F. Cyril James: 1903-1973

F. Cyril James: 1903-1973 McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 1999 > Winter 1999-2000 > The 1930s > F. Cyril James: 1903-1973

F. Cyril James

In 1939, after much hesitation, F. Cyril James took a two-year leave of absence from his position as an up-and-coming academic star at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to become Director of McGill's School of Commerce. But there was little hint of what the future might hold.

The same month he began toiling at McGill, war broke out in Europe. Fate acted quickly. The University's American-born principal, Lewis Douglas, decided to return to the States. The invitation to become his successor was put to James by then chancellor Edward Beatty in less than complimentary terms. "In normal circumstances," James was told, "McGill would search for a really distinguished successor in Canada and in the United Kingdom, but at the present time all such people are being absorbed into the war effort. The Board of Governors would therefore like you to take on the job." James agreed to let his name be put forward, and on January 1, 1940, four months after his official arrival on campus, he became McGill's eleventh Principal -- a post he was to occupy for the next 22 years.

It was a long way from his starting point. The son of a municipal water board inspector, Frank James, as he was known informally, was born in London, England, in 1903. He pursued degrees at the London School of Economics and then the University of Pennsylvania, forging his academic reputation with such works as The Economics of Money, Banking and Credit and the two-volume Growth of Chicago Banks. But his skill in economic analysis and as a lecturer -- McGill historian Stanley Frost noted James's "gifts of clarity, cogency, and restrained elegance" -- were to give precedence to his abilities in university administration.

The war effort consumed much of his initial attention. In a 1942 speech, James asserted that "none dare estimate the contribution that North American universities can make to the future welfare of mankind if they will but respond to the challenge which now confronts them. It is not too much to suggest that the soul of this nation, the soul of liberty itself, is in their charge." In response to the challenge, James oversaw the introduction into the McGill program of military training for all "British nationals" -- that is, Canadians -- as well as the implementation of "accelerated programs" in an attempt to get graduates onto the battlefields of Europe faster.

The "war effort" segued into a "postwar effort." James was solicited by Prime Minister Mackenzie King to chair the Committee on Postwar Reconstruction, optimistically convened in 1941, to ensure that the social chaos following the end of the first Great War would not be repeated. In this capacity, he contributed to the foundation of Canada's national welfare system.

In the years following the war, McGill grew dramatically in physical capacity and enrolment. The Principal's status grew as well. James welcomed royalty from Princess Elizabeth of England to Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia; he received honorary degrees from Cambridge and Glasgow. In 1959, he toured the USSR, despite strong anti-communist sentiments in Canada, and returned to write a short book, On Understanding Russia. In 1960, he was elected President of the International Association of Uni-versities (IAU).

By the '60s, James's career in Montreal was winding down. His health waning and his political allies in the University fewer, he left the principalship in June 1962, although he continued to lead the IAU until the end of 1965. Finally, retirement: James returned to his native England and began the slow task of autobiography. Alas, it was to remain unfinished. The former principal died of a heart attack on May 3, 1973.

But his immense legacy to the University might be glimpsed even in his inaugural speech: "All of us who are part of the great McGill community must assume the responsibility of applying our efforts, our energies, and our abilities, not only to raise the prestige of the University as an end in itself, but to be sure that McGill gives to Canada, and to the world, intellectual integrity, sound knowledge, wise judgement, and all the service that can be offered toward the solution of the problems that urgently demand the attention of our generation." Certainly, Cyril James met his own lofty standards.

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