The Early History of Universalia
During the mid to late 1970s, Gary Anderson and Charles Lusthaus were professors at McGill University, (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) respectively responsible for policy research and evaluation in education and leadership development for the education sector. The units they founded were entrepreneurial, serving the demand-driven needs of municipal and Quebec governments and the education community on a contractual basis. Gary and Charles were kindred spirits who thrived on the responsive demands of the education sector during dynamic, expansionary times; by the end of the decade, their units enjoyed strong reputations. After presenting a joint paper at an international conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, Gary and Charles went to the Greek island of Santorini to take stock and contemplate the future. During that respite, they conceived the idea of a private sector firm to perform consulting services, at first vaguely defined. They also wanted the chance to see more of the world – difficult for professionals focused exclusively on education in Quebec. To round out the available areas of expertise in the proposed firm, Cecil Welch, an adjunct professor in counselling psychology, was added to the team.
The name UNIVERSALIA was inspired by Abelard, the medieval French author and philosopher. He established a philosophical movement where UNIVERSALIA was the symbol of total integration of mind, body, spirit and nature and the ideal of Mankind as opposed to realism.
One immediate challenge was to avoid any conflict of interest between the contract work at McGill and that of the firm, initially named Universalia Management Systems (UMS). Two key policies addressed the problem: staffing an external office to avoid using any university resources by the firm; and not accepting any work in the education sector of the province of Quebec, the de facto domain of McGill. An international focus would not only do this clearly, it would also address the desire to expand beyond the borders of Quebec. In 1975/76, Gary had been a Visiting Fellow at the International Institute for Educational Planning at UNESCO in Paris, and using contacts linked to IIEP, he secured Universalia’s first contract, an evaluation of a scholarship program funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in the Leeward and Windward Islands of the Caribbean. Using a tracer study, the evaluation provided irrefutable data to counter the myth that those who received support emigrated from their countries of origin. Over 90% of graduates were back in their countries of origin working in fields related to their training. The evaluation was widely quoted and led almost immediately to a cascading series of evaluations for CIDA, first in the Caribbean in many sectors, and subsequently in Africa and Asia. These first contracts focused the niche and set the stage for Universalia becoming a leading player in international evaluation in Canada.
As is to be expected with a new enterprise, much changed over the next six years. Gerry Cooney became the first full-time professional in 1984; she was followed by many others to respond to growing demands for evaluations from CIDA, and the continuing duties of the original founders at McGill. Furthermore, because quality was valued over profitability, by 1987, UMS found itself employing more and more staff while remaining unsuccessful in increasing the bottom line. Our clients typically employed individual consultants and were reluctant to pay for complex teams with higher overheads even when evaluation quality was enhanced. It was somewhat of a crisis, and we realized that to continue responsibly, we needed to re-structure. Cec Welch did not have the time required to support a growing firm, so he left the firm while Gerry Cooney became a shareholder and key full-time presence. The means of re-structuring was to close UMS and replace it with a newly constituted firm, Universalia Management Group, incorporated in 1987.
Over the past four decades, Universalia has evolved in terms of its clients (which now include the United Nations, multiple International Financial Institutions, foundations, non- governmental organizations as well as bilateral development agencies); its scope (from national to global); sectors and services; size; ownership; and management structure. As we approach our 40th anniversary in 2020, we anticipate continued evolution with the objective of remaining relevant in a dynamic world and marketplace.