“Boundless” U of T campaign misrepresents the realities of university life

University advertisements misrepresent the constraints on student life

“Boundless” U of T campaign misrepresents the realities of university life

I own this shirt. It is navy blue with a white trim, a nice looking shirt. Perhaps you’ve seen this shirt. I wear it to the gym sometimes, especially the one back home where I show it off as if to say: why yes, I do attend university. Maybe you even own it too, I got mine for free and I know I’m not the only one. What really draws attention to the shirt is the message written across the chest: “I am Boundless.”

Now I’ll admit it’s a great slogan. The first thing you can say about “Boundless” is that it fits all the criteria you would expect from a university slogan. Ambiguity? Check. Opportunity? Check. Infinite horizons? Check.

From a marketing standpoint, the obscurity of this term is what makes it so effective. It carries the idea that school is what you make of it, putting you in the driver’s seat. What’s boundless? Is it the diverse mix of research programs, exchanges, clubs, teams and all manner of opportunities that are readily available at U of T? No. It is you. You are boundless.

“Boundless,” perhaps more than anything else, denotes freedom. One could argue that this is exactly what potential students are looking for. The meaning of the slogan is twofold. It first posits that the university will help provide the necessary environment for you to explore your freedom, while at the same time, the slogan suggests that this environment will not restrict or bind you in any way.

On an academic level, this slogan seems to fit well with U of T’s culture. After all, this school offers some outstanding opportunities. Ironically — perhaps intentionally — this motto runs contrary to some of the popular beliefs about this university. Barring any outside criticism, many students at this school report that the academic demands on their time are too strenuous, and that they invade too deeply into their social lives. This is of course merely the price one pays for attending a top school. Still, the fact that our slogan seems to run contrary to what many of us believe about this university is somewhat troublesome.

If this slogan only meant that we are boundless in the academic sphere then perhaps there would be no issue. However, the various ways in which this slogan is delivered play up both the academic and social advantages of the school.

In one sense, this is a must for the university’s advertising. In an age where the value of any given university degree has shrunk, social networks are becoming increasingly important for many prospective students.

Accordingly, university ads seem to be advancing the social merits of their schools more than ever. In these ads, the message that the social value of the degree is tantamount to academics is not only promoted, it’s unequivocal. After all, how do you think alumni get to the top? When you play Frisbee in the shade of the campus quad with women in sundresses and men in Oxford shirts, yes there is great fun, but there is also an opportunity to make profitable connections.

The reality for many students is that the academic rigors of this school overshadow the social benefits of university. In this sense, our slogan is contradictory. We are not boundless, but heavily bound. We can only hope, then, that this hindrance to social freedom will be worth it in the long run.

 

Breen Wilkinson is a second-year student studying English, history, and American studies.

Controversial residence plans continue to spark debate

Knightstone residence would benefit students as living costs in Toronto rise

Controversial residence plans continue to spark debate

A new student residence is being proposed near College and Spadina. Knightstone Capital, a private firm, is planning to build a 24-storey tower, which could house 759 U of T students on property leased  from the university. However, some members the local community, including City Councillor Adam Vaughan, oppose the project.

Many U of T students welcome the proposal. Housing costs in downtown Toronto are soaring. A decent bedroom in a Bay Street condominium often costs $1,000 per month, and many students are more than happy to pay $600 just to find a living room to sleep in. On the other hand, commuting carries implicit costs. In addition to paying $106 a month for a TTC pass, commuters also tend to enjoy fewer of the auxiliary U of T services that they pay for. After all, few would be willing to commute back to campus after dark just for an intramural soccer game at 10:00 pm.

The project also appeals to the university. The university administration has some responsibility to offer accommodation to its substantial international and out-of-province student body. For years,  however, it has been unable to expand its aging residence buildings due to ever-decreasing public funding. As the Knightstone project is privately financed, the university can better serve its students while only taking on minimal financial risks. Besides, more student residences will always foster a sense of community on campus that big universities like U of T often lack.

