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A vote for democracy

McGill alumnus Garvin Brown and his wife Steffanie Diamond Brown made a $5-million gift in support of the Max Bell School of Public Policy

McGill alumnus Garvin Brown

When it comes to the politics of division, you could say G. Garvin Brown IV, BA’91, has a knack for being in the right place at the wrong time.

He cites two elections in his native U.S. in which the winner of the popular vote did not go to the White House, two volatile referenda in his home province of Quebec that drove a wedge between families, and three referenda in the U.K. (where he now lives) which, he suggests, reduced complex issues to facile populism.

“Those examples show just how corrosive electoral systems can be to well-functioning democracies and how they can exaggerate winners and losers, hollow out the centre of political discourse and encourage the fringes,” says Brown, Chair of the Board of Brown-Forman, one of the world’s largest spirits and wine companies.

“If the world had a more reasonable set of electoral systems, we might be having less passionate and more constructive conversations about our past and our future.”

That’s the context for a $5-million gift from Brown and his wife, Steffanie Diamond Brown, to McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. The donation is designed to make a major contribution to research and teaching by establishing an endowed Chair in Democratic Studies to promote further scholarship and public outreach, encourage public discussion of key challenges facing the world’s democracies, and contribute to evidence-based policy decision-making. The gift also supports an annual conference in Montreal designed to promote public debate of ideas, alternatives, and data solutions that can improve electoral processes and enhance citizen engagement.

Raised in Montreal, Brown majored in history and political science at McGill and completed a master’s degree at the University of British Columbia. He would go on to join the family business, Brown-Forman, founded by his great-great-grandfather in 1870 and whose brands include Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, with a short hiatus early on during which he moved to the U.K. and earned his MBA from the London Business School.

In tandem with his corporate role, Brown maintains a passionate interest in the democratic process, particularly the statistical study of elections, known as psephology. 

“I’m a psephology geek,” he admits. “It’s not one of the more exciting areas of public policy or political science but it’s a big deal and at the root of many of our problems and the way we organize our democracies.”

In particular, Brown points to the predominant “first past the post” voting system that  results in single-member constituencies and allows candidates who win less than 50 per cent of the popular vote to be the victor.

He also sees some major challenges ahead in public policy and a plethora of issues threatening democracies from gerrymandering to the impact of technology, highlighted by the recent use – and misuse – of personal data by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Besides his passion for public policy, the other driving force behind Brown’s philanthropy is his enduring affection for his alma mater. He speaks fondly of his McGill experience and the teachers who sparked his lifelong interest in history and politics, like the course taught by professors Charles Taylor, James Tully and W. James Booth.

“It was like going to see a bunch of rock stars every day,” he says.  “There were over 200 kids in a large lecture hall and they kept us spellbound.”

And, like most alumni, Brown also remembers the off-campus life including the legendary Bar Bifteck on St-Laurent Blvd. where he used to hang out with friends.  Living close to the downtown campus, Brown was immersed in family history; his great uncle lived nearby, his grandfather, Hon. Paul Casey, LAW’28, (a Quebec Court of Appeal judge and namesake of the Hon. Paul and Yvonne Casey Arts Internship Award established by Brown) grew up on Hutchison Street, and his great aunt, Betsy Holland, worked in McGill’s accounting department for 25 years.    

Not to mention the fact that he met his wife, Steffanie Diamond, while the two were students at McGill. In recognition of the two families, the new Chair will be known as the Diamond-Brown Chair in Democratic Studies.

“We’re hoping that this gift will encourage work in political theory, comparative politics, even international relations and Canadian studies,” says Brown. “There’s always a healthy public policy challenge on the horizon.”