When he took office in 2013, U of T president Meric Gertler articulated what has come to be known as the “Three Priorities”: to leverage the university’s locations in the Toronto region, to strengthen U of T’s international engagement and to rethink undergraduate education. Earlier this year, he was appointed to a second term as president, through June 2023. Jennifer Lanthier, director of U of T News, spoke with him about progress on these priorities, U of T’s unique strengths and the challenges the university faces.
What’s your top goal for the next five years?
To have the University of Toronto consistently viewed as one of the world’s best universities. This should be reflected not only in how we’re ranked, but also in the demand for our programs and our ability to attract great students, faculty and staff from across Canada and around the world. And in being recognized as offering a truly distinctive undergraduate education.
What will a truly distinctive undergraduate education look like?
We’ll offer more creative and innovative research experiences for students, and more opportunities to work in the community. We know our students are very eager to work on real problems with real partners. More of our students will engage in learning outside of Canada. We’re not doing too badly on that relative to other Canadian universities, but we have a lot of ground to make up relative to our global peers. We also need to think about how students can benefit from U of T’s remarkable diversity. Twenty-five per cent of our undergraduates come from outside of Canada; how can all of our students benefit from this cultural richness?
U of T is like a mini-United Nations. Not many universities can say that.
I was in Shanghai visiting high schools, and a student asked me straight up why she should come to U of T instead of going to a great university in China. I said that by coming to U of T she could study with the world. Half of the people in Toronto were born outside of Canada. We can’t tell the difference between a domestic student and an international student at U of T – and that’s wonderful. It’s one of the things that makes our international students feel so welcome here.
We do seem to be recruiting some incredible students.
Our Mastercard Foundation scholars are among the most impressive young women and men I have ever met. They are articulate, poised, ambitious, excited to be here – and excited about what they will do when they return to their home countries in Africa. It’s hard not to be inspired by people like that. Our Varsity athletes are also remarkably talented. Not only do they perform at an elite level in sports, but they are incredible students. In general, I marvel at our students’ ability to combine multiple forms of excellence.
Enhancing the university’s relationship with the city for mutual benefit has been one of your top priorities. What’s next on that front?
There’s tremendous momentum around a new “school of cities” that would bring together our urban expertise in teaching, research and outreach across the university in a way that’s more visible to the broader community and allows for greater collaboration between disciplines – and with our city partners. I’m very excited about that.
That would definitely raise our profile on urban issues.
We have more than 200 faculty members who work in fields related to cities. But they’re distributed across all three campuses and many different departments and divisions, and much of that strength isn’t visible to the outside world.
As an urban geographer, what do you want for the future of U of T and the city?
I’d like our three campuses to be much less dependent on automobiles. Scarborough is in the middle of an important debate about access to that campus by public transit and I hope we’ll see progress there. The Toronto region needs to get serious about investing in public transportation – to improve our quality of life and to meet our responsibilities under the Paris Agreement. We need to figure out how to make higher densities more livable and more lovable. We talk a good line, but we don’t always follow through.
What’s something you love to do in Toronto?
Forage for interesting things to eat. There are so many different cuisines from around the world here. It’s one of those aspects of our urban landscape that we take for granted as Torontonians, but it is unique.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned in the job so far?
I had suspected that our alumni are incredibly passionate about this place, and very loyal, but I had no idea how deeply those feelings run. One of the most pleasant surprises has been to meet alumni who communicate that passion and who say, among other things, “How can we help?”
What keeps you up at night?
The state of public funding for higher education and research. The provincial government has expanded access by funding new spaces for students and by boosting financial support for students. But the operating grant we get per student has been declining in real-dollar terms for decades. It gets harder and harder for us to offer students a high-quality experience, especially compared to our peer institutions around the world. We still lag far behind in terms of per-student funding, and we can’t do that forever and still compete successfully. Similarly, federal funding for research has not kept pace with many of our competitors. The federal government has made some promising moves in its first two years in office, but it must embrace the recommendations of the recent review panel chaired by President Emeritus David Naylor if we are to move the needle significantly.
I also worry about the state of the world. We are not isolated from violent struggle, refugee flows or the ravages of climate change. Of course, we have many scholars and students who are working on these issues and trying to deepen their understanding of them and move toward solutions. This gives me cause for hope.
Their work does keep the big picture in mind.
I am so impressed by the quality and impact of what our scholars are doing. I’m also heartened by our deepening partnerships with other great universities around the world. So many of our current challenges are global in scope, and the process of developing solutions must also leverage international collaboration. There’s much to look forward to here.
A Three-Priorities Timeline
Selected highlights from across U of T
In his installation address at Convocation Hall, Meric Gertler articulates three priorities for U of T.
Prof. Susan McCahan accepts a new role as vice-provost to develop innovative approaches to undergrad education.
Prof. Janice Stein is appointed senior presidential adviser on international initiatives.
Prof. Shauna Brail, of urban studies, becomes U of T’s first presidential adviser on urban engagement.
U of T receives a $114-million grant from the federal government – the largest grant in its history – for regenerative medicine. The funding will strengthen U of T’s reputation as a global centre for designing and manufacturing cells, tissues and organs.
U of T welcomes Pan Am athletes from 38 countries to new aquatic, field and gymnasium facilities at the U of T Scarborough and St. George campuses.
U of T and Toronto’s three other universities launch a survey to find out how students travel to and from their campuses – to improve university and transit planning.
U of T selects a team of architects and landscape architects to restore and beautify the central spaces of the St. George campus.
Prof. Ted Sargent becomes U of T’s first vice-president, international. His team includes Prof. Joe Wong, associate vice-president and vice-provost, international student experience, and Prof. Christopher Yip, associate vice-president, international partnerships.
U of T sees a surge in applications from international students – a result of more focused recruitment and changing global politics.
The Vector Institute, with U of T as a founding partner, is launched to strengthen Canada’s global leadership in artificial intelligence.
U of T announces the first recipients of the Pearson International Scholarships. Covering tuition and expenses for four years, the program is intended to draw more of the world’s best students to U of T.
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre