University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

One on One

With University of Toronto president David Naylor

Construction hoarding blocks an exit from the Medical Sciences Building on King’s College Circle, but Dr. David Naylor encourages a visitor to peer through the cracks to catch a glimpse of the towering glass face of the new Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. “Impressive, isn’t it?”

Naylor, who begins his term as U of T’s 15th president Oct. 1, takes office at a hopeful point in the university’s history. The Donnelly CCBR, one of several new buildings slated to open this school year, will heighten U of T’s profile as a global centre for research and discovery. New facilities such as the Hazel McCallion Academic Learning Centre, the Leslie L. Dan Pharmacy Building and the UTSC Arts and Administration Building, will offer an enhanced environment for teaching, learning and research at all three campuses while showcasing the work of some of the city’s (and the world’s) most exciting architects. Canada Research Chairs continue to retain bright, young faculty, and new funding from the province stands to ease a decade-long strain on resources.

Still, plenty of challenges remain. Prof. Naylor joined U of T Magazine editor Scott Anderson in mid-June for a discussion about the future of the university, the role of the president and the goal of creating a truly first-rate student experience.

You’ve spent 25 years at the University of Toronto. What is it about this institution that has made you want to dedicate a large portion of your life to it?
I get a big kick out of smart and motivated young people, and I’ve always enjoyed new ideas. The University of Toronto and its institutional partners far and away have more of these than any other place in Canada.

What do you reflect on most proudly from your term as dean of medicine?
I think it was a happy and productive period for the overwhelming majority of our faculty, staff and students, but that’s almost entirely about great people and good timing. An academic administrator is a little like an orchestra conductor. Sometimes you help write a little music, but there’s so much talent and creativity around that your role really is to keep things organized and co-ordinated. You can pick some of the soloists, encourage all the musicians and worry about the acoustics in the concert hall. But the quality of the players ultimately matters a lot more than the person waving the baton.

What do you think is the most important role of the president of U of T?
The president has to advocate endlessly for the university because the students, faculty and staff deserve every measure of support we can bring them. The University of Toronto is the best university in Canada, and, paradoxically, that makes advocacy harder, not easier. Canadians are big-hearted but they don’t warm to domestic front-runners. I look at it differently. The University of Toronto is in a tough international race and we need more resources to move up the standings.

Why did you want the job of president?
I view the presidency as a chance to make a difference in an institution that matters a lot – not only to the people here, but to the Greater Toronto Area, the province and the country.

Those of us with an administrative bent have had to make a choice about where we go with our scholarly lives. When I became dean, I decided to cut way back on research and give up clinical care – two things I had really enjoyed. Having made those choices, I was forced to confront certain consequences. Was I going to retool after six years as dean, go back to a research and clinical life and take on a group of new graduate students – something else I really enjoyed? Or was I going to become more immersed in the administrative life of an institution that I cared about a lot? It looks like I’m about to be fully immersed!

Do you have a guiding philosophy?
I believe in getting great people into leadership roles and letting them do their good work. We need to be closely attuned to students’ views of the university and their experiences inside and outside the classroom, with a view to improving them. I’d like us to celebrate and communicate what we do well, without losing sight of the challenges we face. And we need to keep the university engaged with the wider world – at the municipal, regional and international levels.

In your career, have you had any role models or mentors?
I’ve learned a huge amount from many people, including those who were notionally working for me or reporting to me. The great thing about the university is that there are scores of individuals in leadership roles who are phenomenally smart and committed and idealistic about the institution and its values.

Former University of Toronto president John Evans has been an invaluable advisor and friend for many years. John was my boss from 1991 to 1998, when he served as the first chair of the board of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto. He had the potential misfortune of trying to guide a startup non-profit corporation with a novice CEO, but he had a real gift for seeing strategic issues clearly, keeping things positive, staying out of the operational weeds and leavening all of our proceedings with humour. Later, as dean of medicine, I sought his wise counsel on many occasions.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
Watching people grow and make a difference. That’s why academe is so much fun. Brilliant young women and men come to us from myriad backgrounds, and they transform before our eyes from teenagers still finding their way in the world to adults ready to make their mark on the planet.

Clinical care offers different rewards – the opportunity to make an immediate and tangible difference in people’s lives. That’s a huge privilege. What ultimately gives you a sense of meaning in your working life is the interactions with people, be it students or colleagues or staff or decision-makers or benefactors. That set of relationships – the sense of being joined in trying to make a difference in the world – is ultimately the joy of doing these jobs.

What do you consider to be U of T’s greatest strength?
People. One could look to the university’s extraordinary traditions or point out the exciting dynamism of the cities of Toronto and Mississauga. One could highlight Ontario as a safe and tolerant society or call attention to our wonderful facilities and architecture. But what really matters are the extraordinary people – diverse, dynamic, committed and far more cohesive than many realize. This is a big place, but people forge their own communities inside it. There are a lot of neighborhoods within the University of Toronto – and an enormous wellspring of talent. Our alumni represent a living advertisement for the excellence of the institution. It all comes back to the people.

