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The Birgeneau Years

For U of T president Robert Birgeneau, excellence and equity went hand in hand

University of Toronto president Robert Birgeneau departs for the University of California at Berkeley this fall, after wrestling with what he describes as an “excruciating decision,” and acknowledging that he leaves U of T with the unfinished business of implementing its ambitious new academic plan.

Birgeneau became president in 2000, aiming to elevate U of T to among the best public universities in the world. In his installation address, he set out three themes that would guide his presidency: excellence, equity and outreach. The themes reflect Birgeneau’s strong beliefs on what a public university should be, and steered his decisions on everything from hiring to the awarding of scholarships. “Some thought the only way to become a top university was to take an elitist approach,” says Tom Simpson, chair of Governing Council for part of Birgeneau’s term. “Bob saw another way.”

“Bob’s way” insisted that excellence and equity went hand in hand, especially when it came to hiring faculty, appointing the university’s most senior leaders and increasing financial aid for students. Birgeneau encouraged U of T’s faculty-search committees to look beyond traditional pools of talent for the best possible candidates. “It’s our obligation as a public university, but also our advantage, to be as inclusive as possible, to ensure that we’re accessing the entire population and not just parts of it,” he says.

Angela Hildyard, vice-president, human resources and equity, says that Birgeneau added “equity” to her title to show “commitment and accountability at the very top.” Bálint Virág, who joined the University of Toronto at Scarborough a year ago as a Canada Research Chair in statistics and probability, and who has since won a Sloan Research Fellowship, says the message from the top was to get the best researchers to the university. “There was definitely an optimistic atmosphere in the department about hiring good people and that we would get the support from the university to do that.”

Birgeneau, an esteemed physicist, challenged faculty to excel by advocating that U of T measure itself against other top public universities around the world. “He pushed us to think about international excellence,” says John Challis, vice-president, research and associate provost. “He encouraged faculty to compete for major international awards.”

During Birgeneau’s term, U of T faculty appointments to major international societies, such as the Royal Society of London and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, nearly doubled – a reflection of the increasing international standing of the university. Birgeneau is particularly proud that, based on fellowships awarded in the last four years, U of T ranks 13th in North America in the number of Sloan Fellows. (The prestigious fellowships are awarded to young faculty.) This puts U of T ahead of Yale and makes it the only Canadian university to rank in the top 40. Annual research funding to the university increased 50 per cent during his term, to $330 million.

Some would say that Birgeneau led by example. In addition to being president, he remained an active researcher, setting up a lab at U of T to investigate electrons in a superconducting state. During his term, he added two international honours to his c.v.: he was named to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. “He set a fairly ambitious standard for what should be expected of those who take on administrative roles at the university,” says arts and science dean Pekka Sinervo.

Birgeneau says his commitment to equity and accessibility is rooted in his formative years. He grew up in a low-income neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end and was the first in his family to finish high school and go to university. Had it not been for a parish priest who arranged for him to attend St. Michael’s College School and a teacher who encouraged him to look beyond his summer job unloading trucks at a factory, he might never have applied to U of T. He was fortunate to receive a scholarship that enabled him to enrol, but wonders how many other qualified students over the years didn’t get to go to university because they couldn’t afford to. “There’s a tremendous talent pool that we can access, and we’ll only be able to access it if we provide resources to financially disadvantaged students. A public university has a particular obligation in that regard,” he says.

Early in his term, Birgeneau suggested that U of T place more emphasis on needs-based scholarships than merit-based ones, the underlying assumption being that every student who gains admission to U of T has already achieved “excellence.” Birgeneau argued that financial aid should be steered to those who need it most rather than to those with the highest marks. The plan met with strong resistance, but he stuck with his vision. “It doesn’t make sense to me to give $5,000 to a rich person when you could give [that money] to a genuinely poor person,” he explains. “People argued that we need [merit-based scholarships] to attract the best. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Princeton manage to attract an outstanding student body while giving all of their financial aid to people who actually need it. I could not see logically why U of T, as the premier institution [in Canada], could not do the same. Students should come to U of T because we have outstanding faculty.”

Birgeneau’s persistence – a leadership style his office director Beata FitzPatrick describes as “very principled” – won out. At the graduate level, U of T now provides funding for all PhD students, enabling it to compete for talent with other leading schools in Canada and the United States. In years to come, Birgeneau’s initiative will help U of T attract even stronger students, predicts Sinervo. “He made some courageous steps. Very few other university presidents were prepared to make the same commitments. He was very alone in this, and he decided to show leadership.”

