A&S alumni Professor Robert Bothwell and philanthropist Ira Gluskin forged connection through mutual history

August 11, 2022 by Peter Boisseau - A&S News

Professor Emeritus Robert Bothwell has been the May Gluskin Chair in Canadian History since 2004, but that’s just one of his links to philanthropist and fellow A&S alumnus Ira Gluskin that has forged a strong connection and benefitted students. 

Gluskin earned a bachelor of commerce as a member of University College (UC) in 1964 and became an investment industry leader. Bothwell — also a member of UC — earned a bachelor of arts in history in 1966 and became a renowned historian after he began teaching at U of T in 1970. 

Their shared history at UC became an instant source of camaraderie when they started chatting and corresponding after Bothwell took over the chair. 

“We’re roughly the same age and we were able to refer back to U of T and the college as they were in the 1960s, when we were educated,” says Bothwell, who has been the outgoing chair since he retired in 2021. 

Gluskin received an honorary Doctor of Laws in June after years as a dedicated U of T volunteer and supporter, including creating the history chair in his mother’s name in 2000 and offering his time and talents to Arts & Science, the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, the Department of Economics and UC. 

“I think a large part of his commitment to U of T derives from the fact that he was a student here, and in a lot of ways, I think that’s the most important link between us as well,” says Bothwell. 

The pair hit it off from the beginning of Bothwell’s tenure and their bond rapidly grew from there. Apart from being able to reminisce about their time as Arts & Science students, Gluskin was a patient sounding board for Bothwell’s research on Ashkenazi Jews who settled in North America. 

They also discovered a mutual interest in Toronto detective fiction writer Robert Rotenberg and a shared impatience with bureaucracy and paperwork. They happily abandoned the process of filing annual reports about the chair’s activities. 

“I just started writing him letters. And my reports to Ira, which could be annual or often more frequent, were always in the form of letters from one friend to another.” 

The $1 million donation that created the chair freed Bothwell from chasing grants and allowed him to concentrate on authoring major works on diplomatic and political history, among his many books. 

Bothwell has also been able to benefit students throughout his years as chair by hiring a dozen or more undergraduates as researchers.  

“You're giving them a very intense amount of training about what it means to be a historian because for the first time, you're dealing with them as equals. You're all part of the same project, and you’re really counting on them,” says Bothwell. 

“They are learning things as historians that will stick with them all their lives. Undergraduates don't often get that kind of experience, and in that way, they are all beneficiaries of the Gluskin chair,” he says. 

“The students I've hired all have initiative and imagination. I think we have the best students in Canada, students who are comparable to any in the world.”