And its greatest weakness?
We have to watch for two things at the University of Toronto. Despite the neighbourhoods, this can be an overwhelming place for young people. We need to enhance the student experience, and that’s going to take some work.

The University of Toronto must also promote itself better. Doubtless there are many Canadians who have no conception of just how many of the faculty at universities from coast to coast earned their PhDs at this university. They don’t recognize just how many discoveries are made here every week, and how many of the national and international prizes that Canadians take home to their universities actually come to the University of Toronto. We have to be very smart about celebrating what we have here rather than taking it for granted or letting others take us for granted. It’s important that we not only continue to walk the walk of excellence but do a little more talking about who we are – with Canadians and in the wider world.

At a time when the endowments of many American schools far exceed U of T’s, what must this university do to procure the funds necessary to remain competitive?
I understand that our endowment is smaller than some of our American competitors’. But this country is about 100 years younger than the U.S. and one-tenth the size, and that means there are fewer foundations and fewer individuals of extraordinary net worth to make large donations. That’s why we should be so appreciative of where our endowment stands today. We ought to thank the countless thousands of people who have supported the university so generously through the years. We will launch another campaign during my term, and it’s my sincere hope that everyone who has supported us before will be able to come forward again, and that we’ll also gain new friends and supporters.

At the same time, this is a public university. If you think about the impact of the recent provincial budget, which will add tens of millions of dollars of new funding to the university, the type of endowment we’d need to generate that level of funding is enormous. The bottom line is that we need to push for public funding from both levels of government while talking to our friends and benefactors about all the areas where their private gifts can make the biggest difference.

Do you think tuition fees are at an appropriate level? Should they be deregulated?
Responsible self-regulation is the way forward. We’re definitely not talking about a fully market-oriented approach to tuitions in which we simply try to maximize revenue. The University of Toronto is a public institution. The brightest students should come here, regardless of their economic circumstances. When we think about tuitions, they have to be bundled with a student-aid policy.

Do I favour institutional autonomy in setting tuitions? Absolutely. Do I think that this has to be exercised responsibly, with a focus on proven accessibility and generous student aid? Absolutely.

Corporate support of universities is a topic you often hear about in conjunction with academic freedom. What level of support from corporations do you think is appropriate?
Corporate funding relative to total research dollars at the University of Toronto and the affiliated teaching hospitals has been falling. In the 2003-04 academic year, corporations provided us with just 10 per cent of our total research dollars. That’s about half the level it was eight years ago.

To me, the issue is less about the source of the research money than whether we have the appropriate safeguards in place. If we have the appropriate legal and ethical oversight, if we have protections of academic freedom built into contracts with public or private sponsors, then I think our faculty should be able to pursue a set of scholarly goals with those funds. I certainly respect those who are anxious about sources of funding and worried about the implications. But we also have to respect the right of our colleagues to pursue their research agenda with funds from whatever source, as long as the necessary safeguards are built in.

Tell me about a memorable aspect of your own student experience at U of T.
Arriving here from a small town and entering residence at University College was an incredible experience. It was the United Nations. We talked late into the night about where we’d come from and what we’d been through and the world’s problems. At the same time we attended classes in Convocation Hall – even back then. There were stressed TAs who clearly weren’t thrilled to have a mob of equally stressed undergraduates peppering them with questions and pulling on the sleeves of their lab coats. It was a big place. But I felt at home right from the start. I will spare you the more detailed reminiscences of dormitory life, but it was an enormous amount of fun.

Considering how many students today commute to campus, it would be difficult to recreate the experience you just described for many current U of T students.
We have to recognize that many of our students commute and offer them a range of opportunities to participate fully in campus life. That may mean more student centres. It may mean going the extra mile in programming. It certainly means asking these students what they can do to remain engaged, rather than assuming that this is simply a one-way street. But I don’t think we can or should use the high number of commuters as an excuse for providing a less-than-optimal student experience. There are other North American campuses with commuter populations. We have to get on with studying them and figuring out how to engage our own commuter students better.

How do you plan to keep in touch with students while you’re president?
I intend to meet regularly with student leaders, but I’d also like to find ways to meet students who are not in elected positions – who are perhaps less engaged with university life – because I’d like to understand their perspective. Surveys allow us to quantitatively compare our own situation with that of other Canadian universities and U.S. peer institutions. But there’s also merit in narratives. As a doctor, I have to distinguish between a disease, classified in objective and evidence-based terms, and illness, which is the felt experience of the patient. In the same way, student narratives are enriching for any academic administrator to hear.

