On May 18, 2017, U of T announced that Meric Gertler would be appointed to a second term as President of the university until June 30, 2023. Prior to the announcement, The Varsity had a chance to sit down with Gertler to discuss a wide range of issues, from free speech to the provincial budget.
The Varsity: The political climate has changed since the last time you sat down with The Varsity. There’s a new president in the White House, there’s been a rise in support for far-right leaders in Europe, and Brexit occurred. How do you see the role of universities and U of T, as well as your role, changing?
Meric Gertler: That’s a great question, and it’s a fascinating time. I’ve just come back from Washington D.C., where I met with the presidents of the [Association of American Universities] — those are the 60 top universities in the US plus Toronto and McGill. We’re the only two foreign members. They are grappling with this question of political change at home and what it means for them. It has several implications, obviously. Front of mind for them is a proposed set of budget cuts to education, budget cuts to research. The National Institute of Heath, for example, has a proposed eight per cent budget cut. 30 per cent cut to the EPA, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts. These are all proposed to be cut.
So they’re worried because, obviously, this has direct implications for the success of their faculty colleagues, their ability to attract more talented folks from around the world in the future. So they are worried. They also know that the US is appearing to be a less welcoming place right now, so some of them are experiencing significant declines in applications from international students. And they’re worried about what the government is doing around H-1B visas, making it harder for them to hire talented faculty from outside the US.
They were looking in our direction with a great deal of envy. Several times throughout those meetings, people kept saying, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we were in Canada? Canada is doing this differently.’ Comments like that — that suggests that unrest in the US and in the UK actually presents an opportunity for us, and we certainly have heard lots of stories from department chairs around the university [concerning] greater interest from faculty who want to move here, from not just the US and the UK, but from other places too, because the US and the UK appear to be less welcoming now than they used to be.
We’re also, of course, hearing interest from students around the world who are keen to come here. We’ve seen pretty sharp increases in our applications from the US, India, places like that. So there are some opportunities for Canada that come about as a result of this unrest, and we’re obviously well positioned here in this city, which is not only in a country perceived as more welcoming, but is also perceived as a welcoming and dynamic metropolitan region and an attractive place to study, and live, and work.
TV: On the topic of changing political climates, we also saw Professor Jordan Peterson make international headlines last fall after his comments on political correctness and free speech became viral. In addition, Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer proposed cutting federal funding for universities that don’t uphold free speech. Is the university doing enough to protect free speech on campus, and how do you balance this with creating a safe environment for marginalized students?
MG: Let me start with an anecdote. I was participating in a recruitment event in Silicon Valley [a couple of months ago], and we were welcoming students who have applied to the University of Toronto and who have been accepted here and were trying to make up their minds as to whether or not that they should come. I had lots of conversations with students who were extremely well-informed about what’s going on here, and, interestingly, I talked to people who I think would position themselves on both sides of that debate. There’s some who were very much aligned with Professor Peterson and his views, and others who were quite opposed and concerned about implications that they thought were quite negative.
But, in both cases, they expressed a kind of enthusiasm for the idea that these issues were being discussed and debated here. And so I thought that actually is a terrific result in some ways, because what they seem to be hearing and seeing from afar is that the University of Toronto happens to be one of these places where this hot issue is being debated quite intensively right now. They like the fact that it’s being debated effectively and intensively.
So what does that mean for us and our role? It means that we have to continue to ensure that we’re a place that allows these kinds of debate in a civil and safe way, so that everybody feels that their position can be offered and defended, that they have an opportunity to engage constructively with people who hold opposing views. Hopefully, we encourage people to engage in those debates in ways that are evidence-based rather than simply driven by emotion. If we are doing our duty as a university, we should be creating those kinds of spaces and those sorts of opportunities. It doesn’t mean people will always agree. In fact, they will usually not agree. We have to make sure that whether it’s in the classroom or in other venues, we enable that kind of conversation to take place and that remains our goal.
TV: More specific to what Scheer said, does the prospect of a Conservative Party leader promising to cut funding to universities on the basis of these questions — does that concern you at all?
MG: You know, I think that when you look at these questions, we of course are always interested in ensuring that freedom of expression and academic freedom — that those principles are upheld. At the same time, we are also doing our best to ensure that people behave in ways that are in keeping with the laws of the land, to the extent that those impend on any of this. So this is the balance that we have to strike.
I would hope that any kind of federal intervention of this sort would recognize the nuanced and balanced nature of these issues and the delicacy with which one has to approach them. My own view is that the federal government has an important role to play in areas like research funding, which should be based on quality as assessed by one’s peers and one’s discipline.
