Michael Pitfield: from Trudeau to teaching at Smith

Posted on October 27, 2017

Kingston, ON – When Michael Pitfield, once Canada’s most powerful bureaucrat, died last week at 80 of Parkinson’s disease, obituaries noted his long association with Pierre Trudeau and behind-the-scenes role bringing home Canada’s Constitution in 1982.

Pitfield’s decades-spanning career in public service is well documented. He was Clerk of the Privy Council under Trudeau in the 1970s and early ’80s, then moved to the Senate.

Lesser known is Pitfield’s contribution to business education here at Smith School of Business.

Pitfield did not attend Smith. (He graduated with a law degree from McGill.) But he had a hand in launching its groundbreaking Executive MBA program 25 years ago. For a time, he even taught a class.

Pitfield’s involvement begins with Gordon Cassidy, who taught at the school for many years. In the early ’90s, Cassidy envisioned a “virtual university” that would let people get their MBA from anywhere in Canada while still working full time.

The result, the Queen’s EMBA, launched in Ottawa in 1992. A national program followed, becoming the first of its kind in Canada to offer classes by videoconference. TV monitors and cameras were placed in seminar rooms across the country, connected by high-speed phone lines with two-way voice and video.

To nurture the program, Cassidy set up an advisory board of high-profile leaders from business and government. Pitfield, by then a senator, not only sat on the board, he became “a particularly valuable advocate and contributor” to ensure the program’s success, according to Getting Down to Business, a book chronicling the history of business education at Queen’s by professors emeriti Mervin Daub, BCom’66, and Bruce Buchan.

“He didn’t just advise. He wanted to get more involved,” recalls George Thwaites, BCom’78, EMBA’94, who was in the first EMBA graduate class.

One way Pitfield helped was to teach a class in Kingston on government and business relations.

Thwaites says students were immediately in awe of their famous teacher but soon also came to admire his abilities in the classroom.

More than just politics, Pitfield wove everything from Plato and philosophy to history into his teaching. “He really challenged us and made us think differently,” says Thwaites. “I think he had a huge impact on the students.”