Opponents to the project protest that a glass-and-steel tower would be incongruous in the otherwise low-rise area, and that students would cause a disturbance in an otherwise quiet residential neighbourhood. These are genuine concerns; however, they should serve as signs to proceed with caution, rather than as roadblocks to the entire project. Indeed, some measures have already been taken to address these problems. For instance, the university stipulated as part of its lease that the operator of the new residence must obtain its approval. It is therefore to be expected that student life in the new tower will be held to the same standard as any other U of T residences.

In their stern opposition to the proposed tower, community members also seem to have willfully ignored the enormous economic and social benefits that those 759 students will bring to the neighbourhood. Existing business owners will see an influx of customers, and residents will benefit from the opening of many new businesses.

The university owns many other underdeveloped properties, such as the three blocks bounded by Harbord, Spadina, and Huron and Bloor. U of T owns all but 11 houses in the area. Building a mixture of new student residences and classrooms in the area will benefit the residents as well as students. However, if the Knightstone residence project is rejected, it will serve as a negative precedent for other future development projects in the area.

 

Li Pan is a second-year student majoring in economics and mathematics. 

U of T building beyond its means

University lacks infrastructure roadmap

U of T building beyond its means

New University of Toronto president Meric Gertler wasted little time expressing the university’s dissatisfaction with provincial levels of funding for post-secondary education, citing funding pressures as a key challenge for the university in his installation address. The Varsity has recently highlighted the alarming growth of deferred maintenance at U of T, as well as the interaction of provincial funding structures and donor priorities with what gets built and fixed at the university. Despite the constant talk of funding levels and priorities, questions around deferred maintenance are still rarely discussed.

For many students, the first of these questions will be: What is deferred maintenance? Deferred maintenance occurs when the university spends less on maintaining its buildings in a given year than it thinks it should. The Facilities & Services department monitors how much upkeep has been delayed until future years in this manner, and their reports make alarming reading.

As of 2012, the university has some $484 million in deferred maintenance. If U of T were to decide to do all that work today, it would cost them one quarter of the university’s endowment. Amazingly, that’s not the alarming part of the problem; even if U of T were to spend that money catching up on maintenance this year, we would still have significant levels of maintenance necessary next year.

It is not difficult to see how the university has arrived at this point, and U of T’s administration is not doing anything that other large Canadian institutions have not done. Every year, U of T has to spend more than it earns — something that it cannot do. Many public institutions — including the ttc, school boards, and the provincial government itself — face this yearly dilemma. The province makes ends meet primarily by incurring debt, but other institutions often make up the funding gap by deferring spending on maintenance. If U of T were to defer other expenses — such as salaries, heating, or financial aid — people would notice. However, the university can easily get by unnoticed without spending millions on removing the asbestos from Sidney Smith, or other projects that are advisable in the long term but not immediately necessary.

It is important to note that deferred maintenance does not pose any immediate danger to the people using these buildings. Facilities & Services monitors the university’s infrastructure, and urgent repairs are carried out before they become a hazard. The problem, however, is that while the asbestos in Sid Smith can be safely contained for now, it will eventually have to go. The same is true for every job that can, for the time being, be safely put off until next year. Deferring maintenance also provides short-term savings at the expense of long-term costs, since labour, material, and evaluation costs increase every year.

Until 2008, U of T was slowly improving the situation; from 2005–2008, the amount of deferred maintenance decreased from about $300 million to less than $200 million, as U of T actually spent more on maintenance than the annual requirement. Since 2008, however, the trend has reversed. Both the rate of increase and the amount of deferred maintenance are now growing every year. Even though U of T’s contribution to maintenance has actually increased steadily since 2008, provincial funding has been declining, and total funding is not keeping pace with need.

