As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, and as travel restrictions ease, members of the U of T community have been able to resume in-person international activities. Student demand to study abroad has rapidly returned to pre-pandemic levels. And while Zoom and Teams continue to facilitate global research and conference activity, our scholars are travelling once again, when face-to-face collaboration is needed.
Within the past several months I have visited India and Africa, experiences that have resoundingly reaffirmed U of T’s strategic priority of deepening its global engagement – and the value of “being there.”
This past January we opened the University of Toronto Centre in India, in partnership with Tata Trusts. The Mumbai-based centre will enable us to expand and deepen our activities in this crucial region, creating new opportunities for scholars and innovators from our two countries to work together to address economic, social and environmental challenges in major urban areas. On the same trip, I met with the leadership of the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and the Tata Institute for Social Sciences, to renew our collaborative research and teaching partnerships. The productive energy of those meetings attests to the long-term relationships we have built with both institutions. While virtual meetings sustained these relationships during the pandemic, meeting in person once again has breathed new life into these important partnerships.
Last September, I represented the university at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Mastercard Foundation’s African Scholars Program, in Kigali. I also met with the leaders of eight African universities with whom we are working on a new program supported by Mastercard Foundation, to contribute to the continent’s health sector development. Once again, I was struck by the value of face-to-face meetings in deepening the trust that underpins this network. Our investment in those relationships over the past decade positions us well for the success of our future collaboration. I also visited Nairobi, to meet with our alumni in the region as well as prospective students and their parents. It was incredibly exciting to see first-hand the impact of our sustained effort to recruit fantastic students to come to U of T.
These two snapshots illustrate the results of the university’s international strategy. Established in 2017, it has recently been updated for the next five years – a revision led by Professor Joseph Wong, vice-president, international. The original plan offered a strategic vision encompassing student recruitment and mobility, alumni engagement, and institutional and corporate partnerships. The renewed plan affirms and seeks to build on this foundation, scaling up philanthropic support for our international priorities, developing new partnerships in low- and middle-income countries, and responding to major shifts in the geopolitical landscape.
With one-third of our students and one-half of our faculty now coming from outside Canada, such an intentional and comprehensive strategy is essential to our success.
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3 Responses to “ The Value of ‘Being There’ ”
U of T President Meric Gertler is clearly not afraid to handle the challenging task of exporting Canadian education to distant countries and to delve deeply into diverse systems and cultures. This takes a thoughtful and determined leader. He is on course to be one of the greatest presidents of the University of Toronto.
Gideon Forman (BA 1987 Victoria) writes:
No doubt U of T and its partners benefited from President Gertler’s recent trips to India and Africa. But his column should have noted that jetting across the globe is problematic because it’s a significant -- and fast-growing -- source of carbon. According to Transport Canada, from 2005 to 2019 greenhouse gas emissions from our airlines rose 74 per cent.
No one denies the value of meeting face-to-face. Everyone knows video-conferencing can have a one-dimensional quality, making full expression and authentic engagement difficult. But given the climate crisis it may now be the only ethical way to connect with colleagues overseas.
How President Gertler gets around matters because, as a community leader, he helps establish social norms. When he flies instead of using a video platform he suggests that non-essential air travel is morally acceptable. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. But I admit it’s a legitimate topic for discussion. That’s the debate we needed to see in his article.
Ron Saporta, Vice President, Operations (Acting), responds:
U of T is taking decisive action against climate change through education, research and operations. We also know we can have a bigger impact by working with universities around the world. As we forge the relationships necessary to address global challenges, we are conscious of our environmental impact.
This year, U of T became the first Canadian university to institute a mandatory, in-house carbon offsetting program – avoiding controversial third-party offsetting programs – for university-funded, business-related air travel. We are charging a fee for every kilometre flown and reinvesting that money into local projects that provide sustainability benefits.
We are also taking giant leaps toward the goal of becoming Climate Positive by 2050 on our St. George campus in the heart of downtown Toronto. Our ambitious transformation of one of Canada’s largest and oldest district energy systems, and numerous deep building retrofits, will dramatically reduce our on-campus carbon emissions, provide learning opportunities, and supply clean energy to the broader electrical grid.