Principal's Message

Donald Ainslie
Magazine Section: 

Donald Ainslie

Thoughts on the Road Ahead

This past summer, I spent many hours cycling the highways and byways of southern Ontario.  I was training for the Friends for Life Bike Rally, the sustaining fundraiser for Toronto’s People With AIDS Foundation (PWA).  For 18 years, a group of dedicated volunteers have been cycling the 600-odd kilometres to Montréal over six days, raising over $12 million in the process to help PWA provide food, complementary therapies, counselling, and more for people living with HIV and AIDS.  I did the ride to Montréal in 2008, but this year I opted for a new one-day option:  108 kilometres to Port Hope, a destination that resonates with the hope that PWA provides its clients.

Cycling gives you time to think.  My other sport, competitive “masters” swimming, is the opposite.  The point of a workout in the pool is to take you to the point where you stop thinking, where you focus only on finishing the lengths in the allotted time.  But with cycling, the cadence of the pedal strokes soon brings your breathing into a coordinated rhythm and frees your mind to wander.

I spent a fair amount of time thinking about why I had opted to spend my free time on a bicycle, raising money for PWA.  When the AIDS epidemic first became apparent, in the early 1980s, I was still a teenager—graduating high school, starting university, and coming out of the closet as a gay man.  For those 15 or so years—1981 to 1996, the years in which I came of age—AIDS was the defining feature of gay life.  I met the first person who openly disclosed his HIV-positive status in 1988, and since that time I have lost too many friends to the epidemic.

Development of effective medications in the mid-1990s changed things radically so that AIDS is now a chronic though mostly manageable disease.  It nonetheless remains highly stigmatized and especially hard to handle for those without access to appropriate medical care and social supports.  PWA’s services fill this gap.

So when I was cycling this summer, I thought about how each of our lives are subject to luck.  Sometimes it is the trivial luck of avoiding a flat tire.  But often it is the luck by which you avoid ending up infected with a hitherto unknown disease, or through which you were born into a family with the emotional and financial means to raise you well.

As part of the Bike Rally, I asked my friends, colleagues, and family to sponsor me by making a donation to PWA.  Some people do not like engaging in this kind of solicitation.  But when you believe in the cause, when you can articulate the difference a contribution makes, I think you live up to the Greek roots of ‘philanthropy’—the love of humanity.

In my role as Principal at University College, I routinely ask for philanthropic support from our alumni community.  I think that the mission of the College—helping students in their pursuit of academic excellence and preparing them to make a difference to the world—offers our students the best possible defence from bad luck.

Just as cycling frees my mind to wander, spending their undergraduate years at University College gives our students the time and space to think, develop, and grow. So when they confront the next set of challenges on the road ahead, be they foreseen like climate change or unforeseen like an epidemic, the capacity for critical thinking and the commitment to social engagement that they learned at UC will help them stay upright no matter the destinations they set for themselves.