This problem of ever-increasing deferred maintenance is compounded by the fact that donors and politicians alike want to fund exciting new projects, particularly innovative or glamorous new buildings. By going along with these plans U of T maximizes the total amount of grant and donation money it receives, and continues to grow its infrastructure and enhance its reputation. All of these are positive developments, and they often lead to tangible benefits for students. The downside is that the university can’t quite afford to maintain the buildings it already has. While some donations fund renovations, which include maintenance or revival funding, new building is almost always part of the deal, leading to even more maintenance cost as those buildings age.

Administrators have argued that U of T can neither tell donors what to fund nor change the government’s mind, and that it has to take advantage of these opportunities or risk falling behind its global competitors. This argument ignores the reality that, eventually, deferred maintenance will catch up with us. The university can devote more money to innovation and growth today by deferring maintenance spending. By doing so, however, administrators ensure that at some point in the future, U of T will have less to spend less on these goals as it is forced to divert funds to urgent up-keep spending.

Allowing donors and capricious provincial grants to set the university’s agenda for growth also puts decision-making in the wrong hands. The university certainly benefits from exciting new buildings, but it needs money for maintenance, as well as more classrooms, residences, and student space. We expect that the provincial government will spend money where it is needed, whether it is glamorous or not. The university and its students — who donors always express a willingness to listen to — must ask that donors provide money for what faculty and students are really asking for, rather than what benefits their reputations or desires for legacy projects. Gertler is a world-renowed urban geographer, and we hope that his academic background will inform a more comprehensive and thoughtful plan for the university’s development.

The Goldring family’s support for the Goldring Student Centre is an excellent example of donor funding for student space. This kind of support is very rare, and has been totally absent from the Student Commons fundraising process, which places the whole burden of funding on students.

The question of deferred maintenance is a question of leadership. The university is sabotaging its long-term growth to further its short-term growth. By incurring an enormous and growing amount of deferred maintenance, and by allowing donors and grants to set a haphazard course for growth, we are undermining the university’s future. University and provincial leaders are taking credit for the university’s current strength and growth, while ensuring a weaker future.

U of T researchers invent functional “cloaking devices”

Researchers build revolutionary device for under $2,000

U of T researchers invent functional “cloaking devices”

Two members of U of T’s Edward S. Rogers Sr. Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering have invented a functioning invisibility cloak. Professor George Eleftheriades and PhD student Michael Selvanayagam used the principle of wave interference to conceptualize a thin “cloak” of atennae that renders an object invisible to radar. To accompany the research, published last week in the journal Physical Review X, Selvanayagam built a functioning model of the device for less than $2,000.

Radio devices read the appearance and position of objects by interpreting the waves that bounce off object ­— the same principle behind human sight, but in a different spectrum. The cloaking device built by Eleftheriades and Selvanayagam  radiates a field that cancels out the waves bouncing off the object it covers, rendering the object invisible in the radio spectrum. The device can also alter the appearance or the apparent location of the object when viewed through radar.

The device was created in an effort to improve upon existing research, says Selvanayagam. “The idea of cloaking an object was first proposed in 2006 or so by a group at Duke University… they were the ones who first showed that cloaking is something that you can actually do using specially designed materials and structures.” A structure of metamaterials shields the object inside from rays by bending light around the object. The problem with these structures was their relative scalabilty and complexity: early structures were large and awkward, and techniques designed to shield smaller objects weren’t very modifiable. Eleftheriades and Selvanayagam’s research has solved these problems ­— their device is scalable and flexible, and can also be retuned to work with different wavelengths.

Though for a functioning invisibility device an under $2,000 cost seems impressively cheap,  Selvanayagam didn’t view the budget as a limitation. “The reason it was a small budget was because we wanted to do everything as simply as possible,” he says. “So all the components are discrete parts, we didn’t try to integrate anything into a package, we did everything very modularly, very system level, very part-by-part, so we could switch things in and out for the ease of the experiment.” A larger budget would allow experimenters to fully integrate the device ­— or make it more reactive. Currently, the device must be manually tuned, but in the future, the device may contain a mechanism that would allow it to detect radio waves and then automatically tune itself to the approproiate frequency.

