A Tribute to a Mentor

You may not know Gord McIntosh (or more properly: Dr. R. Gordon McIntosh), retired professor of educational administration at the University of Alberta. But I want you to meet him. He is a very special person, and not just in my life; although, that is what I am most knowledgeable about.

I had lunch on Wednesday with Gord, although I still feel most comfortable calling him Dr. McIntosh. It was our celebration of forty [40] years since I was awarded my Ph.D. in Educational Administration under his tutelage. Some people talk about earning their Ph.D., and in some senses that is true of me too. But I was not a normal doctoral student.

For one thing, I had never run an educational institution — and that was usually a mandatory expectation (certainly all my colleagues in the program had done some form of educational administration). I, on the other hand, was running my own consulting firm, even driving a Corvette (with my own university parking stall!!). Furthermore, my major clients at the time were everywhere but Edmonton, requiring me to miss classes occasionally (I was even introduced by a classmate to a visiting professor as the class’ “visiting student”).

For another, I wasn’t a very academically-oriented graduate student. I didn’t like Statistics and I wasn’t all that theoretical. I liked getting things done — actually applying what theories were being espoused, and seeing if I could make things work. Moreover, I had already tried a doctoral program at another university and had not been that enthralled with it (leaving before I was finished, accepting an M.A. instead, as some kind of academic reward for putting up with the experience!!).

Yet, once admitted, I became deeply committed to the doctoral program that the Ed Admin department offered. While they gave me credit for the work I’d done at the University of Minnesota, the really good stuff was the core courses that I had to take — a good diversity of subjects, disciplines and pedagogical leaders. The professors were exceedingly interesting and my peers were a group of very bright individuals.

But all that became irrelevant when we got to the point when I had to begin working on the research necessary for my dissertation. By then I had come to realize that I was really interested in the intersection of ethics and leadership; but I was not very eager to attempt a typical data-filled thesis. Then Dr. Miklos, the Department Chair, assigned me to a prof that I hadn’t yet experienced in any course — a Dr. Gordon McIntosh. An introductory meeting was scheduled.

Let me not bore you with all the details, but it was respect (from me at least) from first sight. Very quickly we got to a point where we knew that as unconventional as it may seem (at the time in the mid seventies) we should consider a “program-based approach” — in, essence, an applied study looking at educational leaders and how they reason through moral dilemmas. Perhaps one of the underlying reasons why Dr. McIntosh was willing to countenance this off-beat approach was the fact that he started out in engineering: he holds a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Saskatchewan, and ended with a Ph.D. in Education from Harvard — a diverse journey in itself. He was able to connect me with experts in moral reasoning he himself had met at Harvard while doing his doctorate. His advisor had been Dr. Ralph Moser. This was a particularly brilliant person (a colleague or Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg) who had Canadian roots. Dr. Moser was quite taken with my idea. Very quickly a credible concept was developed and I was able to get started.

Again I’m not going to go through the daily or even monthly grind. The key was that I needed an advisor who could deal with someone “off piste”. Gordon was excellent — he knew I couldn’t write in an academic fashion. So he took the time to teach me. The first big night of writing — he took one hour to get me to write one sentence. The next month he repeated the exercise so I could write an introductory paragraph. At the same time he encouraged my creativity to develop not only the curriculum but also the pedagogy for the central piece in my work: a fifteen day (three hours each day) seminar wherein I would try to raise the levels of moral reasoning in a selected group of educational administrators. [Getting that group became easier when another professor who believed in my potential, was teaching a spring semester course on leadership to a group of graduate students — after meeting with them all, they agreed to experience my seminar instead.]

Again, it was Gordon’s standing in the faculty that convinced his colleague to consider my concepts. Furthermmore, he also inspired another colleague who came forward to recommend a Canadian novel that would help bolster the curriculum content of my seminar. In any event, we finished the curriculum to the satisfaction of all professors and the pedagogical frameworks emerged in a way that met with the approval of the students (all of whom had been involved in some form of leadership with educational systems or institutions). The program can be seen now in my published dissertation.

After the seminar was completed and most of the writing on paper, Gordon then worked with me to prepare for my final oral exams. I had to write up all aspects of the seminar as well as frame the arguments that I contended proved my thesis and would therefore be the focus of the dissertation. It was not an easy road: for one thing, I had not been able to raise the levels of moral reasoning, except in one instance. The “pre” and “post” assessments, based on the key Kohlberg questions and evaluated and scored by his team of Harvard doctoral students, had given me a very clear picture of where each of these participants ranked within the Kohlberg schema, but only a single student moved and then it was only by half a stage. However, the numerous post-session evaluations that the participants completed, did indicate that their awareness of ethical issues substantially increased and their comfort with being able to resolve moral dilemmas both improved and expanded.

We did get through the entire process. He prepared me very well for the Final Oral. He was of great assistance in getting the writing done in an academic and credible fashion. He kept in touch following the journey, even though I didn’t go into the academy other than as an occasional sessional lecturer or adjunct prof. At the time of my convocation (it was the only one of the five degrees I have where I actually attended) he and his wife came to my celebratory dinner.

For many, this is where the thanks tends to end. But I want you to know why I am even more thankful now some forty years later than I was back then. After thirty years of running my consulting firm, I realized for a number of reasons that it was time to transition into another life. It had been a great run and I felt I had accomplished a lot. But there were younger, more creative and energetic people who could take things to a necessary new and higher level; and, they should have that opportunity without unnecessary impediments such as older consultants such as myself… But what would I do now — I certainly wasn’t ready, willing or able to retire!!

Through a series of interesting and in many ways interlocking moments, I was invited to deliver workshops, seminars and even university courses on ethics, primarily ethical reasoning and leadership. Moreover, because of the pedagogical approach that I had refined during my doctoral journey, I was also invited to lead courses in curriculum development, inclusive education, aboriginal issues, organization/business behaviour, epistemology, foremost traditions in social research and the like. My Ph.D. now had renewed credibility — not so much because of extensive publication of my research, but because my area of expertise was suddenly in vogue. A dissertation done in the 70’s addressed an issue in a fashion that made the term “applied ethics” practical and professional years later. It was as if I had recently graduated — even professional conferences invited me to present. It was fun being part of the academy — albeit as an Adjunct Professor and linked often tangentially to a number of institutions. I was meeting and interacting with new waves of graduate and senior undergraduate students. I was seeing more and more interesting books being written about ethical issues and challenges. I was seeing the formation of “ethics centres” on many campuses. And most of all, I myself was active, learning/teaching/leading and contributing to processes that could help people get to better.

This NEVER would have been possible without the leadership, vision, guidance, assistance and general support from one Dr. R. Gordon McIntosh of the University of Alberta — a great institution, which supported great professors to try things well ahead of the times. Thank you Gordon for getting me through my doctorate. You have been a great mentor in my life — you gave my free spirit some serious focus and there have been many students beyond the UofA who have benefited.

So once again, thank you Dr. R. Gordon McIntosh…