University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Tomorrow’s U of T

Ready for a world of change

The University of Toronto is aiming to secure a place among the top 10 public universities in the world, and has laid out an ambitious agenda for how to achieve its goal.

Over the next five years, Canada’s largest university intends to improve the experience of its 50,000 undergraduate students – both inside and outside of the classroom. Students will take more seminar classes, have increased opportunities to work on research projects with their professors and enjoy better prospects of studying abroad. With a click of a computer mouse, they’ll be able to register and pay for courses, obtain course materials – even book a tennis court – online. They’ll be offered more chances to participate in athletic, co-curricular and community activities, which, in turn, will help them foster a closer affinity to their school.

To develop scholarship in emerging fields, U of T plans to expand its expertise in interdisciplinary subjects such as ethics, public policy, culture and immigration. It will make community involvement – both locally and nationally – central to its mission. And it will continue to strive toward equity and diversity in all of its activities.

“The Stepping Up academic plan has been an enormous undertaking,” says Professor Vivek Goel, vice-president and provost. “What has emerged represents a culture shift for the university. With Stepping Up, we have developed a plan that will result in a renewed spirit at U of T with a strong emphasis on enhancing the student experience.”

As you’ll find in the following article, which discusses each of the five major goals of the university’s Stepping Up plan, undergraduates are already getting a taste of U of T’s future.

Goal 1: Every student will have the opportunity for an outstanding and unique experience at the University of Toronto
On a bitterly cold morning, students arrive early for Professor John Browne’s first-year seminar course on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Half-a-dozen former students are here, too. They have returned to challenge the frosh in a game of Tolkien Trivial Pursuit that Browne has devised to ease students back after Christmas holidays.

Browne, the white-bearded former principal of Innis College, is as visibly delighted to see his alumni as they are to see him. They tease him mercilessly about his “evil laugh” when his questions stump the students.

The alumni triumph, but that’s hardly the point. After class, everyone lingers to talk; indeed, Browne has to shoo them from the seminar room at Woodsworth College so he can prepare for his next class. Clearly, Browne’s small seminar – enrolment is capped at 24 – achieves important goals: it inspires students’ passion for learning, boosts confidence and fosters a sense of community. (Browne and some of his former students still meet two or three times a year for lunch.)

Large lecture halls filled with hundreds of first-year students are still the norm at U of T – something that’s unlikely to change without a significant infusion of new provincial funding. But the university recognizes the need to give a greater number of first-year students at least one intimate, superbly taught first-year class, such as Browne’s.

Good teachers need the support of their school, and Browne is a prime example of how someone, with training and ample prep time, can create a transforming classroom experience. After teaching graduate courses and serving in administration for 26 years, Browne asked to return to the classroom – specifically to teach first-year students. Then he took a six-month administrative sabbatical, to plan his Tolkien course. “Most of these students speak e [as in electronic] as a native language,” says Browne. “I wanted to live in the context they’re living in, to lower the barriers between us.”

Browne started preparing at U of T’s Resource Centre for Academic Technology, “taking every course available,” he jokes. With his improved computer skills, he developed a comprehensive Web site for his course that runs to hundreds of pages. It not only informs and guides, but connects students – to him and each other. Browne posts notices and answers questions via e-mail. Students do group work on online bulletin boards and continue class conversations through instant messaging. “The course runs 24-7,” says Browne. “It’s intense.”

The Stepping Up plan aims to develop and celebrate exemplary teachers such as Browne, who recently received a Faculty of Arts & Science Outstanding Teaching Award. “We want to ensure that every student who comes to U of T has a great academic experience,” says Provost Vivek Goel. “And we want professors to have the resources they need to develop and make the most of their teaching skills.”

Three years ago, U of T created the Office of Teaching Advancement (OTA) to improve the overall quality of teaching at U of T and celebrate examples of excellence. This year the office offered 36 seminars to about 1,200 participants, and next year it plans to expand its offerings. U of T is also creating an Academy of Teaching to honour outstanding teachers with a designation similar to the title of University Professor. Teaching ability is already a major consideration in both tenure and annual salary reviews, yet it’s often harder to assess than research accomplishments. OTA helps professors build teaching portfolios (a record of accomplishments, including the creation of new courses or revitalization of old ones). The office also advocates for policy changes to support teaching, such as sabbaticals to allow professors to prepare new courses. “How do we recognize, celebrate and reward professors who spend a lot of time and imagination on creative teaching?” asks Ken Bartlett, the director of OTA, whose office is looking into ways of acknowledging great teachers. “We’re trying to galvanize more colleagues to discuss teaching the way they discuss research.”

Learning also happens outside the classroom, and U of T is stepping up efforts to draw students more fully into co-curricular activities. “University is not just about imparting information,” says Professor David Farrar, deputy provost and vice-provost, students. “It’s about engaging students. And that’s challenging, with so many of our students living off campus.”

