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Gertler appointed U of T president

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Dr. Meric Gertler has been chosen to succeed David Naylor as president of the University of Toronto. Gertler, currently dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, was confirmed as the university’s president-designate at a special meeting of Governing Council last Monday.

“To be chosen to lead U of T during a time of great change in our sector is both challenging and exhilarating,” said Gertler. ”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. This is a tremendous foundation upon which to build.”

“After an extensive international search, the fact we were able to find someone of Professor Gertler’s stature right here is a testament to the depth of this great university.”

 – David Wilson, presidential search committee chair

Naylor’s term was originally set to end December 31, 2013, but with his successor already nominated, it appears likely that he will step down earlier. The search process for his successor was conducted by a committee made up of administrative and teaching staff, full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students, alumni and other appointees. The committee held public consultations in September.

Despite an international search that involved the services of global head-hunting firm Spencer Stuart and full-page ads in The Economist, Richard Nunn, the chair of Governing Council, said it was “no surprise” that the president was recruited from within the university’s ranks.

U of T has historically promoted senior administrators internally. Naylor served as Dean of Medicine prior to his appointment, while Robert Prichard (president 1990–2000) was dean of the Faculty of Law before taking on the top job at the university.

“I have focused on providing a strong undergraduate education,” said Gertler at a press conference Monday morning. Gertler has served as dean of the university’s largest faculty since 2008. In an interview with The Varsity, Gertler touted some of his accomplishments as dean: “more research opportunities, more international opportunities, more small group opportunities” for students.

Gertler has been a popular figure as dean, though his term has included prominent controversies over the institution of program fees —or ‘flat fees’ — and a particularly contentious academic plan aimed at restructuring and streamlining the faculty.

“The implementation of the flat fee system is an issue Arts & Science Student Union (assu) and the Dean’s Office have never seen eye-to-eye on,” said Kat Ball, assu’s two-term president and one of the student leaders with whom Gertler has worked closely during his time as dean. (Ball sits on The Varsity’s Board of Directors.)

“Dean Gertler has been enthusiastic to take on many of our joint projects with the Faculty, such as the Undergraduate Research Fund and the Exam Jam,” Ball added. “He has been appreciative and receptive of our honest input on things going on in the Faculty.” Ball says she hopes to see Dean Gertler “carry on the same amicable and constructive relationship assu has had with him with the other student unions on campus.

“There are advantages to size,” said Gertler in a press conference on Monday, praising the breadth of U of T’s research expertise and describing some of his efforts to foster smaller group learning opportunities, including the college-based One programs and First-year Learning Communities.

“Large classes are a fact of life at all Canadian universities,” Gertler acknowledges. Under his administration, the faculty has sought to place scholarly luminaries at the front of the classroom and “design more ways for undergraduates to interact directly with our research stars.”

Gertler must now confront the difficulty of preserving the university’s world-class standards as Queen’s Park continues to tighten its belt. “The challenge is to do all these great things for our students in this very challenging fiscal environment, where the support that Ontario universities receive is last out of 10 provinces on a per-student basis,” he said.

Both the incoming and outgoing presidents said that the current tuition framework, which allows for up to a five per cent annual increase in tuition fees, was “adequate” and should remain in place.

Separately, both Naylor and Gertler urged that the conversation around tuition be moved beyond the “sticker price,” noting that 48 per cent of U of T students benefit from some form of financial aid, and that the university’s $2 billion Boundless fundraising campaign has substantive allocations for new grants and scholarships.

According to the Toronto Star, newly-appointed Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities Brad Duguid is said to be eyeing a much more restrictive tuition framework that would allow for inflation and very minor increases of one or two per cent.

The Star also reported that the province this year has already instructed universities to whittle down their budgets further, resulting in a $5.2 million cut for the University of Toronto.

“That’s going to be one of the primary challenges that we’ll have to focus on,” says Gertler of the increasing scarcity of provincial money.

During September’s public consultations, there was some discussion about appointing a president from outside the world of academe. Instead, the search committee opted for Gertler, one of the most frequently-cited geographers in Canada.

With his background in urban geography, Gertler has committed to seeing the university play “an expanded role in city-building,” hoping to engage students and faculty with their city surroundings. In a meeting on Monday with student leaders, Gertler described his vision of a university that graduated well-rounded students whose experiences would be shaped by involvement in the community, and whose skills would be sought out by local employers.

“Gertler is one of the finest economic geographers and urbanists in the world,” said long-time friend and colleague Richard Florida.

“He is a long-time Torontonian who understands the challenges facing our city as it grows and what makes global cities tick. He is just the kind of person that can help Toronto achieve its next phase of growth and development as a truly great global city.”

Gertler has spoken often about this idea previously, during his time as dean. “The most important social contribution that universities make is through educating human capital,” said Gertler, in a previous interview with U of T Magazine.  “Knowledge flows from the university to the city around it in the form of embodied knowledge: well-educated graduates who make up a talented workforce.”

Gertler’s promotion comes amidst a flurry of changes in the ranks of the university’s senior administration. Provost Cheryl Misak is scheduled to depart next year, and the celebrated dean of the Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin, announced his retirement in January.

“It’s too soon to say whether these positions will be filled internally,” said Gertler, who sits on the search committee for Martin’s replacement. The university is now formally seeking input on filling the dean’s vacancy at the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Gertler, who will be the university’s 16th president, has been appointed for an initial five-year term. Naylor served two terms as president, taking over from interim president (and former Supreme Court justice) Frank Iacobucci.