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Defying Gravity

A strategy for maintaining and advancing U of T’s global standing

Twentieth in the world (according to the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings), eighth in the world in scientific performance (according to the 2013 National Taiwan University Ranking), second in the world in total output of scholarly publications (after Harvard), first in Canada in all of these rankings, and yet last in Canada – and amongst the very lowest in North America – when it comes to public funding per student.

Our ability to achieve these incredible results in the face of such a significant resource handicap is nothing short of remarkable. Simply put, this institution defies gravity. It is Canada’s leading research-intensive university in one field after another, spanning the humanities, medicine, engineering, sciences, social sciences, law, social work and many other professional disciplines.

What may be less obvious from our global rankings is that U of T is arguably Canada’s most accessible university. Our remarkable student aid policy states: “No student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means.” We spend more than $150 million every year, over and above student aid support from government, to make good on this pledge.

Very few other universities in the world deliver on this dual mandate of research excellence and openness as well as U of T does. It is embodied in the experience of Jessica Yeung, who came to Canada from Hong Kong as a child. A fourth-year undergraduate student in linguistics and the first in her family to attend university, she is working with University Professor Keren Rice, one of the world’s leading experts in the linguistic analysis and preservation of aboriginal languages.

Great stories such as Jessica’s are found right across this university. They demonstrate that the University of Toronto is a merit-based portal of opportunity for many thousands of academically qualified students.

Our openness is not confined to residents of the Toronto region, Ontario – or even Canada. International students make up 20 per cent of our incoming undergraduate class this year. They are drawn here, in increasing numbers, to learn from – and work with – our leading scholars. And many of them stay in Canada once they graduate, building careers and spurring creativity and innovation in one sector of the economy after another.

Our university, then, is a critical piece of social infrastructure – one that opens up opportunities for newcomers and provides them with the foundation they need to thrive and contribute to the economic and social well-being of Toronto, Ontario and Canada.

As an institution, we have much to be proud of. Here, I must acknowledge the phenomenal contributions of my predecessor David Naylor, who has steered this institution through challenging times with such clear vision, firm resolve, and utter dedication.

As we look to the future, though, we face some increasingly strong headwinds that could threaten our top-20 global standing and prevent us from moving forward.

Public funding – already scarce – could become even more so if the fiscal position of our government partners deteriorates. Institutions of higher learning find themselves under increasing pressure to produce “job-ready” graduates, and to abandon the time-honoured ideal of a broadly based education. And we now face intense competition as the dissemination of knowledge explodes throughout the online world.

How are we going to meet these formidable challenges if we hope to maintain and advance our global standing? The ingenuity, creativity and efficiency of our faculty, staff and academic leaders will be central to our efforts, of course. The support of our alumni, benefactors and friends has never been more important than it is today, and will become even more so in the next few years.

I believe three strategies will also help ensure our success: leveraging our location more fully; strengthening our international partnerships; and re-examining, and perhaps even reinventing, undergraduate education.

It is our great good fortune to be situated in the world’s most open, cosmopolitan and globalized city-region. If we are to achieve our full potential in the future, we must leverage our location within this urban region of six million plus people more fully.

Already, our students engage in learning-by-doing, working with community partners in neighbourhoods right across the GTA. Our faculty also benefit from our location in Greater Toronto. They gain the opportunity to work on urban issues to advance our understanding of how cities develop over time. In this way, they lend their expertise to government agencies, citizens’ groups and community based organizations on major urban policy questions.

But we must seek new opportunities to open up our campuses to the city around us, using our physical spaces to convene public discussions of the most pressing urban issues of the day. We need to identify our most successful examples of community outreach and partnership, and scale them up to generate more opportunities for our students and faculty, and more benefit for our local partners – public, private and non-profit. By working more closely with local groups to meet challenges and seize opportunities together, we will make this region a better place in which to live, work and prosper.

Second, at a time when we are keen to expand our role as a city-building institution at home, it makes particularly good sense for us to leverage our partnerships with other great universities in other great world cities. Many of these institutions are engaging in their own city-building efforts, and can offer us access to their local projects, practices and partnerships. Not only does this open up fantastic research opportunities for our faculty and students and encourage our students to become global citizens, it also allows us to bring this experience and expertise to Toronto.

The third strategy is to build on the transformation in undergraduate education that has occurred at U of T over the past eight years. We have multiplied small-group learning opportunities. We have pioneered the use of online technologies, and we have learned much about how to use these tools both to substitute for and to complement classroom based learning. We need to extend this work further, and study the effectiveness of online teaching in real time so that we can reap valuable knowledge from our experience. We also need to support the growing interest in entrepreneurial activity amongst our students, and to provide more opportunities for them to study in professional programs.

At the same time, we need to remind our partners in government and business, as well as the taxpayer, that the value of a university education needs to be measured along many dimensions. In addition to enjoying better employment prospects upon graduation, we know that citizens with a university education are more civically engaged, enjoy healthier and longer lives, accumulate higher lifetime earnings, are less likely to engage in crime or to depend on social assistance, and . . . they are happier.

There is one further and very important element that will be required: we’ll need more support from our government partners, at all levels, if we are to succeed. We are grateful for their support in the past. But if we are to achieve our ambitious goals, we need our public-sector partners to recognize – through their funding and their policies – that institutions like the University of Toronto play a unique and differentiated role within Canadian higher education. Just imagine, if we succeed on all of these fronts, what heights we can reach.

While the challenges we face are great and our need to innovate has never been greater, the opportunities have never been more appealing. I look forward to working closely with all parts of the U of T community to build on our wonderful foundations and move this great good place forward.

This is an abridged version of U of T President Meric Gertler’s installation speech on Nov. 7, 2013. Read the full text here:

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