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John W. O'Brien was born in Toronto in August 4, 1931, and died in Montreal on December 16, 2011. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from McGill University. He also studied at l'Institut d'études politiques in Paris. He began to work at Sir George Williams College in 1954 as a lecturer in economics. He was appointed assistant professor of economics in 1957. In 1961, he was appointed associate professor of economics and assistant dean of S.G.W. In 1963 he was appointed dean of the Faculty of Arts. From 1965 to 1996 he was professor of economics.
John W. O'Brien was active for a number of years in inter-university and university-government relations. From 1969 to 1976 he sat on the Council of Universities which advised the Quebec Minister of Education on university matters. He was chair of the Conference of Rectors and Principals of Quebec Universities ( = CRÉPUQ, the Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec) from 1974 to 1977; he had been a member of the Conference since 1969. In 1975 he was named a member of the Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities.
He was principal of Sir George Williams University from 1969 to 1974, the year of its merger with Loyola College, and he became the first rector and vice-chancellor of the resulting institution, Concordia University, positions he held until 1984, when he was named rector emeritus. He was appointed speaker of the Senate of Concordia University in 1996.
In 1976 he received honourary degrees of Doctor of Civil Laws from Bishop's University, and Doctor of Laws from McGill University.
He is author of the book Canadian Money and Banking, among others.