July 4, 2022

Meet Jon Cornish, fearless problem-solver, community advocate — and UCalgary's 15th chancellor

University's top volunteer plans to advocate for institution's reputation and priorities, making our community a better place for all
Jon Cornish
James May Photographics, for the University of Calgary

When Chancellor-elect Jon Cornish was elected to the Student Senate at his alma mater, the University of Kansas (KU), he ran on a platform of accomplishing three goals. He wanted to bring open Wi-Fi access to students on campus, secure senate representation for his residence building (as it was the only tower that didn’t have it), and he wanted to build a crosswalk. 

“It was such a little thing, building the crosswalk, but there was a three-lane road beside our housing complex, and you supposedly couldn’t put a crosswalk on it,” says Cornish, who recently began his tenure as the University of Calgary’s 15th chancellor. “But we secured some capital and built an island so people could cross the road.”

A fearless problem-solver, Cornish is someone who eyes up a barrier and says, “Yes, I can do something about that.” He sees a strong foundation and building blocks where most people see a wall.

The senate seat and crosswalk might seem like small issues compared to the problems he’s tackling today, but they were sparks at the start of a bright career that would find Cornish continually advocating for under-represented communities and empowering others to embark on paths they were unable to travel before.

Wins and losses both provide knowledge

As he joins UCalgary in its top volunteer position, Cornish brings with him experience as a Canadian Football Hall of Fame player with the Calgary Stampeders, as a founder and president of the Calgary Black Chambers, as an investment adviser with RBC Dominion Securities, a chartered financial analyst charter holder, as an active community volunteer, and as an advocate for BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ communities.  

While his accomplishments are many, he draws knowledge and experience from his losses, as well as his wins.  

After the Stampeders were kicked out of the CFL playoffs in the Western final in 2013, in a game they were favoured to win — in a year Cornish also won the coveted Lou Marsh Trophy — he was faced with figuring out how to come back from that loss.

“We had a great team that assumed we would win, but losing is part of the deal,” says Cornish.

I realized it wasn’t just about me being my best. It was about how much I could motivate and elevate those around me to succeed.

The Stampeders came back to win the Grey Cup in 2014. In reflecting on his nine years of professional football experience, Cornish says it was through sport that he learned to quickly weigh solutions — and that there is no challenge that can’t be overcome.

“If you distil football down, you are trying to move a ball forward around obstacles, and my job was to solve the issue of the defence, sometimes within seconds,” says Cornish, adding that, to succeed in the sport, you need to know who you are up against and what your objectives are.

“I’ve never seen a problem I couldn’t solve,” he says. “I might get tackled, but there is always a path you can take over time, that sometimes involves going backwards.”

Sports lessons apply in community

Cornish has applied the same philosophy and attitude to his many pursuits. When he was volunteering at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, playing video games with patients, he quickly saw ways he could help even more people as a fundraiser.

When he and his wife, Kiran Seetal, learned about the pay disparity for Black members of the business community in Calgary, about how child poverty was three times higher for Black children in the community, and about how 50 per cent of Black students didn’t feel that they had the financial means to finish university, they started the Calgary Black Chambers.

The organization has now raised more than $70,000 for student scholarships, has provided mentorship for nearly 300 kids in the Calgary Catholic School District, and recently recognized 10 outstanding Calgarians in the Calgary Black Achievement Awards.

Cornish has long been a champion for LGBTQ2S+ communities, volunteering for the You Can Play Project, which encourages safe team sports for all. This is work he began while providing a voice for equality in the Stampeders’ locker room.

“I’ve seen the antagonism that be directed at people who are just trying to love who they love, and I saw an opportunity to create a safe space where everybody felt comfortable being who they were,” says Cornish.

Eliminating barriers is priority

He plans to bring the same energy and passion for eliminating barriers for LGBTQ2S+ and BIPOC communities to his role as chancellor, not as a goal to cross off a list, but because it’s what he always does and is central to all his work.

“If I left the university and it wasn’t a truly anti-racist organization, I would be disappointed,” says Cornish. “A lot of work is being done on campus in this space and, if I can find ways to support these groups, we can work together to make our community a better place for all.”

Promoting UCalgary’s Top 5 research school status, building mutually beneficial community partnerships, ensuring world-class programs are operating out of world-class facilities, and prioritizing student mental health are initiatives Cornish says he also hopes to help advance in his role as an ambassador advocating for the university’s reputation and priorities.

He plans to approach this role as he has approached many of his roles in the past: with a strong desire to learn, to listen and to help, partly inspired by one of his mentors.

Inspired by mentor

“I had strong relationship with the chancellor at KU, the late Robert Hemenway, and he showed me what good can be done integrating a university into the city, the province and the country it’s in,” says Cornish. “I want to spend time understanding the institution, helping students in whatever way I can, and be accessible to them in the same way that he was to me.”

Cornish officially began his four-year term on July 1, succeeding Chancellor Emerita Deborah Yedlin, and he will be officially installed as chancellor during the 9 a.m. convocation ceremony on Nov. 10.

The chancellor is a volunteer who works closely with university leadership to advance the vision of the institution. The chancellor serves as an ambassador and a connector who builds long-term partnerships with our community, and also chairs the University Senate, is a member of the Board of Governors, and presides over all degree-conferring ceremonies. Learn more about the chancellor’s role at UCalgary.