The most obvious applications for the new device are military ­— hiding or disguising objects from prying eyes. “But in general, there are some more basic, not-very-fancy, but more down to earth applications,” points out Selvanayagam. “If you think about the city of Toronto, there are antenna towers all over the city, that’s just how our wireless system works. And some of them are being blocked by various objects, there are buildings in the way.” The device could cloak buildings that interrupt cellular communications. “If you pinch around them with these antennas, the buildings disappear.”

Further applications — especially those that would require use of the technology in the visible spectrum, including medical imaging applications ­— are a matter of technology. “We did it with radio waves because the technology is mature enough that you can apply established technological ideas like atennas,” explains Selvanayagam. “At higher frequencies, as you approach the visible spectrum or the region beyond x-rays, the technology is very different, so there are some serious challenges in taking what we did and moving it up.”

SAUIS seeks changes to unpaid internship framework

New campaign advocates for government intervention over unpaid internships in Ontario

On Tuesday, Students Against Unpaid Internship Scams (SAUIS), an advocacy group, launched a campaign that urges provincial government reform on unpaid internships. Unpaid interns are currently not covered under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), Ontario’s cornerstone legislation overseeing employment.

At the press conference announcing the new campaign, SAUIS listed three recommendations for Ontario’s Ministry of Labour — include proactive enforcement of existing employment regulations, a public education campaign on unpaid internships, and a comprehensive government review of the laws governing unpaid internships.

“There is a growing push to address unpaid internships in Ontario,” according to Josh Mandryk, a spokesperson for SAUIS and third-year student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law In Canada, unpaid internships are a murky field with little government oversight. Although an estimated 200,000 postsecondary students undertake in unpaid internships each year, no provincial or federal agency keeps data on interns.

At the University of Toronto, decisions concerning proposed unpaid internships are made at the department or faculty level. According to Michael Kurts, associate vice-president of strategic communications, this makes the prevalence of unpaid internships “difficult to determine, due both to the decentralized nature of the University and to the various ways that internships are defined.”

“The university supports educational opportunities for students that prepare them well for the careers they plan to follow,” Kurts said. “That might include a service learning component, an international placement, a co-op opportunity, a paid internship or an unpaid internship.”

A number of campus organizations have expressed concern over Ontario’s unpaid internship framework. “Unpaid internships exploit students and young graduates,” said Munib Sajjad, president of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). “For-profit companies benefit from free labour, while young people contend with the highest unemployment rate we’ve seen since the Great Depression.”

In an email to The Varsity, Sajjad stated that the UTSU is currently working on a campaign that calls on the federal government to create a “National Youth Unemployment Strategy.” He also stated that UTSU is working on initiatives to enhance regulation of the existing ESA.

Shawn Tian, president of the Arts and Science Students’ Union, also expressed concerns over unpaid internships. “Wasted hours running petty errands which [do] nothing to bolster our resumes is about as bad as it gets,” Tian noted. Tian believes that shorter, more intensive internships would allow students to get valuable experience while not putting a large financial burden on employers.

“It’s important for [students] to realize our own worth as potential interns,” Tian asserted. “There are plenty of internships that offer solid learning opportunities and [students] should not settle if it means wasted hours with little experiential learning.”

Some U of T students, like third-year molecular genetics and microbiology major Monica, have had positive experiences with unpaid internships. Monica works as a student researcher in a campus lab. She claims her internship has been instrumental in kindling her interest in scientific research. “I never really had much ambition before I worked in this lab,” she explained, “but now that I’ve found something I love doing, I feel much more motivated to do well in my classes.”

Monica does see problems with the current system for unpaid internships. Most importantly, she believes that unpaid internships exclude disadvantaged students. “I understand the argument that experience gained is worth more than a salary, but I think the obvious problem is that most people can’t afford to work for free,” she acknowledged. “This means that entire fields where unpaid internships are the expected entry point become almost entirely inaccessible to people who don’t have enough money.”

