Dr. David Naylor is excitedly waving me into an unfinished, open area in the east wing of the Medical Sciences Building, towards some closed double doors marked “CAUTION.” “They built this atrium on the site of the old cafeteria,” he says, gesturing to the space we’re standing in, which is totally white except for some whimsical coloured lights inside oval shapes cut out of the ceiling. He points to a crack in the doors and tells me to look through, at what looks like a patio covered in tarp. “They added this outdoor meeting place between the Faculties of Pharmacy and Medicine, where staff and students from both can eat and interact with each other. It’s just wonderful.”
Naylor, currently finishing a six-year term as U of T’s Dean of Medicine and poised to take on the helm of president, is as enthusiastic as if he’d designed the place himself. But anyone would feel acutely conscious of minute changes to an institution he had been associated with for the past 25 years. Unlike his predecessor, Robert Birgeneau, who before being chosen as president had spent more than a decade at MIT, Naylor was, as he says, “an internal candidate.”
A Woodstock, Ont. native, Naylor studied at Oxford, where he and his wife met as Rhodes Scholars (she is now CEO of the MaRS Discovery District, a non-profit corporation with close ties to U of T). At a point from which he could have joined dozens of institutions, he returned to Toronto. The reason for him is simple: “I love this city,” he says. “It’s a humane, multicultural, exciting place. U of T is a first-class post-secondary institution that is on a very positive trajectory.” Naylor readily gushes about aspects of the city ranging from Mayor David Miller to Scarborough’s “large contribution to our diversity.”
It’s these remarks which point to Dr. Naylor’s broad and inclusive idea of the different things U of T means as an institution to the students, staff, and administrators who call it home, and his keen interest in all of these facets. He especially emphasizes campus and student life as “an integral part of the university experience.”
Though soft-spoken, he is passionate about what he calls the Canadian value of “scholarship for scholarship.” He criticizes “stakeholders who are trying to steer researchers toward doing things that are demonstratively relevant or have immediate impact.
“This is different from commercialization, but has the same tone of saying scholarship can’t be valued in its own right-saying ‘show us how you’re useful.’ We can’t lose sight of the fact that fundamental scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences is incredibly worthwhile in its own right and should not require this constant rearguard action to defend it.”
On the other hand, the press for greater accountability and “usefulness” is “certainly understandable for us, given that there’s a major new investment which we all welcome and which is hugely overdue.”
Naylor is referring to the $6.2 billion in funding allocated to Ontario post-secondary instituitons in the provincial budget announced last Wednesday. For someone who has stated Ontario “should be number one in the country in per-student funding for universities,” this comes as a symbolic windfall, one that can only mean a break in rising tuition levels. Dr. Naylor emphasized, however, that while “there is very obviously a generous envelope of new student aid money that’s been signalled in the budget, how that’s going to flow is still unclear.”
“We should thank the province, take some time to figure out how to allocate these funds effectively, and then get back to advocacy and pressuring the government to keep investing.”
One conflict that U of T has been consistently criticized for, both in the past years and recently with protests over the U.S. military’s interest in research, is the issue of academic freedom. As Dean of Medicine since 1999, Dr. Naylor dealt closely with both the Olivieri and Healy disputes, in which clinical faculty claimed their ability to publish negative information about drugs was blocked by the pharmaceutical companies who funded the research. Dr. Naylor claims he’s confident “we’ve taken proactive and positive steps to protect academic freedom,” and that tribunals in place today would have helped resolve disputes more quickly.
He also emphasizes that academic freedom “cannot be constrained by regulations and bans on certain sponsors,” like the U.S. Army. He says that would put us on “a slippery slope” and that, in any case, it is “very unlikely that sensitive military research is going to be done in an academic environment where the work must be publishable.”
Naylor benefits from having created policy in the fields of both education and healthcare, areas in which there is a “the huge amount of crossover between issues.” Both his work as Vice-Provost facilitating U of T’s partnerships with hospitals and other groups, and his experience as a health researcher and advisor (on, for example, the advisory committee for the 2003 SARS crisis) translates into knowledge of the complex ways public institutions handle their relationships with private and public interests.
“It’s startling to see the parallels,” he says. “We’re entering a new era” in which there is a greater push for accountability, productivity, and integration in both spheres. “One of the happy situations for me has been dealing with both areas [of healthcare and education].”
One thing The Varsity had to know was whether Dr. Naylor is planning on serving his whole presidential term. Could there be anywhere else pressing to be? Smiling, he replied, “not that I know of.”