SFU’s early penchant for ‘thinking outside the box’ extended to its choice of founding president, Patrick McTaggart-Cowan.

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Founding president Patrick McTaggart-Cowan’s SFU legacy

June 30, 2016
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By Diane Luckow

As SFU’s 50th Anniversary celebrations come to a close, it seems an appropriate time to recall the considerable contributions of SFU’s founding president, Patrick McTaggart-Cowan.

He joined the University on January 1, 1964, appointed on the recommendation of B.C. Hydro co-chair Gordon Shrum, whom B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett tasked with envisioning and building the University.

McTaggart-Cowan, a meteorologist and director of the Meteorological Service of Canada, may have seemed an unlikely choice for university president. But Shrum knew McTaggart-Cowan, a B.C. Rhodes scholar who held degrees from UBC and Oxford, had the keen intellect and voracious work ethic necessary for managing the daunting task of developing a university from the ground up.

McTaggart-Cowan’s presidential mandate was also somewhat unusual: to ensure SFU did things ‘differently’ from other universities. His untraditional background helped ensure he approached this mandate with an open mind as he led the work of shaping the University’s approach to academic programming, student recruitment, and sports.  

In the year leading up to SFU’s grand opening on Sept. 9, 1965, McTaggart-Cowan became the ‘face’ of SFU. He gave 420 public addresses amidst a plethora of duties that included supervising building construction, recruiting administrative staff, selecting and hiring faculty departmental heads, and establishing criteria for the academic programs.

Staffers at the time marveled at his capacity for work, noting that he seemed to work 20 hours a day, all while maintaining his trademark affability.

His enthusiasm and energy ensured SFU opened on time, and to a warm reception. 

Patrick McTaggart-Cowan (left), flanked by B.C. Premier W. A. C. Bennett and SFU Chancellor Gordan Shrum, delivers SFU's opening address on Sept. 9, 1965.

Many of SFU’s traditions, including its Scottish theme, began during McTaggart-Cowan’s reign, although a president’s ball and annual cricket matches are no longer celebrated. He commissioned the University’s customized coat of arms, initiated a ceremonial bagpiper, and also named the Clan sports teams.

SFU's first mace donated to Patrick McTaggart-Cowan

As well, he established the University’s first links to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which SFU finally joined in 2011.  

In summer 1968, as a result of a dispute between the faculty and the board of governors, McTaggart-Cowan left the University and became executive director of the Science Council of Canada. While there, he was tasked with the major role of heading the clean-up of a massive bunker-oil spill from the tanker “Arrow” in Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia in 1970, a task that brought many innovations to oil-spill clean-up technology.

He subsequently retired to a farm property in Bracebridge, Ontario, where he pursued his horticultural interests, and developed a successful apiary. As well, he continued his long-standing dedication to environmental issues such as acidic precipitation and global climate change. Right up to the time of his death in 1997, he followed with great interest and pride the activities, growth and development of SFU.

Over the years, SFU found many ways to honour McTaggart-Cowan’s contributions.

In the ’60s the University established a scholarship fund, today called the Patrick McTaggart-Cowan Undergraduate Scholarship Endowment Fund, to which his family continues to contribute.

In 1972 SFU presented him with an honorary doctorate, and in 1985 named its first co-ed residence after him—McTaggart-Cowan Hall. 

Patrick McTaggart-Cowan attends the opening of McTaggart-Cowan Hall, SFU's first co-ed residence, with his wife, Margaret.

In 1996, a year before his death, the SFU athletics department named its new Scottie Terrier mascot “McFog,” which was McTaggart-Cowan’s nickname. He earned the affectionate moniker, which followed him to SFU, for his uncanny ability to correctly predict the weather for Royal Air force bomber pilots crossing the Atlantic from Newfoundland in WW II, a critical operation known as “Ferry Command”.

In 1998 McTaggart-Cowan’s widow, Margaret, donated his personal papers to the University archives.

“Patrick McTaggart-Cowan’s energy and commitment were integral to forging a university unlike any other,” says SFU President Andrew Petter. “His foundational work as the University’s first president helped set the tone for SFU, and placed us on a path that led to subsequent development and our current status as Canada’s leading comprehensive research university.”