“I’d like to see it become easier to get a research position in the context of a paying job,” Monica sad. “I’d like to see more official job postings, with stipends listed. Instead of having to email professors with interesting research at random, why not make it more obvious who’s looking for students and who isn’t?”

U of T’s Career Centre does list some paid and unpaid research opportunities, but the majority of positions go unlisted. A recent search for “research positions” on the U of T Career Centre’s website yielded no results.

“It’s time for action on unpaid internships,” Mandryk said. “We hope to see to all three parties coming together to protect young workers from abuse.” SAUIS plans to advance the group’s message to every Member of Provincial Parliament in the coming weeks.

A tale of two presidents

U of T's presidential transition provides opportunity for further growth

A tale of two presidents

David Naylor stepped down as U of T president on Friday, ending eight years in the university’s most important office. For almost a decade, Naylor has filled the president’s office with remarkable energy and has often been in the public eye. It is hard to assess Naylor’s personal legacy, but the university has certainly benefitted from his efforts.

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

NANCY JI/THE VARSITY

At the time of his appointment, Naylor’s successor, Meric Gertler, emphasized Naylor’s achievements in raising U of T’s international reputation: “I am following in the footsteps of President Naylor — a leader who has combined vision, hard work, and dedication to propel the University to compete with the best institutions in the world.” Under Naylor, U of T has placed among the world’s top 20 universities in both the QS World University Rankings and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Although Naylor himself has questioned the accuracy and significance of university rankings, they are just one indication of U of T’s growing international standing. Naylor can claim a great deal of credit for this achievement. The “Boundless” fundraising campaign, launched in Naylor’s second term, is the largest in Canadian academic history and has bolstered the university’s global connections. Again, Naylor’s personal involvement has been substantial.

Although Naylor has been good for U of T’s public image abroad, he has been less successful closer to home. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the proposed student residence that was to be built by Knightstone Capital Management Inc. on College Street. The university’s negotiations with Toronto City Council and with community groups opposed to the proposals were less than cordial. The university released an unsigned statement accusing city councillor Adam Vaughan of “uncharacteristically threaten[ing] to use his office to damage the University’s interests in various ways,” while Harbord Village Residents’ president Rory (Gus) Sinclair threatened to “[go] to war” with the university. The incendiary back-and-forth over the residence contributed to Toronto City Council’s rejection of the proposal. It would be unfair to lay the blame for this fiasco on Naylor alone, but as president, community and public relations were part of his responsibility.

It seems fortunate, then, that incoming president Gertler’s academic background is in urban geography and economics. Gertler seems well-suited to ameliorate the often-strained relationship between the university and surrounding communities. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Gertler stated that he sees “a real opportunity for the U of T to play an expanded role in city-building, and working with civic leaders.” If U of T is to continue to expand, particularly if it is to finally build new residences, effective communication and compromise with its neighbours must be a priority. This is one promising area where Gertler has the opportunity to make his mark.

There are also areas where Gertler seems poised to build on Naylor’s successes. Gertler has already helped raise $175 million towards the Boundless campaign. He seems eager to pick up where Naylor left off in the university’s fundraising efforts, saying in one interview that he enjoys fundraising. Private donations have met or exceeded expectations for several years, but this is not the only funding question that the new president will have to manage. As president, Naylor repeatedly stated that government funding is unsustainably low. In addition to expanding and improving community relations, Gertler should focus on continuing to persuade governmental bodies to invest in the university. One of Naylor’s approaches to this issue has been to emphasize entrepreneurship at the university. Gertler may well continue this, but should be cautious to prevent excessive commercialization of research and ideas.

Gertler’s history as dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science means he does not assume the presidency with an entirely clean slate. The controversial 2010 review of the faculty, which proposed major budget cuts that included the termination of the university’s Centre for Comparative Literature, drew outcry from students and faculty alike. Gertler also played a major role in implementing the university’s unpopular flat fee policy, which has been a major student grievance since it was introduced. Some tension between the university’s students and its president seems inevitable. Yet these high-profile and unpopular decisions mean Gertler could have an uphill battle to convince skeptical students of his good intentions. This should not, however, preclude constructive dialogue between the new president and student leaders.

