In his inaugural address a century ago, former University of Toronto president Robert Falconer emphasized the importance of civic service. “I believe that the nation should look to universities for distinct help in the present social conditions,” he said from the Convocation Hall stage, with Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in attendance. “It must cause concern to thinking people that there is such an indifference on the part of the well-to-do to take up the burdens of civic and political life.”
In his history of U of T, University Professor and law professor emeritus Martin Friedland notes that, with Falconer at the helm, U of T became involved in many types of community outreach. In 1910, the university opened a “settlement house” on Adelaide Street West, to integrate university students in a lower-income area of the city. Around the same time, he persuaded the university’s board to give 10 Chinese students places at the university, a direct result of U of T graduates serving as missionaries with the YMCA in China.
Falconer’s call for service has become entrenched at U of T. Not long ago, the university created the Centre for Community Partnerships (CPP) to give students the opportunity to apply their academic knowledge in the community. The centre also supports faculty who incorporate community organizations into their courses or research. Earlier this month, the CPP spearheaded a second annual day of service for students, staff and faculty to volunteer at locations across Toronto.
Many U of T grads, such as Dr. Samantha Nutt, continue volunteering after finishing their studies. Nutt, now a professor in Uof T’s department of family and community medicine, is also the founder of War Child Canada, an organization that provides long-term humanitarian support to children and families in war-ravaged countries. Managing editor Stacey Gibson writes about Nutt’s high-octane adventures and valuable work in trouble spots in Africa and Asia. Interestingly, Gibson discovers that Nutt studied drama before becoming a doctor. This may not seem like an entirely logical career path, but Nutt explains why it made sense: “I think that drama teaches you the ultimate expression of empathy. It’s the complete absorption of another person’s life experience.” As Nutt points out, why pursue medicine if you have no interest in how other people experience life?
The power of theatre to transform lives is something Professor Kathleen Gallagher understands well. Gallagher is the academic director of U of T’s Centre for Urban Schooling and taught high school drama for 10 years. In a feature story about the centre, Gallagher explains that schools’ current emphasis on standards and testing often overlooks the value of theatre class to foster social development among students, especially in diverse classrooms. “The experience of making art has intrinsic value, which is not well understood in the current educational climate,” she says. Gallagher has written a book on the subject, and it’s a good example of the kind of research the centre is pursuing – collaborations with local schools that seek to address practical problems and enrich the educational experience for everyone. Robert Falconer would have certainly approved.
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