Your own student experience took place at U of T as well as Oxford. What was memorable about Oxford? Can that experience be applied here?
What came alive for me at Oxford was the value of small-group learning, particularly the Oxford tutorial system. We’ve taken a big step forward at the University of Toronto with programs such as the 199 seminar series, Vic One and Trinity One. We can’t eliminate the Con Hall experience, but offering seminar-style learning will be very important for us.

How will we know if we’ve served our students well?
That’s an interesting question because it is so seldom asked. Completion rates matter – we don’t want students to leave before they finish a degree. But we need to think more deeply about our graduates. Are they self-directed learners? Are they ready to contribute to the world? These things are very difficult to measure. Where do our graduates end up? Have we produced leaders in business, the arts, the professions, science and academic life? Are our political leaders disproportionately drawn from the ranks of University of Toronto graduates?

We want our students to go on to become leaders in whatever walk of life they choose. Continuing a conversation with our alumni strikes me as an important way of figuring out whether we’re doing our job.

How should we engage alumni in the life of the university?
I think we are doing a good job communicating with alumni from different divisions in the university. What still needs some thought is how we hear back from alumni about the university’s place in the world – how it is perceived, and how it can be improved. We need to listen to our alumni – not just at graduation or at their 50-year reunion – to find out what they learned here, why we might feel good about what we are doing and how we might do better.

What role would you like alumni to play, ideally? What role could they play?
It would be great if more alumni could take on mentorship roles with current students. I know some divisions and campuses have initiated mentorship programs. Let’s evaluate and fine-tune the existing programs and then implement them more widely.

I’d also turn the question around. We need to ask our alumni how they would like to be involved with the institution. We’ve become better at communicating to our alumni. Now we need more of a dialogue.

I suspect most of your waking hours will be spent on university business. If and when you get free time, what will you do?
I enjoy playing the piano. And I will try to find some time to read the occasional novel and play the occasional round of golf. But it’s much more likely that I’ll be obsessing over my golf swing and imagining that I’m on the golf course. It will be a busy few years. I’m looking forward to them!

Alumni emailed the following questions:

Sometimes universities seem to value their alumni most for the money they donate. I wonder if you see non-monetary ways for alumni – particularly those who are retired and living in the Toronto area – to contribute to the university.– Peter Broughton (BSc 1963 VIC, MSc 1971)
Alumni contribute to U of T in many ways. They mentor students; serve as members of advisory councils to many departments and faculties; are actively involved in governance of the university and our ancillary corporations; and play a role in search committees for academic administrators and student-scholarship and prize committees. Alumni are also among the most active participants in continuing education offered by U of T. But I would welcome any new ideas about how alumni can be even more involved with the university!

I stopped donating to U of T after St. Michael’s College accepted a $150,000 gift from Imasco – a major cigarette manufacturer – in 2002. What is your view of universities accepting funding from the tobacco industry? — Denise DePape (BSc 1970 St. Mike’s)
As a physician with a long-standing research interest in coronary disease and public health, I understand your perspective.

St. Michael’s is a separate corporate entity and has the autonomy to determine its own donations policy. However, this has been a difficult issue for the University of Toronto at large. The university values and protects its integrity and must always be very careful with respect to donations that have the potential to damage its reputation. For example, we take very seriously the current bans on tobacco advertising, and as an institution would not pursue or accept a donation that directly or indirectly promoted tobacco products. Similarly, we would not accept a donation that compromised the right of our professors or students to assess tobacco products independently and critically.

At the same time, U of T is a community of diverse beliefs, customs, moral positions and traditions. Academic freedom is the most important value of the university. Whatever my own views may be, I must affirm that individual faculty members have the freedom to do research sponsored by tobacco firms or to solicit donations from them, so long as the funding agreements are consistent with ethical-legal guidelines and the university’s policies.

For more information about U of T’s fundraising policies, visit

I noticed there was no corporate advertising associated with the Varsity Centre announcement. Is the University of Toronto paying for it entirely? In this era of tight education funding, why wasn’t this project privatized? — Ron Woodward (MBA 1976)
The university’s academic plan, Stepping Up, identifies the student experience as our number-one priority. The renewal of the Varsity site will be a huge benefit for students who will use the new Varsity Centre for academic programs, Varsity sports, intramurals and recreation. The first phase, to cost $16 million, will be paid for entirely by the university with no student levy.

Regarding private funding, I can report that numerous attempts have been made to redevelop the Varsity site over the years. However, the area is too physically constrained to meet the primary needs of both external partners and the university. For subsequent phases of the development we are seeking support from a variety of sources, including individual donations, corporate sponsors and private partnerships. One of the happy results of proceeding with Phase I is that we will have an athletic facility that will serve our students and other members of the university community, and be available to our neighbours.

Do you have ideas or questions for President Naylor? Please e-mail your comments to

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