The impact of the president on the university is difficult to measure. Like any leader, the tone a president strikes and the example they offer can be as important as specific policies and initiatives. Gertler should model transparency and willingness to consult and compromise in the many challenging situations he will undoubtedly face. The university has, on the whole, been well-served by Naylor, but there is always more work to be done.

Meet Judy Goldring

Family of Governing Council chair has donated over $10 million to U of T

Meet Judy Goldring

Judy Goldring, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at AGF Management, had a special reason to spend time in the library during her undergraduate career at the University of Toronto. “I loved hanging out at Emmanuel College,” she says. “This will really date me, but Tears for Fears did a video at Emmanuel College, and I loved going into Emmanuel College and saying ‘This is where the video was done.’”

Four generations of the Goldring family have attended U of T, including Judy and her brother Blake, both of whom graduated from Victoria University, and both of whom have individually donated over $1 million to the university. The Goldring family has made numerous donations to the university. The most visible signs of its generosity are the recently opened Goldring Student Centre at Victoria University and the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport, currently under construction on Devonshire. “One of our family principles is to give back to your alma mater,” Goldring explains.

Goldring’s experience as a commuter student informed the decision to contribute to the Victoria student centre. “We’re really so honoured and proud and humbled to be able to put a building that we think will help integrate the commuter students, to have a place for not just commuter students but also [residence] students, and it’s a place of meeting.”

Goldring believes that the development of projects like the two Goldring centres must involve consultation and dialogue between donors and the administration. The student centre at Victoria created some controversy when it was first proposed in 2008, with students voting in a referendum that approved a $100 ancillary fee to pay for one-third of the $21 million building. Goldring says the decision of students to support the project at the time was inspiring. “I think that’s exactly what donations are all about; that’s exactly why if there’s a vote and people will support it, it’s because they want to make sure they’re improving the time for the student experience after they’re gone, and that’s exactly what we wanted to see happen with the Goldring Student Centre.”

The connection to Victoria is obvious, but why high performance sport? Goldring says her father, the late C. Warren Goldring, co-founder of financial firm AGF Management, believed in a well-balanced life. “I did joke with him, ‘There are no Olympians in my side of the family,’” she remembers, “but he was a firm believer about having that element of your life fulfilled, and it is about having all parts of your life in a positive way, and that’s what the Goldring Centre for High Performance does.”

Health is a particular topic of interest for Goldring; her husband has Type 1 diabetes, and she has previously co-chaired the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s (JDRF) Ride for Research charity event. According to Goldring, the quality of research being conducted at institutions like U of T is particularly important: “In terms of the research excellence that’s done here, you do see organizations like JDRF benefitting from phenomenal research, and research does make a difference in managing diseases like diabetes.”

Goldring believes that it is important for students to take care of their health. “You’ve got a lot of pressure; students today are under a lot of stress, and the pressure to perform and succeed in a very competitive environment is a challenge,” she admits. “But it is a good message to get out — to get out and do that, keep active, keep healthy, eat right.”

Goldring’s contributions to U of T go beyond the remarkable sums she has donated. She has been a member of the University of Toronto’s Governing Council for four years, serving as its vice-chair for two years before being elected to the role of chair on July 1, 2013. “We’ve spoken about my love of this institution, my fond memories of it,” she says. “My family connection has afforded me the opportunity to get involved, and when the opportunity came around for me to get involved with the council, I was excited to be able to give back.”

As Meric Gertler takes over as U of T’s new president, Goldring is leading Governing Council during a period of change for the school, and she looks forward to the work. “Certainly governance, I think, can be helpful in the transition, assuring a smooth transition to support the president and the provost,” she says. “We’re also looking to support, where appropriate, on key defined advocacy issues as the president might define or the administration might define.” Goldring emphasizes that a current key policy initiative for the Governing Council is the implementation of campus councils on the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses, an effort to respond to their growth by increasing decision-making at the local level.