Last year, U of T participated for the first time in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), an independent North American survey administered by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, to find out where it’s succeeding and where it’s falling short in involving students in the classroom and co-curricular activities. While U of T students indicated satisfaction with the level of academic challenge, they rated the school poorly on creating opportunities for student-faculty interaction and on offering a supportive campus environment. Though the university has more than 300 student clubs and the largest varsity and intramural sports program in Canada, 60 per cent of commuter students spend zero hours a week in co-curricular activities, and 80 per cent of all U of T students commute. Results from other universities indicate that students who participate in out-of-classroom activities tend to fare better academically and report greater personal satisfaction with their overall university experience.

To foster a greater sense of community among students, the Faculty of Arts & Science will launch a pilot program this fall called First-Year Learning Communities (FLCs, or “flicks”) for 240 commuter students in the life sciences. Inspired by a program at the University of Texas at Austin, these not-for-credit and voluntary seminars will put students who attend the same college and take the same section of math, biology and chemistry together in social-study groups of two dozen. “They may have large classes but with these communities you will know 23 people in three of your classes,” says Deanne Fisher, program co-ordinator with the Office of Student Affairs.

Facilitated by a trained senior student under the guidance of a staff adviser and a faculty member, FLC groups will learn research and time-management skills, form self-directed study groups, become better acquainted with academic life, and develop a social network as they explore the academic and cultural resources available to them, in both the university and the city. “It will bring the university to the students,” says Fisher.

Goel recognizes that, given its size, the University of Toronto will never be able to offer its students the personal, intimate experiences of a small, primarily undergraduate university. But because of its size, U of T can offer undergraduate students a wide range of classes taught by leading researchers. It can offer students the chance to learn abroad at any of more than a hundred universities around the world. It can offer courses, programs and extracurricular activities not available anywhere else. And with the right combination of faculty, programs, services and technology it can provide students with a university experience unlike any other in Canada. All this, notes Goel, “in the most diverse city in the world.”

Goal 2: Link all academic programs to strong research experiences
Silvester Komlodi was concerned about travelling to war-torn Kosovo during the summer of 2003 as part of a third-year research course in international relations. But six months of pre-trip planning – to establish key contacts in Kosovo and arrange interviews – assured him that “things were safe on the ground.” Still, a question lingered. As an undergrad, could he pull off his research mission – to study the media as a source of democratization in a post-conflict society? “My Dad always said, ‘When you’re thrown into deep water, you learn to swim,'” says Komlodi. “People are able to do work that they didn’t realize they could.”

Komlodi, now an MA student in U of T’s Centre for Russian and East European Studies, interviewed leading players in the media and met high-level business and political figures, including Ramush Haradinaj, now prime minister of Kosovo. The intense two-week trip, which he took with two other students and faculty adviser Robert Austin, inspired the research he’s doing in graduate school. “To have taken this kind of trip as an undergraduate and to have worked this closely with a professor was unbelievable,” says Komlodi.

Offering undergraduates such extraordinary research opportunities is a key plank in the Stepping Up plan. Currently only about 10 per cent of undergrads enjoy a significant research experience, such as paid summer fellowship, internship in a lab or a research course for credit. By 2010, Provost Vivek Goel hopes that number will have tripled to 30 per cent or to every undergraduate who wants a research experience.

Meeting the huge demand for such opportunities means increasing the number of faculty who work closely with students – and that, acknowledges John Challis, vice-president, research, and associate provost, “greatly depends on a significant increase in provincial funding for universities.”

Since the second- and third-year research courses were first offered in 1995, they have been enormously popular. Last year, 2,000 students competed for 240 places in 100 second-year research projects. The third-year course, which the Canadian Bureau for International Education acknowledged with an Outstanding Program Award, is even more difficult to get into, as only four or five projects are available each year. Anecdotal evidence suggests that research experiences fuel academic ambition. A survey of U of T’s life-science students doing paid summer research internships indicated that three out of four continue on to graduate school or second-entry programs, such as medical school.

Challis says that U of T is focusing on building “a research road map” for undergraduates – one that starts before students even reach university. In a pilot program that the university hopes to launch this spring, a select group of about 40 high school graduates who received a first offer of admission to U of T will be awarded a summer research internship. While working closely with a professor on a research project, they will live in residence and receive an honorarium. The pilot, if it secures additional resources, will be expanded and, undoubtedly, will help attract top students to the university.

Challis says that conducting studies and learning in a research-charged environment transforms a passive university experience into an active one. “It will turn students on to thinking about the university as a place where you’re not just fed information, but stimulated to think. It will turn some on to doing research [in graduate school]. But primarily, we’re trying to develop inquisitive minds – to not just accept a set of facts, but to ask why and how.”