Opening doors of opportunity is typical Birgeneau. So is getting out and meeting students. Last fall, during the double-cohort orientation, he spoke to 21 first-year groups. When frosh engineers challenged him – as they do all dignitaries – to “drop your pants,” Birgeneau held up a pair of boxers emblazoned with “Skule,” the nickname of the engineering faculty, and promptly dropped them.

“He’s an approachable president,” says Graduate Students’ Union president Mahadeo Sukhai. “We’ve appreciated having a champion.” Students’ Administrative Council president Rini Ghosh says student leaders could go to him with problems. “Even if we disagreed, he would respect the other person’s views. Students had a good relationship with him.”

Birgeneau spoke out on issues he believed important. He advocated for the acceptance of sexual diversity at the university, stating in a speech in October 2003, “We, as a community of students and teachers and staff, must set a precedent for the rest of society by recognizing – and celebrating – our diversity as one of our greatest strengths.” When he heard that the Black Students’ Association had organized a campus tour to encourage black high school students to apply to U of T, Birgeneau dropped by the tour to welcome the students personally.

So it was no surprise a few days after the Berkeley announcement in late July that 150 e-mails flooded the president’s in-box. Birgeneau sat at his computer – a view of University College before him – attempting to personally answer the letters of congratulation from around the world.

Like any president before him, Birgeneau had his share of critics, too. Some thought that his “principled leadership” could be uncompromising at times, or self-absorbed; others wanted him to make a stronger case at the provincial level for increasing funding to post-secondary institutions. (On a per-capita funding basis, Ontario ranks dead last among the provinces. Nevertheless, during Birgeneau’s four years the university’s total expense budget increased from roughly $1 billion to $1.5 billion.) Many of his supporters aren’t pleased by his decision to leave just four years into a seven-year term. But most agree he set the university on a more ambitious course.

In early August, just weeks before he departs, Birgeneau says he regrets having to leave before the implementation of the “Stepping Up” academic plan. Developed over the past year, the plan establishes the framework for U of T to achieve its mission of becoming a leading world-class public research and teaching university. It challenges each department to develop an internal plan to achieve excellence. A significant priority is improving the undergraduate experience, both in and out of the classroom. That is one of Birgeneau’s stamps on the document, says vice-president and provost Vivek Goel.

In many ways, Berkeley represents an opportunity for Birgeneau to showcase to the world his assertion that accessibility and excellence go hand in hand. In virtually all surveys of comparative studies of both undergraduate and graduate education, Berkeley is ranked as the best public university in the U.S. Compared with other U.S. public universities, Berkeley’s undergraduate student population is more representative of the U.S. population at large; 25 per cent of students come from low-income families. Berkeley’s ability to assist students in financial need and still compete with Harvard and Stanford “is significant,” says Birgeneau.

He points out that U of T played a profound role in shaping his vision. While he was dean of science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an elite private university, he says that his top priority was trying to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Now he’s more interested in ways that researchers at universities such as
U of T can help society solve its most pressing problems. “My value system has changed, really, in a way that’s quite profound,” he says. “The role and commitment to public service that I have now, and will underlie my service at Berkeley, really came from my service at U of T.”

Margaret Webb (BA 1985 UC) is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ The Birgeneau Years ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Would a province-wide university work? I noted that President Birgeneau left U of T for the University of California at Berkeley, and recalled that there is not a University of Ontario. In the autumn issue of the magazine there are several references to the review of Ontario's public universities being conducted by former Ontario premier Bob Rae.

    I wonder if anyone has looked at the concept of a University of Ontario to see if amalgamating many universities would reduce costs and increase opportunities. This would enable specific campuses to develop centres of excellence in a few areas, rather than trying to compete in almost every subject. Broadband computer networks could be used to disseminate courseware from these centres to students at other campuses.

    Admittedly, there are potential drawbacks to a University of Ontario approach. The competition for students may diminish, leading to a reduction in the quality of undergraduate courses. Students may feel less affinity toward their school. Alumni may be less inclined to make donations to their alma mater. Academic freedom may suffer.

    I have only looked at this concept superficially, but, despite the many potential problems, it may be worth considering further.

    Peter Macnaughton
    BASc 1966, MASc 1967
    Nepean, Ontario

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    The article's main point, expressed in the headline, is that for former University of Toronto president Robert Birgeneau, "excellence and equity went hand in hand." However, a sentence from the article states: "Birgeneau argued that financial aid should be steered to those who need it most rather than those with the highest marks." If this is the case, then equity trumps excellence.

    If the financial aid were to go to those with the highest marks, then excellence would trump equity.

    So how can excellence and equity ever go "hand in hand"?

    Leo Zakuta
    Professor Emeritus, Sociology