Goldring balances her position at the university with what she drily calls her “day job” as COO of AGF Management, a $38 billion asset management company that invests money for clients without the expertise or inclination to do so themselves. Portfolio managers at the company construct investment packages in which individuals and institutions can then choose to participate. U of T itself employs AGF’s services through the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation. “So it keeps me busy,” Goldring says of her multitude of responsibilities with a smile.

“Some would argue there’s no such thing as balance,” Goldring notes, when asked how she manages to keep her complex life in order. “It’s just a very busy time on campus right now, which is great. So right now, the balance is a little imbalanced, but it’s okay. It’s all good.”

The discussion eventually turns back to the business of U of T. Goldring shares what she sees as the most significant challenge for universities in Canada. “Broadly speaking, I think for all universities it’s government policy around post-secondary education and sustainability of the framework that we’re operating in,” she says. “It’s one of the more pressing issues; it’s not a new issue, and it’s not going to be solved in a day either.” Still, Goldring is excited about the opportunities for dialogue for the schools leaders going forward, and particularly expressed great confidence in president Gertler.

Perhaps she is remembering her days making friends in The Buttery, or reading in her favourite quiet spaces around Vic, or being awestruck by the building in which Tears for Fears filmed a video (yesterday’s Mean Girls and Convocation Hall, one might say). At any rate, there is context that makes the words Goldring utters in conclusion just a little more meaningful. “Enjoy your time here,” she says. “It goes by quickly.”

Build new structures, or renovate?

Maintenance on existing infrastructure neglected as donors choose to contribute to new projects

Build new structures, or renovate?

The parking lot on St. George Street behind Convocation Hall will soon be covered in scaffolding, with work on the Faculty of Applied Sciences and Engineering’s Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CEIE) scheduled to be completed in late 2016.

U of T’s $2 billion Boundless campaign aims to fund a large number of new buildings and capital projects, including building the Centre for Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the expansion and renovation of the Faculty of Law, and the renovation of the north building at UTM. Some university figures, however, have suggested that the way the university tries to attract donor contributions and provincial funding structures for capital projects incentivize building new over maintaining the infrastructure the university already has. This could be problematic, as buildings in need of repair go ignored while funds are diverted to new construction.

The Engineering Society (EngSoc) has contributed $1 million towards the costs of the building. Rishi Maharaj, former president of EngSoc, says the money came from the Skule Endowment Fund, set up in 2010 to establish a permanent endowment for the society, with the aim of eventually replacing the society’s annual fee and the student contribution to the faculty’s operating maintenance budget. Engineering students contribute $100 a year to the fund. “One of the provisions was that the capital could potentially be spent for something major like a new building,” he explained.

Infra Graphs

Maharaj said that initial plans for the CEIE did not include any student space, and that EngSoc’s donation to the project, an initiative begun last year, is partly an attempt to remedy that situation. “What eventually emerged during my time, was that we would be much more likely to be able to get not all the things we wanted, but a substantial number of them, if we were willing to come up with some money. That was the genesis of the idea to give the university some money.”

Direct student contributions to capital projects like new buildings show a sense of ownership and an acknowledgement that students benefit from these projects, said David Palmer, U of T’s vice-president, advancement and the person behind Boundless. Palmer said that voluntary one-time donations — as opposed to the referendum-supported levy, used to partly fund the Goldring Student Centre at Victoria University, for example — are also a great motivating tool for donors. “That type of student giving is one of the most powerful incentives for donors and alumni to give,” he explained.

 

Build new or renovate?

Tamer El-Diraby, an associate professor in U of T’s Department of Civil Engineering, says that the university’s focus on new building is partly pragmatic. “There is no politician that I am aware of that wants to cut the ribbon for the renovation of a building instead of placing the foundation stone for a new building,” he said.