U of T’s roster of internationally recognized faculty and its sheer size offer extraordinary opportunities for undergraduates to get a taste of research, both inside and outside the classroom, says Ken Bartlett, director of the Office of Teaching Advancement. “Research and teaching can’t be separated. When a Nobel Prize winner publishes a book or gives a lecture, she is teaching. It’s the same person engaged in two aspects of something. We tell professors, ‘If you want to bring vitality into the classroom, talk about your own research. Show the enthusiasm that drove you to choose this curious life, to make such enormous sacrifices.'”

Fourth-year student Monica Granados credits her undergraduate research opportunities with changing the course of her life. Initially bound for medical school, she’s now excited about pursuing graduate work in evolutionary ecology at U of T, thanks to a study of a mastodon-bone bed in upstate New York during second year and a six-week assignment for Professor Hélène Cyr in third year. Granados still volunteers in Cyr’s lab, as do many of Cyr’s research protegés.

“When you go into a new field, you don’t know if you’re capable, but Professor Cyr has given me confidence that I can excel in this field,” says Granados.

Goal 3: Bring faculty and students from diverse disciplines together to meet scholarly challenges
In an interconnected world, what are our obligations to distant others? How should we respond to the AIDS crisis in Africa, the genocide in Darfur and environmental disasters such as the tsunami in South Asia? 
Given advances in biotechnology, cloning and genetic engineering, what does it mean to be human? Does the wave of scandals rocking business and government in the West signal that our culture of affluence has reached a limit?

“These questions can’t be answered from within the context of any single disciplinary approach,” says Melissa Williams, an associate professor of political science and the co-ordinator of U of T’s proposed Centre for Ethics. “Ethics is one of those areas where the need for interdisciplinary study is self-evident.” The ethics centre will bring together scholars from across the university, including those from the Faculty of Arts & Science, the Rotman School of Management and the Joint Centre for Bioethics. It will also collaborate with similar centres cropping up at other North American universities, including Princeton, Harvard and the University of Montreal. This new interest in ethics, says Williams, indicates “a growing consciousness of interconnectedness.”

To make sense of the change, students and scholars need to collaborate across disciplinary borders. “In small homogeneous societies, there’s a code to follow,” explains Williams. “Now there’s a plurality of human goals, cultures and religions, which creates a conflict of values. To live an ethical life, one must seek to understand a problem from a variety of perspectives.”

Over the past two decades, interdisciplinary study at U of T has expanded rapidly – notably at the Munk Centre for International Studies and the many programs at the affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutions. Few have appraised the change more closely than U of T’s interim president Frank Iacobucci, who has served as a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. “The real stretching of the world of knowledge is at the frontiers of disciplines and at the intersection of disciplines,” he says. “Many questions I’ve dealt with as a judge are really crying out for help from various disciplines – whether it’s assisted suicide or the patenting of life forms. They call for input from science, humanities and social sciences.”

Finding ways to support and encourage interdisciplinary study in all activities of the university is a theme that runs through Stepping Up. To ensure that departments are flexible and responsive to new challenges, U of T will encourage more interdisciplinary research and cross-appointments. As well, the Academic Initiative Fund – money that has been reallocated from the operating budget – will provide seed money to create a number of new interdisciplinary centres. Some areas that may vie for these funds include Diaspora and Transnational Studies, the Environment, and the Creative and Performing Arts. The Faculty of Information Studies (FIS) is proposing a centre to consider how information technology will change the university over the next 50 years. Such centres enable the university to structure itself in new ways to address new problems, says Brian Cantwell Smith, the dean of FIS.

Addressing new problems will be a key priority for the Centre for Ethics, says Williams. To be housed at Trinity College, the centre will enhance Trinity’s undergraduate program in ethics, society and law; encourage collaborative research in ethics; help develop the ethics curriculum in other faculties; and host visiting scholars, lecture series and conferences. The centre will also draw on its Toronto location to develop strength in comparative ethics. “There’s no greater laboratory [than Toronto],” says Williams. “There are lots of community leaders and scholars to deepen our understanding of diverse traditions.”

Goal 4: Scholarship and academic programs will be relevant to, and have an impact on, the broader community, through outreach and engagement in the process of public policy
Every year, U of T students, faculty and staff volunteer in their local communities. In 2003, a survey by the Office of Student Affairs found that about 10,000 students on the St. George campus alone were involved in community work – everything from tutoring at-risk children in public schools to coaching sports at civic centres. Our faculty, meanwhile, advise policy-makers in all three levels of government and appear regularly in national media to share their expertise.

Still, U of T wants to make community outreach even more central to its mission. The Stepping Up plan urges faculty, staff and students to seek out opportunities to share their knowledge with the public and to collaborate on solving community problems. It’s all part of being a leading public university, says Provost Vivek Goel. “People will recognize a great university for the contribution it makes to the arts, the community, public policy and public health,” he says.

