When I left Canada as a young graduate student, I was not prepared for the human rights eye-opener I was about to receive. There I was, 21, at Yale University, one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the world, and if you walked three or four blocks from the campus you found yourself in the middle of a neighbourhood where there were virtually no white people. I encountered racism and abject poverty a stone’s throw from that great university, and I was shocked and disturbed.
Soon, I found myself acting as co-leader of about 10 kids at an otherwise all-black community centre in the heart of New Haven, Conn. I also taught one summer during the height of the civil rights revolution at a black Baptist college in South Carolina, and, again, the students there had remarkably little exposure to white people, almost all of it entirely negative. Both of these experiences provided a dramatic confrontation with the effects of extreme bigotry. I met extraordinarily talented people from the black community who were completely excluded from the mainstream.
Contrast this with the homogeneous city of Toronto in my graduating year of 1963. In my class there were a few Asian students and one black student from Trinidad, and that was it. Much has changed. Today U of T boasts one of the most diverse student populations in the world (about one-half of our undergraduates identify themselves as part of what are commonly called “visible minorities”). However, the makeup of U of T’s faculty still largely looks like the old Toronto.
In the past three years, close to 50 per cent of the newly hired professors in our Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering were from visible minorities; in Arts and Science and Medicine, the figure was close to 20 per cent. This compares with a visible-minority population of approximately 11 per cent nationwide. What’s more, we have established many programs that have enhanced campus diversity, including the First Nations House, an aboriginal scholarship program and a summer mentorship program for aboriginal and black students. We have made tremendous progress, but there is still much to be done.
To continue to improve the calibre of the university, we must draw our new faculty from the largest possible pool of men and women and let excellence be our only guide. When I was dean of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we were able to improve the stature of the neuroscience department dramatically, moving it solidly into the top 10 in North America through 15 new appointments. Among this group, each of whom was hired on the basis of excellence and excellence alone, the distribution turned out to be about 30 per cent white male, 30 per cent female and 40 per cent visible minority.
As we set out to build a 21st-century faculty at U of T, we must proactively seek the largest number of highly qualified candidates from all quarters, and the watchword for such recruitment must be excellence. Over the next seven to 10 years, we will be hiring 1,000 new professors. I am confident that the result will be a faculty that more accurately reflects the face of our students and of our nation. At the end of the day, it all comes down to fairness. It is as simple as that.
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