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U of T’s new president lays out his vision for the next five years

Former Arts & Science dean Meric Gertler talks flat fees, fundraising, and housing shortages
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JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY
JENNIFER SU/THE VARSITY


Meric Gertler takes the helm as the 16th president of the University of Toronto at a critical time for the university. Gertler has taught at U of T for 31 years, assuming a number of senior leadership posts — most recently serving as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science. As dean, Gertler occasionally raised the ire of student leaders, particularly when he oversaw the implementation of the controversial flat fees system — which was recently rolled back by the provincial government due to concerns about affordability for students. Gertler was mostly a popular dean, increasing the number of small first-year classes, and collaborating with the Arts & Science Students’ Union on a number of initiatives, including the popular undergraduate research fund. Now in the university’s top job, Gertler sat down to chat about the challenges he faces: reduced per-student funding from the province, dysfunctional student politics, and a public that is skeptical about the value of a university education, as well as the positive impact he hopes to make on the university over his five-year term.

 

IMG_0381TV: Do you think that universities should be graduating students job-ready?

 

MG: I think that the role for the university is to produce students that are properly educated for a lifetime of success in their careers. Does that mean job-ready? Well, probably not in the sense that public commentators have used that term. The way I would understand job-ready is that we train and educate students so that they leave here with a core set of capabilities that they can use in any job, or that will set them up well for graduate school or professional school. We’re talking about things like the ability to communicate well verbally and in written form, the ability to analyze a problem and solve it, the ability to be a critical consumer of information, question arguments and rephrase them, have some faculty of quantitative reasoning, and to be able to manage letters as well as numbers. And also, I think to have some basic grounding in moral and ethical questions. So, these are the kinds of things that I actually have spent the last seven or eight years working on in Arts and Science, trying to make sure that each of the programs in that faculty deliver those kinds of core competencies.

 

TV: When you were first appointed president you described the provincial tuition fee cap, which was a five per cent at the time, as adequate. As you know, the government announced a three per cent cap over the next four years, and they recently announced a number of changes to program fees and interest fees which you, in a previous interview, said would cost the university up to $16 million.  

 

MG: Yes.

 

TV: How has the university adjusted to funding cuts so far, and how do you see the university trying to adjust in the future?

 

MG: So, we are still digesting the news. There was some lack of clarity in the press release, and the directives from the ministry were not exactly clear on how these changes to tuition fees would be implemented. We were pleased that they even gave us a year to plan and to become ready for the adjustments that would occur. They are fairly large changes, and so we don’t want to rush into decisions. We’re also hopeful that within a year, other circumstances would change that would actually help blunt the impact of these policy decisions.

 

TV: We had a few questions submitted by students. So this is by Rishi: As an urban geographer, U of T has recently struggled with local neighbourhood associations regarding the construction of high-rise student housing on or near campus. As an urban geographer, do you believe the present availability of housing – both residents and off-campus housing — for U of T students is adequate? And if not, what needs to be done in the next 20 years, and how will you facilitate that?

 

MG: That’s a great question. So the answer is no, I don’t believe the current supply is adequate — both on or off campus. We have a rapidly growing demand for student housing on campus – both from domestic students and international students. We are doing everything we can to find ways to build more student housing on all three of our campuses. It is most challenging in the downtown setting where space is at a premium and land is scarce. Whenever you propose new projects, there are neighbourhood effects, and it’s really important to work effectively with the appropriate groups in order to plan projects that serve everybody’s needs and help our students get the kind of accommodation they want and need, but do so in a way that doesn’t offend our good neighbours. I would think that it’s possible to do that; we’ve already begun conversations with community-based organizations. I’ve met with a local councillor. I’m actually going to be meeting with the heads of all the neighbourhood associations at the St. George campus – that’s coming up later this month, and I’m looking forward to that as well.

 

TV: It’s great that you’re meeting with them. Are you going to be pursuing anything different with them in terms of policy?