By 2010, U of T expects to have established several new centres to co-ordinate its community outreach efforts: the School of Public Policy and Governance, to facilitate the work of academics who contribute to public policy; the Centre for Community Partnerships, to co-ordinate the efforts of students involved in community service; and the Centre for Urban Schooling, to bring together scholars and students from diverse disciplines to study and offer solutions to the problems faced by Toronto’s schools.

The latter two centres will work specifically to help revitalize Toronto. “The thinking behind the Centre for Community Partnerships is that the Greater Toronto Area has been adversely affected over the last 10 or 15 years by cutbacks at the municipal and provincial levels,” says Susan Addario, director of the Office of Student Affairs, which is launching the centre. “Our goal is to harness the energy of our students, staff and faculty and to deploy that energy across the GTA in more of a planned way.”

The centre will dramatically increase both the number and kinds of community service opportunities available to students and will link their volunteer service with their academic pursuits, possibly for credit. Students will be trained to lead projects, resolve conflicts and work in multicultural settings. A current project has a team of 80 U of T students tutoring Grade 9 pupils. Another project will see students providing intensive English-language training to preschoolers who are new to Canada.

“By 2010, we want to have a community-based learning opportunity available for every student who wants to include it as part of his or her university experience,” says Addario. “The centre is about looking for ways of translating what U of T is doing inside its walls into meaningful community work. But it’s also about providing students with good citizenship skills. We want our students to take leadership roles in the workplace and in their communities.”

The new Centre for Urban Schooling, based at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, will bring together scholars and students to study and propose creative solutions to the “overwhelming problems” facing some urban schools, says academic director Kathleen Gallagher.
Gallagher, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Urban School Research in Pedagogy and Policy, spent three years studying urban classrooms in New York City and Toronto. She sees a disturbing trend: “When I first undertook this research, issues of security were not on my radar. My experiences in New York schools introduced me to heavy surveillance, ID checks, metal detectors and locked bathrooms as a matter of course. The kids experience more intense scrutiny daily than I’ve undergone at any airport. It was Orwellian. Most disturbing, they now see these routines as a normal part of school.”

Gallagher thinks there’s another way to run city schools while addressing safety concerns. “I hope the research and work of the centre can inform school policy and practices at schools in Toronto before we end up too far down a road that is not the right one to take.”

The proposed School of Public Policy and Governance will tap into the university’s current strengths in public policy – particularly in health, law and education – and develop new expertise in ethics, science and technology. “Toronto is a world crossroads, easily accessible from any continent, and with a diverse population that makes U of T an ideal setting for the school,” says Goel.

Goal 5: Achieve equity and diversity in all activities to ensure that we reflect our local and global community
Something interesting is afoot at the University of Toronto at Mississauga (UTM). Though the number of students of Caribbean heritage is small, Caribbean Connections is one of UTM’s most popular clubs. At semi-formals, Latin dance is all the rage. When cricket was introduced last year, it caught on like wildfire.

The buzz here is not just about tolerance; there’s a genuine curiosity among students to learn about the broad spectrum of cultures present on campus. The Erindale Filipino Student Association, for instance, boasts on its Web site that it is “quite possibly the most diverse cultural club” at UTM.

What’s happening at UTM reflects a broader trend at U of T. According to the Office of Student Affairs, some 60 different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds are represented at U of T; half of all undergraduates identify themselves as a visible minority. No surprise, then, that Stepping Up calls for U of T to “serve as a model of diversity for the global community.”

While excellence remains the primary measure by which faculty appointments and student admissions are judged, U of T wants to ensure that all of its programs and activities reflect the diversity of the entire Toronto community and that every group is given equal access to opportunities on campus. It’s a ground-up effort with specific goals: to recruit more aboriginal and African-Caribbean undergraduates, to create a more diverse pool of PhD candidates, and to hire new staff and faculty to better represent Toronto’s diversity. As a public university, U of T has a responsibility to be accessible to all members of the community. But there are academic reasons to pursue diversity and equity too, says Angela Hildyard, U of T’s vice-president, human resources and equity. “The presence on campus of people with so many different perspectives enables the university to enrich its research and curriculum,” she says.

U of T is also striving to become more accessible and supportive of people with physical disabilities. While it’s costly and difficult to retrofit older buildings on the St. George campus, an elevator was recently installed at Hart House and several other buildings are slated for renovations over the next few years.

To help achieve the university’s objectives, Hildyard is establishing an Equity Advisory Board to examine common issues, draw on research at the university and develop a collective strategy. Hildyard says her office will also conduct an employment equity survey of faculty and staff, and develop measures to ensure that the university reaches its goals. “Our objective,” she says, “is to have a faculty, staff and student body that is fully representative of Canada’s diversity.”

Margaret Webb is a Toronto writer.

Recent Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *