November 7, 2003
$7.5 M gift for Central European studies
Alfred Wirth's donation will make dreams come true
With the second-largest donation in University of Alberta history, the university's renowned centre for Central European studies was reborn under a new name last week.
The Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies has received $7.5 million from Austrian-born philanthropist and businessman Alfred Wirth. Combined with a previous gift from his father, Manfred, a $10-million endowment has been established to support the centre's scholarly and cultural activities.
"This is not only an exceptional philanthropic gift, but also a transformational gift, and it allows us to target the dreams we have had for the centre for some time now," said U of A President, Dr. Rod Fraser.
Those dreams include supporting doctoral fellowships for Canadian and Central European students, holding more events like the Carl Czerny Music Festival of 2002, and continuing a long-term partnership with the Central European University of Budapest.
"It's a privilege to be able to support something you believe in," Wirth said. "It's tremendously satisfying to give a gift that you think you've got right and is appreciated."
Born in Vienna in 1941, Wirth moved to Canada with his family in 1952. He received a degree in political science and economics from McGill University and went on to a career in Canada's financial sector. Since 1991 he has been president and director of Wirth Associates in Toronto.
Manfred Wirth was also an enthusiastic supporter of the University of Alberta and Central European studies, believing that Canada's Austrian heritage should be kept alive through a healthy climate of scholarship. He donated almost $2.5 million to the institute before he died last March, just shy of his 90th birthday.
The mandate of the institute is to raise the profile of Central Europe and Central European Studies in Canada, and to create a scholarly network with other international universities, says director Dr. Franz Szabo. It was established in 1998 by the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Sciences, the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Austrian Conference of University Presidents. The institute has since received support from the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Since Central Europe has grown in importance recently with the creation of the European Union, says Szabo, the small countries of the region now make much "more sense as an area of study and focus.
"The degree to which the project of Europe as such is going to fail or succeed is really going to depend on how well they handle the next phase," Szabo said, adding that central Europe will play a crucial role in the project.
With almost five million people claiming some Central European ancestry, he added, the region has become "an important part of the Canadian identity." Next to England, the Austro-Hungarian Empire has contributed the largest number of immigrants to Canada.