Some personal reflections on this “great good place”
I first came to the St. George campus of the University of Toronto almost 50 years ago – to visit my big sister in residence at University College. Neither Scarborough nor Erindale College existed. The student population on the downtown campus was less than half its current level. Toronto was smaller than Montreal. And Mississauga was not even a town. A decade later, I entered U of T as an undergrad. Somehow, apart from only two interruptions – graduate school at Oxford and a fellowship in internal medicine at Western – I’ve been at the university or its partner institutions ever since. These wonderful years have flown by, and already include almost five years as president. Thus, when the university’s governors recently asked me to renew for another term, several considerations influenced my positive response.
Higher education matters. Skilled trades and post-secondary diploma programs are still very relevant. However, prosperous and innovative societies strongly encourage high school graduates to enrol in degree-granting programs and to carry those studies forward to master’s and doctoral degrees. Institutions of higher education are also magnets for global talent and wellsprings for equality of opportunity. Thus, with all their imperfections, universities remain hugely important to this country’s future.
The University of Toronto matters. With three dynamic campuses, great hospital partners and many other partner institutions, the university has a massive social and economic impact in Canada and beyond. No Canadian organization does more research, assembles more talent under one academic umbrella, puts as many great minds in the classroom, has a bigger footprint in the full range of disciplines, sends as many young professionals out into the world or prepares as many graduates with advanced research degrees.
Our faculty and staff are remarkable. We are incredibly fortunate to be associated with thousands of brilliant, committed, creative and dedicated faculty and staff. This reality was reaffirmed for me at the spring event where we celebrate scores of employees who’ve served 25, 35 and, yes, 40 years. These cheerful veterans come from all corners of the university, and include long-serving staff as well as senior professors from every academic department. They are also a surprisingly youthful bunch – renewed, I surmise, by succeeding generations of students.
Our students remain an inspiration. Year after year, hardworking students bring their native intelligence and life dreams to us from every continent and most nations of the world. Recently, for example, I dined with some upper-year undergrads at the behest of Robert Bothwell, the distinguished historian who has directed the international relations program at Trinity College for 16 years. Each student spoke about his or her background, academic work, outside interests and future plans. It would be hard to imagine a more diverse group, or a more inspiring array of talent and positive ambition. I came away with a strong sense that, notwithstanding the problems that our generation has passed on, the world is going to be just fine.
Alumni and friends care deeply about the university. Those international relations students will soon be our alumni. They will graduate and make their mark; as alumni, they and countless other graduates are the university’s most important contribution to the betterment of the world. In turn, our alumni are dedicated to the betterment of their university. They consistently convey their views to us on a range of issues and developments. They also volunteer at alumni events, support new grads as mentors, donate very generously and champion their university in more than 150 nations.
All things considered, it’s a privilege to spend a few more years serving this “great good place” and the broader causes of higher education, advanced research and university-derived innovation. There is no shortage of things to do, and I am certain the ensuing years will fly by even faster than the last five.