation and therefore to the country’s prosperity.

Because graduates may, when our public universities are under attack, as they seem to be now in Ontario, say, “Well, I think universities are getting a bad shake and I need to call my MPP.” Or, “I think Canada could do better in research in the field that I’m in, so I’ll call my MP.” Or speak to my neighbours and say, “Well, I understand your children are going to university, you know it’s going to be really expensive if the universities don’t get the kind of funding they need.” So ultimately volunteering helps you to be a better informed and more engaged citizen.

Given your long-term involvement with the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and your perspective having worked for the World Bank, what do you see as the greatest impact the Munk School might have on both students and, in turn, our shared global future?

close up shot of Paul Cadario in the audience at I started out as a venture philanthropist for the MPP [Master of Public Policy] program, and, as the son of two government employees, I have always seen being a civil servant as incredibly respectable and vitally important. I spent my life as an international civil servant.

Canada needs entrepreneurs and people who take risks. But there’s a lot to be said for entrepreneurship and risk-taking within the public sector. And I think Canadians underestimate how well our Canadian public service operates and that we need good people in it. That’s why my investment in public policy has always been important to me.

I’ve been delighted to see whether they’re serving in chambers of commerce or boards of trade or ministries at Queen’s Park or in Ottawa that so many graduates of the program have gone on to contribute to making Canada a greater place.

On the global affairs side, the Munk School has been making really great progress and building world-recognized strengths and recognition in many areas. There’s more work to be done, but there’s good leadership, strong external support and a great trajectory. And I think the amalgamation between the Munk School and the School of Public Policy and Governance worked better than anyone would have thought.

What advice would you give to students enrolling at U of T today?

If you’re a Canadian student and you get into U of T, Harvard and MIT, you should definitely consider choosing U of T. It is a world class school, and it won’t cost your family so much money. But once you’re there, don’t be a drudge; there are so many co-curricular activities. You can volunteer to be in student government, on a faculty or departmental council, or on some task force. You’ll find those experiences can be very complementary to your education. For heaven’s sake, there’s more to life than commuting back and forth from your childhood bedroom.

Sample deeply. If you do your work, you will graduate, so on the way, go do something other than just your academics.

In terms of recent graduates, I have two pieces of advice. The first is: your first job isn’t your last job. There are skills you gain as a U of T student. Computer engineering skills may look more obvious, but the way of thinking and reasoning you would gain with a philosophy degree are also of tremendous value to employers. So, you may have graduated in philosophy, but you graduated from U of T! Use that. It’s a brand that makes a lot of difference in Canada.

The other thing is, although you will spend the next five years after graduating establishing your career or maybe getting another degree, the university wants you to stay engaged. There are other things you may find more important when you set out, sure. And eventually, I hope, you’ll find time to remain interested in U of T and give back a bit.

Spoken by an expert! So, over the decades, what has been your all-time best experience at U of T either as a student or since graduation?

There are so many great things I remember. Everything from the email from the wife of the mentee I mentioned. Or comments from another student: “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have your scholarship, and while I was there I met my spouse.” Well, that’s exciting!

Or seeing how CGEN and the MPP came from ideas and are now great programs with great students. And having lunch with those students every year and saying to them: “I didn’t know that you could do that!” Or saying to engineering students: “People are using that to look at this? Well, that’s really interesting!”

Or being able to say to a student: “When you’re in Jakarta doing your research, you should be sure to go to this neighbourhood, because I’ve been there and it’s incredible. You’ll learn a lot.”

So, perhaps interacting with students broadly is what’s most memorable, but it’s really hard to choose a best experience. I do hope students remain in touch after graduation. I mean, I moved away and set up my career and then the university said, “Paul, we’d really like you to get involved with this, or come to this meeting or join this board.” And from that point I stayed involved and here I am today. As I said, it’s always been my view that “yes” opens more doors than “no.”

Don't miss out!

Update your contact information to be the first to know about exclusive offers. This makes it easy to tell us when your email has changed.

Update my information

Special discounts

Did you know that U of T alumni get deep discounts on attractions, sporting events, car rentals and more? Sign up today.

Sign up