Irving family’s philanthropic impact on Acadia ‘incalculable’

December 23, 2020

Strong connections anchor unique relationship that spans decades of giving to support Acadia’s students, faculty and staff

Fall 2019: A celebration at the KC Irving Environmental Science Centre honouring the Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation scholars (2014 – 2019)


By Fred Sgambati (’83)

The notion of family and taking care of one another are threads that are woven through the fabric of Acadia University’s illustrious 182-year history. One family in particular has had a significant and enduring impact at Acadia, tending carefully to the University’s students, faculty and staff while quietly establishing itself as Acadia’s most generous benefactors: the Arthur Irving family of Saint John, NB.

The Irving family connection to Acadia spans more than a century. K. C. Irving was a member of the Class of 1921 and his sons James (’50, ’03 HON), Arthur (’52, ’03 HON) and Jack (’54, ’03 HON) were all students before returning to Saint John to work in the family business with their father. Arthur’s wife Sandra (’74, ’17 HON) is a loyal alumna and an integral part of the family’s exceptional legacy of support for the school, as is Arthur’s and Sandra’s daughter Sarah, who is currently Executive Vice-President and Chief Brand Officer for Irving Oil. Arthur was Acadia’s Chancellor from 1996 to 2010, received a Doctor of Civil Laws from Acadia in 2003, and was named Chancellor Emeritus in 2010.

Clearly the Irving family’s Acadia roots run deep, and their remarkable support of the Acadia community touches nearly every aspect of campus life. They have established prestigious academic and athletic scholarships, funded research, and enhanced campus infrastructure. The K. C. Irving Environmental Science Centre and Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens were built and equipped entirely by a significant gift from Arthur, James and Jack, creating what The Huffington Post described in 2015 as one of the ‘most eye-catching campus buildings in Canada’.

The K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre and Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens consist of internationally significant facilities for botanical and environmental research, six acres of public gardens representing native plant communities of the Acadian Forest Region, a glassed-in winter garden, a garden of medicinal and food plants, plus fully wired conferencing and educational facilities. Construction began in the fall of 1999, 100 years after the birth year of K.C. Irving. The landscape architect was Alex Novell of Novell-Tullett, Bristol, England.  The architects for the award-winning building were Bob Stern, Graham Wyatt and Preston Gumberich of Robert A.M. Stern Architects, New York.

The Gardens are a wonderful tribute to Arthur’s mother, reflecting her passion for the beauty found in nature, trees and flowers. Arthur shares this passion, knowing that the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens, like the Irving Centre, play a unique role in learning, research and student and community engagement. Indeed, the Gardens are essentially an outdoor classroom for Acadia’s students, and serve as a living gene bank for the native flora of the Acadian Forest Region.

Additionally, Arthur, in partnership with Acadia University, Irving Oil and Ducks Unlimited, established the Beaubassin Research Centre in Aulac, NB, dedicated to trans-disciplinary, ecological research that seeks to understand and explain the complexities of the natural world.

The goal has always been to enhance the educational experience at Acadia so that students are equipped upon graduation to make a difference at a fundamental level that effects social and ecological change.

Never a bad day

In 2013’s Voices of Acadia, Vol. I, Arthur says, “I never had a bad day at Acadia. It has played a very important part in my life. In terms of giving, when someone helps you along the way and plays a very important part in your lifetime, the natural inclination should be to give back and help them as a means of saying thank you. Saying thank you to Acadia is important to me.”

Sandra adds, “what we like to do most is help students. When Arthur was asked to be Chancellor, he said he would take on the role if there was something he could do for students. The very first thought behind the K. C. Irving Environmental Science Centre was ‘students’ and creating a very special meeting place for them. Thus, the realization of the Garden Room at the K. C. Irving – where students meet safely to read, study, enjoy music concerts and presentations, and a warm fireplace on a wintry day.

“As important as the social meeting place of the Garden Room was, and is, to the identity of it, we also knew we needed to create a very important academic component. From an environmental research perspective, the objective is to encourage the study of flora and fauna of the nine distinct Acadian Forest habitats that are represented in the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens.”

Dr. Ian Spooner is the Director of Research at the K. C. Irving Environmental Science Centre and Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens. Appointed to the position in February this year, Dr. Spooner says, “I am very proud to be part of the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre and Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens – they are an exceptional nexus of learning and research. Humans rely on the natural world and, today, the natural world depends on us. The body of work that can be accomplished in the Irving Centre facilities is exciting, and there has never been a more pressing time to develop the environmental researchers of tomorrow.”

The Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation Scholarships at Acadia University are key elements of the success of this ambition and a powerful example of the Irving family’s abiding interest in investing in the future of Acadia’s students and environmental sustainability.

For students pursuing studies in environmental science, biology, environmental and sustainability studies, or environmental geoscience, the Arthur Irving Scholarships are among the most prestigious awards in Canada, offering financial assistance as well as mentorship and research project options.

They are awarded to students who have demonstrated academic and leadership skills and who are committed to making a difference in how society views and manages our natural environment and its resources.

Sarah Hines (’17) is Coordinator of the Arthur Irving Scholars and Research Program at Acadia and a former Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation Scholar. Upon graduation, she received the University Medal in Environmental Science for highest graduating average.

“The financial support provided by the Arthur L. Irving Family Foundation Scholarships in Environmental Studies allowed me to focus on my studies and it gave me the confidence and connections to begin research early on in my undergrad,” Sarah says. “It is an honour to have the opportunity now to likewise support and encourage other students whose passion for the environment has inspired them to study here at Acadia. I can’t thank the Irving family enough for believing in all of the current scholars and alumni as future leaders of environmental study. Their generosity has had a positive impact on so many lives.” 

Positive and ongoing impact

That positive impact continues to this day. In 2019, the Irving family established the Arthur Irving Athletics Awards. Awarded at the discretion of the Director of Athletics to facilitate recruitment and retention of outstanding athletes, the awards will be made annually from 2020-2022 to one prospective or returning male student-athlete; one prospective or returning female student-athlete; one women’s rugby student-athlete; one male student-athlete; and one female student-athlete.

The Irving family’s impact on the Campaign for Acadia would be difficult to overstate, and the University is deeply grateful for their investment in each of the four Campaign pillars: Transform; Discover; Inspire; and Build.

“The success of the Campaign for Acadia depended entirely on the generosity of our alumni and friends,” notes Acadia President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Peter Ricketts. “I am pleased and proud to say that the Irving family, and Arthur and Sandra Irving particularly, occupy both those categories, and have done so for quite some time. They have been there whenever we have needed them, and provided incredible financial support that has benefitted students, faculty and staff over many decades. Their legacy is impressive and ongoing, and we are incredibly grateful for their long association with Acadia and very thankful for their interest in the University.”

Vice-President, Advancement Dr. Rod Morrison says, “the Irving family’s relationship with Acadia began more than 100 years ago when legendary businessman K. C. Irving arrived on campus. Since then, the Irving family has been very much a part of the fabric of Acadia and I have been lucky enough to experience their kindness of spirit and genuine affection for the University. All members of the Acadia community have been touched by their generosity, and the impact of their investments is, frankly, incalculable. Words can’t express how appreciative we are of their support, now and in the future.”