Many of the capital projects currently underway at the university include significant renovation or maintenance components, including the north building and 1 Spadina projects. Palmer says that donors do not express a preference for new buildings at the expense of renovating the university’s existing infrastructure. “I’ve never had a donor express to me a preference for new versus renovated [buildings],” he said. “In fact many of the biggest capital projects that we’ve had donors give money to are a combination of both.’

The provincial government has provided $417 million in capital funding to U of T since 2003, according to figures provided by the ministry of training, colleges, and universities (TCU) (see graph above). New buildings and construction accounted for $224 million of those funds. Universities need to consider the maintenance costs associated with new buildings when they apply for funding said Brad Duguid, minister of TCU. “[When] we invest in a new capital project for a university or college, the expectation is that the maintenance of that facility will be covered under the operating budgets of the institution,” he explained. “If an institution doesn’t have the capability of maintaining a facility, they ought to not be applying for funding for us to build it.”

Palmer admitted that donors often have a similar attitude. “Deferred maintenance is often seen by people as the responsibility of the system, of the university, to maintain things correctly,” he explained. “I have never had much success in going to a donor with a pitch to have their funds allocated towards deferred maintenance.” Last week, in responding to questions about deferred maintenance, the university administration indicated that it believes provincial funding levels are currently insufficient, and that it is lobbying the Ontario government on the matter.

 

Why are we expanding?

Duguid says new infrastructure is key to maintaining the reputation and ranking of Ontario’s universities. “There’s no question that the deferred maintenance issue is a pressure,” he admitted. “At the same time, we also have the pressure of ensuring that we’re continuing to provide a globally-competitive education experience to our students.”

Infra Graphs2

Enrollment at the university has increased significantly in recent decades, with the total number of full-time students at U of T growing from 55,127 in 2000–2001 to 80,899 in 2012–2013. Michael Kurts, assistant vice-president of strategic communications and marketing, said in an email that “demand for PSE has increased due to population increases combined with increasing participation rates,” leading to a growth in enrollment.

These new students need new space, faculty and infrastructure. “U of T cannot say to students, ‘We will not have classrooms for you.’ We cannot say to a chair of a department, ‘We cannot have a secretary for you.’ We cannot tell students, ‘We will not have professors to teach you,’” said El-Diraby. The result, he said, is that maintenance gets deferred because it is the only cost that can be delayed.

Palmer emphasized that the Boundless campaign reflects the priorities set by academic units within the university. “All the priorities for the campaigns begin with academic priorities, that are approved in academic plans by the divisions, and they have to be approved by the provost.”

The ability of a project to attract funding does play a significant role in the planning process, however. Maharaj said that during the initial planning stage for the CEIE, the faculty created a document detailing how the building’s space would be used, broken up into four or five blocks. “Each one of those blocks was based on some type of concept of some type of donor that they would be able to reach with the idea for that space.”

The university has repeatedly emphasized that donors do not try to interfere with the academic priorities or planning of faculties or departments. Brad Evoy, external commissioner of the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), however, says that donor participation affects what the university is able to fund. “It’s much more about building a new program, building a new thing — something that seems cutting-edge,” he argued. “But it’s not so much about the bread-and-butter basics of the university.”

Palmer said attracting and retaining donors is dependent on their willingness to give to specific areas of the university’s need. “It is almost impossible to steer a donor to an area of interest where they have no interest,” he said. “It essentially is not sensible to even try, because donors — it’s their money, they can give it to whatever worthy charitable cause they wish, and there’s plenty of competition out there.”

 

What are the implications of this system?

The current system of donor contributions and government funding could lead to unforeseen problems in the future, according to Maharaj. “Over the long term you won’t have a master-planned university, you won’t have a university that evolves according to academic or educational goals — you’ll have a university that evolves towards what people are willing to pay for.”

The university’s Governing Council and Business Board approves capital projects, including new buildings and renovations. The Business Board meeting on Monday, November 4, will include the university advancement division’s quarterly report on gifts and pledges above $250,000.