The continuing influence of the Carnegie Foundation on Canadian post-secondary education

Par Dr. David Peacock , Western Hub Researcher
Par Connor J. Thompson , Ph.D. student in History at the University of Alberta
04 October 2020

Community engagement – that often talked about yet just as often ill-defined third mission of Canadian post-secondary education – has been receiving renewed attention recently.  The pandemic has raised with new urgency some old questions around how our post-secondary sector contributes to our public benefit.  The University of Alberta is one of 16 Canadian post-secondary institutions that is exploring, with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, if and how the field of community engagement professionals and community engaged scholars can develop a Canadian version of the Carnegie Classification System for Community Engagement (CCSCE). The U.S. elective classification has around 360 U.S. institutions participating. Simon Fraser University, as the convening Canadian institution for the project, describes the purpose of this classification system development as being ‘intended to support a process for institutional learning and transformation, the outcome of which is an institution in which high-quality community engagement is deeply rooted and pervasive’. As UAlberta and other Canadian institutions work with Carnegie on this project, it is instructive to recall the long history of Carnegie funding of Canadian higher education, some of which was specifically provided for what today we would call ‘community engagement’.   

Indeed, Carnegie investment in Canadian universities is almost as old as the initial Carnegie charitable agencies themselves. The Carnegie Corporation of New York’s (CCNY) initial grants in Canada, starting in 1911, mostly consisted of donations targeted towards public libraries and church organs, but a change began in 1913 saw the Carnegie Corporation direct a greater deal of its focus towards Canadian higher education, through the Special Fund for British Dominions and Colonies. An early goal of Carnegie giving was to foster peaceful relations and a greater standard of education in the English-speaking world, hence Carnegie donations and work in such places as South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and later, British colonies in East Africa and the Caribbean. Their commitment to improving education in Canada and Newfoundland during the start of the twentieth century resulted in the CCNY granting over $5.9 million to Universities across the country between 1911 and 1949.1

The Carnegie Corporation of New York made several grants to Canadian Universities that are particularly noteworthy. In 1913, an endowment grant was made to Queen’s University, followed by endowment grants to Dalhousie and McGill Universities. The grant to McGill was an unusually large sum, at $1 million (roughly $26 million simple present value). Grants to Canadian Universities became a regular feature of Carnegie Corporation activities during the 1920s and 1930s, as well as some efforts towards greater “efficiencies” (or centralization) of Canadian higher education – the Carnegie Corporation made an unsuccessful effort to centralize Maritime colleges and Universities into a single Federated University of the Maritime Provinces, an effort that found some supporters but also produced resentment from those skeptical of the plan. From this point on, Carnegie assessments were made with a greater deal of attention to the sentiments of those on the ground.

Under Frederick P. Keppel’s leadership (president of CCNY from 1923 – 1941), the activities of the Carnegie Corporation shifted towards a greater focus on the arts and adult education. In Canada, this led to the creation of the Canadian Museums Committee, the funding of the activities of artistic experts associated with Canada’s National Gallery, and Carnegie grants to the Art Gallery of Toronto, the Montreal Art Association, and grants directed towards fine arts departments across Canada. In the realm of adult education, Universities funded during this period with Carnegie funds include the famous Antigonish Experiment in adult education out of St. Francis Xavier University, which was an innovative form of adult education directed at fishermen in Nova Scotia. 

Carnegie Foundation

Fig. 1 – Radio was already a widely-used form of media in Alberta’s 1930s, and was growing rapidly in popularity. Carnegie Corporation funding to the University of Alberta’s CKUA radio station rapidly increased the scope of their work.

Closer to home, the Carnegie Corporation also made an incredibly consequential grant to what was then the Department of Extension at the University of Alberta. This grant is a particularly interesting, and little-discussed, case study in the Carnegie Corporation’s funding of University Extension activities. In the Great Depression, the Department of Extension and Carnegie’s interests coincided in moving beyond modernizing the agriculture sector – a major focus of Extension departments at the time – to developing the Arts.  In 1931, a Carnegie representative, W. S. Learned, was sent to Canada to inspect the potential of new areas for Carnegie investment in Western Canada. Learned’s report to CCNY noted the University of Alberta’s Department of Extension as a particularly fertile ground for Carnegie grantmaking. The grant was to fund three years (later extended to five years) of Extension activity in its Division of Fine Arts, to and meet an increasing appreciation of and demand for drama, music, and the fine arts throughout Alberta. Perhaps the best known outcome of these grants was the creation of the Banff School of Fine Arts, known today as the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Initially created as a summer school for Drama in 1933, by 1935, its mandate was expanded into other fine arts due to the success of its programming and the interest it generated. The activities of the U of A’s Department of Extension included an expansion of programming for an Edmontonian (and Albertan) landmark, CKUA, a pioneering radio station that also benefited greatly from Carnegie funding. A collection of over 800 classical records was donated to the radio station, and its programming was expanded through the use of Carnegie funds. 

These Anglo-European cultural forms were beloved of Andrew Carnegie himself, a Scottish emigrant, and were clearly understood at the time as crucial for the education and development of the colonies. W. S. Learned seemed to reflect this himself in correspondence from his visit to Alberta when he noted that settlers in the area “have come from the old country and… furnish the natural backbone for cultural instruction of this sort.”2 Thus, particular types of education and outreach were certainly favoured over others – there is no discussion, for example, of Alberta’s Indigenous population amongst the documents relating to the grants made to the Department of Extension.

Carnegie Foundation

Fig. 2 – A caricature of Andrew Carnegie from Puck magazine, showing both his fame for grant-giving as well as his appreciation of his Scottish heritage. Drawn by Louis Dalrymple, Puck Magazine June 1, 1903.

Thus the extraordinary profits of a Scottish-American steel magnate made it all the way into the homes of rural Albertans, as they listened in to CKUA’s radio broadcasts in their living rooms. During the 1930’s Depression in Alberta, with struggling provincial government finances, this donation by Carnegie to the University and Extension was pleasing to both the University and the Province’s Department of Education, which was also keen to meet the increased demand from the people for drama, radio plays, music and arts in general.

Of course, things have changed, and UAlberta and other Canadian post-secondary institutions no longer receive funding support from the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning. And community engagement practices have changed too, just as often involving the decolonizing of dominant European cultural forms, and moving beyond one-sided university-centric outreach that effectively takes “the European canon” to the masses. In the contemporary era, the Carnegie Foundation continues to assist efforts in Canada to raise the quality and impact of community engagement, outreach and service to communities beyond the bounds of post-secondary institutions for the benefit of local peoples.  Such work is crucial during a pandemic, yet the task remains for a Canadian-adapted classification system for community engagement to clearly engage the demands of Indigenous peoples and scholars. In our current context of Reconciliation, any such classification system must be attuned towards the needs of Canadians today.

This article is part of the “The Carnegie Foundation and Canadian Higher Education” research project under the supervision of Dr. David Peacock, a researcher of the Western Hub.

Find a list of PhiLab’s ongoing research projects here.


Photograph Credits


Fig. 1 – Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 195876. Public Domain,

Fig. 2 –  Puck Magazine, June 1, 1903. Public domain,

Notes de bas de page


1 Jeffrey D. Brison, Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Canada: American Philanthropy and the Arts and Letters in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 210.

2 Letter, W. S. Learned to W. G. Carpenter, Apr. 25, 1932, Box III.A 8 Folder 2, Carnegie Corporation of New York fonds, Columbia University Archives, New York.