 

MG: Not so much policy, but maybe in terms of practice. We’re going to bend over backwards to make sure that resident groups and associations are well-informed about what we want to do. We want to engage them in discussions about our plans and seek their input and ideas, and work in a collaborative way. We’ve tried to do that in the past – sometimes it’s worked and other times it hasn’t worked. I think we have a real interest in making sure it works well. More generally, though, coming back to the other aspect of the question in terms of housing outside the campus, I think Toronto has an affordable housing crisis. I think it’s one that’s going to get worse every time before it gets better, unless we think intelligently about how to fix it. I would love to see U of T experts in housing leading the debates about how to provide more affordable housing in the city. Related to that, though, is where that housing is, how far away it is from campus, and how students get from that housing to that campus.

 

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TV: Do you think the university should be doing more to improve those areas in the Maclean’s ranking, where we consistently slip?

 

MG: Absolutely. I think we have achieved a lot in the last few years, and it does take a while for perceptions to change. But that doesn’t mean that you take your eye off the ball. So we were talking a little while ago about the ONE programs, these first-year foundational programs. What they are trying to do is make sure that in this very big place there are some small group experiences in sufficient numbers. The first-year foundational programs are important. So, too, are first-year learning communities, which build smaller cohorts within very large classes. Those have proven to be hugely successful in our life sciences courses, and have now been adopted in others as well. And, particularly targeted to commuter students who find it especially difficult to build social networks, make connections, and feel a part of campus life. So we need to be doing more of that. We also need, of course, to ensure that there are more opportunities for students to engage in enriching experiences like research opportunities. We know that a lot of undergraduates come to U of T because of our research reputation. They want to be able to work with those stars who raise our position in those international rankings. They crave that kind of interaction. And so one of those things I worked hard at, as Dean, was to provide more of those opportunities. One of the ways we did that, by the way, was by partnering with the Arts and Science Students’ Union. They came to us with a great idea: to create a research fund to which undergraduate students could apply. They challenged us to match it dollar-for-dollar. In fact, we ended up matching two dollars of our money to every one dollar from them. And we set up a competition and invited students to come forward with proposals. It’s proven to be hugely popular and effective. So more of those kinds of things and – this is where my urbanist interests come in very naturally – more experiential learning and service learning opportunities, where students are working in the community locally, but not necessarily locally, but abroad as well, to not only apply their learning in the classroom in the field as it were, but also to do some good as they are doing too. It is of benefit to both the student and the community partner they are working with. We have, again, a lot of great examples of that on all three campuses. But we want to do more. So we want to identify those examples that have been most successful and scale those up, too. International experiences are something that students want more of, and that’s something I learned more of in Arts & Science. For us, we face a particular challenge because so many of our students are commuter students. So it means that, often they have part-time jobs and family responsibilities. It’s difficult for them to spend a summer abroad, let alone a whole year abroad. So we’ve had to develop more innovative ways to deliver more international opportunities to them. The one that I think is the coolest idea is these ICMs (International Course Modules) where students or faculty members can apply to the Dean’s Office for a grant to take a class, or a subset of a class, overseas for a week, ten days, or maybe two weeks. It’s to study the phenomenon they’re reading or talking about in class, up close and personally. We started those as a pilot four or five years ago and they’ve just mushroomed, they’ve been so popular. There are a lot of those kinds of innovations that don’t cost that much money but, you know, enrich the experience for students and help offset what they might otherwise be experiencing in very large, less satisfactory environments, and really make them feel connected to this place. I think that’s our biggest challenge, that kind of sense of connection, of affinity, of identifying and feeling welcome here. There are a lot of things that we have been doing, but we know that we have an awful lot of work still to do.

 

TV: One of the things I wanted to ask you about was donations. I know that as Dean, you raised $175 million through the Boundless campaign. You’ve identified fundraising as a core goal. How do you maintain academic freedom, and how do you balance the concerns of groups like the Faculty Association or the students’ unions who have repeatedly raised concerns about the fine print in donor agreements?

 

MG: Well, that’s an important question. Let me just start by noting that a pretty big chunk of the money we’re trying to raise in the Boundless campaign, including much of the money I’ve raised in Arts & Science, is earmarked for student scholarships, undergraduate and graduate, domestic and international.

 

TV: If I can be specific, I’m talking about things like, let’s say, the Rotman donation or the Munk donation which come with caveats like a yearly report to the donor and a donation that’s broken up into 14 years so that, presumably, if a yearly report didn’t go well, the funding could stop at year two or year seven. 

 

MG: So, I understand the concerns that have been expressed about those. But I think it’s important for people to know that, when you talk about the evils of fundraising, or the benefits, fundraising is for many purposes. And an awful lot of it is motivated by the need to raise money for scholarships for students. But in those other gifts that you referred to, the monies are going to help finance buildings, to help finance professorships, to help create program opportunities that would not otherwise been possible. And they have been transformative. I mean, I’ve been lucky enough to have an office at the Munk Center, now the Munk School, the original building. I have seen first-hand what a difference that philanthropic generosity has made to the enrichment and intellectual life for students and faculty. So that is where that money is going, that is what it is for. And it has been transformative. Now, having said that, it is always critical to ensure that the agreements that we sign with donors do not infringe upon academic freedom in any way. In other words, that faculty or students are as free as they were before, to pursue their own interests driven by curiosity and their particular judgment.

 

TV: Do you think that’s currently the case?

 

MG: I do, indeed. I think we’ve had a very rich, valuable, and vibrant public debate around things like the Munk gift. And in the end, I think the consensus was that, indeed, academic freedom had been protected. But it’s always good to debate these things and to raise these issues from time-to-time to make sure that we remain ever-vigilant. To make sure that we don’t cross those lines and that every agreement we sign has those protections in place. There are times when one has to push back. There are times when one has to say no. I have walked away from some big gifts in Arts and Science  when others have come to me with terms that we thought were unacceptable, where they —

 

TV: Like what?

 

MG: I can’t divulge —

 

TV: Sure, but the types of terms.

 

MG: Where, for example, a donor had said, well, this is a fund to create scholarships, but I would like these scholarships to be available only for students that come from this particular place, or that are associated with this particular company, or that sort of thing. We just said: “Well, look, if this is not based on merit or need, then we have a problem.” So, we have pushed back. It’s not fun to say “no” to multi-million-dollar gifts, but you do from time to time have to do that, and I think that we will continue to have to do that from time to time, so it’s really important to have these public discussions and debates, and to reaffirm the importance of these basic principles.

 

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TV: Absolutely. So we’ve been talking a lot about how the university is expanding on this campus and on Scarborough and Mississauga, and one of the things that The Varsity has been reporting on a lot in the last few months is deferred maintenance costs, so I know that when a donor gives a gift, like say the Goldrings, it’s often matched by another level of government. What I’m wondering is who pays for the upkeep of the Goldring Centre for High-Performance Sport in 20 years? Who pays for it in 50 years?

 

MG: Well I think this is a really good question, and we are, I think, catching up with the big deferred maintenance bill that was associated with buildings that were built many years ago, let alone the ones that we’re building today, but it has forced us to be, I think, much more careful in how we think about regular maintenance of new buildings, and ensuring that the operating costs that are associated with those buildings are probably defined to include not just heat and light and cleaning and security, but the need for ongoing maintenance, so that we prevent ourselves from getting into these difficult situation 50 years or 30 years down the road.

 

TV: Because, the current bill, and I know there’s another assessment coming out in February, but the 2012 bill, was about $400 million.

 

MG: Right.

 

TV: Obviously not all of that is urgent, but it seems like a massive expenditure.

 

MG: It is a massive expenditure, and we’re certainly not the only institution that’s facing a bill like that, but because of the large number of old buildings that we have, we’re probably disproportionately affected by this. So, we did have a process within the university of prioritizing which deferred maintenance needs are most pressing, and making sure that those are addressed. We have actually made quite a bit of progress in the last few years in shortening that last, and making sure that all the highest-priority needs have been addressed. So I think we have a much better process in place right now than we did five years ago, and while it won’t be solved overnight, I think we do have a good set of systems in place that will certainly allow us to make progress there, and on a continued basis. Of course we will continue to go after every bit of government funding that might be available for specific purposes. For example a building like University College has a lot of heritage aspects to it, and there are special funds both federally and provincially that are available from time to time to help with those particular needs, and we’ve gone after those funds quite successfully.

 

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TV: Working with ASSU is very different than working with the UTSU, with college councils. Have you had a chance to meet with student leadership so far?

 

MG: I’ve met with the executive of UTSU during the summer before I became president, went over to the observatory building and had a nice chat with them, very nice, relaxed conversation. They of course came to Governing Council in December and represented. We had a nice conversation afterwards at the reception, and I have also met with student leadership at UTM and UTSC, so –

 

TV: Have you met with the colleges?

 

MG: You mean the heads of college councils?

 

TV: Yes.

 

MG: No, I haven’t yet. I’ve interacted a lot with students at the colleges, of course, when I was Dean of Arts & Science, and the principals very close, but haven’t yet met with leaders of college councils, but I’m sure that those meetings will be coming up in my future fairly soon.

 

TV: Because, as you know, the ongoing conflict between some of the colleges and the UTSU has been more or less the same for several years now. Do you see a way out of this situation? Something you can offer as the new President?

 

MG: I am hopeful that the current conversation being conducted by the Provost will be productive and will lead to some sort of resolution, an effective resolution of the differences, and the issues that have been on the table —

 

TV: There hasn’t been any progress in six months.

 

MG: Well I’m not party to that discussion directly, so I would advise you to talk to the Provost for further details on it, but I think it’s important to take the time that is required for these issues to be aired in a fair and full way, and see what kind of resolution we can broker. We’ll certainly work hard to try and broker some kind of working and sustainable solution.

 

TV: Is there a deadline for you though? I mean the student commons is now not going to be on the table for at least this year. We’ve got a student timetable that’s often very different from an administration time table. Is there a point at which you’ll step in?

 

MG: I would not be getting directly involved, I think this is very much in the domain of the provost who’s the chief academic officer of the university, is responsible for student life issues as well. So I would encourage you to have this conversation with her.

 

TV: I guess the last question, is five years from now what would you like to be able to look back at U of T and say this is better, this is different because I was president?

 

MG: Yeah, well, I think it does come down to the three things I’ve been talking about a lot, and let’s do them in reverse order. So, we talked about reinventing and remained undergraduate education and we have spent now the better part of half an hour at least about those issues in this interview. So I would certainly hope that the gains we have made have been surmounted and we can build on them even further so we can see the student experience beginning to improve, experience in the classroom and outside the classroom. So that’s the first thing. Second thing: I’ve talked about deepening and strengthening international partnerships, and this is to the benefit of everybody including students, where we want to have ever more creative forms of international engagement for students. For example, professor Joe Wong in the Asian institute with colleagues in Fudan University in Shanghai, that pools students from Shanghai and from Toronto in the same class and faculty from both universities share the teaching. They move our Toronto students to Shanghai for the purpose of doing so. There’s no reason by the way that we couldn’t do the opposite and bring Shanghai students to Toronto. We have already quite a strong relationship with the University of Fudan, and with Joe Long and his colleagues at that university, so I’d love to see us building on models like that and applying similar ideas in our partnerships in other parts of the world as well. Third: I would really like this university to embrace its city setting in ways that it hasn’t up until now, in ways that it perhaps could or should, including the satellite campuses — so Mississauga, Scarborough and St.George. Why? Because first of all it’s good for the city, to lend our expertise and our spaces to the city for their benefit. But on top of that we also make U of T better, because the better that Toronto gets, the easier it is to attract great students to come here, the easier it is to attract great faculty and staff to work here as well and to hold on to them, they’re always in hot demand, so we have to work very hard to keep them. We want to find ourselves five years from now where our relationship with our city partners has gone from good to great and we have gone to a place where the kind of collaboration that exists between the university and the city around it has become strong, effective and successful.

 

TV: Hopefully we’ll be there in five years.

 

MG: I hope so. I’ll be working hard.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.