TV: How would you describe the university’s relationship with the City of Toronto, as well as the various residents’ associations in the nearby communities, when it comes to questions regarding capital projects, especially in the context of, just recently, the City deciding to grant heritage recognition to the bookstore on Sussex and Spadina?
MG: Our relationship with the City — with a capital C — is very good. It is something that we’ve worked hard at, I’ve worked hard at personally, to make sure we develop a closer and stronger relationship with the City of Toronto…We are just on the verge of signing a memorandum of agreement between the City and the university that enshrines and formalizes cooperation between us and the City. For example, it would make it easier seeking internships to land these kinds of placements at City Hall. At the same time, it makes it easier for the City of Toronto to tap into the research expertise that we have here on so many topics, to touch on the well-being of the City of Toronto and its citizens… So we have a great relationship.
We also, of course, are working with them through the work that our students have done in concert with students from Ryerson, York, and OCAD on the Student Move TO project, which was this great research project survey of daily travel experiences of students at those four institutions. That has created a wonderful database that we are now sharing with the City of Toronto, with City planning, the TTC, Metrolinx, and others to help inform their transportation planning. And there are many more things one can say.
On to our residents’ association neighbours, there too, I’m really happy to see how our relationship has improved. I meet… annually with the executives of those groups, particularly around our St. George campus. I’m happy to say that on our other two campuses — Mississauga and Scarborough — they both have excellent relations with civic associations nearby, both government and community-based. So that’s a very positive story.
Back to St. George, I think that the whole tenor of the conversation has changed dramatically within the last few years, and we’ve become much more collaborative, much friendlier, much more cooperative, so that we are working closely with them to jointly tackle challenges and opportunities. We, for example, have responded very positively with their requests to have students from the St. George campus work with them on a variety of studies and projects of great interest to their neighbourhood. Shauna Brail, who’s my Presidential Advisor on Urban Engagement, has been facilitating that kind of interaction.
Does that mean we will always agree on everything? No, but the conversation has remained really constructive and positive, and we’ve been able to negotiate our way to outcomes that we both find to be quite acceptable, and I’m confident that we can do the same in the case of Spadina and Sussex.
TV: Negotiations are also set to begin with CUPE 3902, as their contracts are due to expire late this year. What have been the takeaways from the strike two years ago, and how does the university plan on approaching collective bargaining differently this time around?
MG: Well, we always approach collective bargaining very seriously and with a great deal of respect for the process and our partners — our collective bargaining partners. We certainly welcome the opportunity to bargain with groups like CUPE 3902 Unit 1, as well as other units of the same union, as well as the 20 odd other collective bargaining partners we have elsewhere across the university. Negotiations are always a process where different sides bring their issues to the table and try to make some progress.
Usually we succeed without a strike. In fact, if you think of the fact that we have more than 20 collective agreements in place at any point in time and very few labour disruptions and strikes, that indicates that we do indeed walk the talk and we have succeeded in finding a way to work with our bargaining partners very successfully. I’m confident that we will be able to do the same with CUPE 3902 Unit 1 in the forthcoming negotiations. We care deeply about the quality of working life and studying life for those of our students who work as teaching assistants and so, ultimately, it’s that approach which I think will help ensure we’ve reached some kind of amicable resolution in terms of our negotiation process.
TV: What are your thoughts on the provincial budget?
MG: First thing I would say is we continue to be very pleased with the changes that Queen’s Park has made with the changes to the OSAP process, and we see further improvements to that in yesterday’s budget. I think we are struck by the fact that, despite knowing that the 18- to 20-year-old cohort is shrinking in size in Ontario, we see applications to the system up something like 1.8 per cent this year. One of the reasons for that could well be the changes to OSAP, which have been designed to encourage students from low-income families who might have otherwise been discouraged by the perceived cost of attending university to instead be encouraged to apply. So it’s still too early to tell exactly what quantitative evidence we have to make that positive link but, certainly, there’s good reason to believe that the OSAP changes have succeeded in encouraging students from low-income families to apply for university — and I think that’s a good thing for Ontario.
We, of course, are a university that really believes in supporting students who are academically deserving. Their ability to study here should not be affected by their financial situation or the resources of their family. So the philosophy that underpins the OSAP changes is very much in line with what the university has been doing, at least since 1998. So that’s good.
We like to see improvements also that were particularly targeted towards Indigenous students. As you know, the report of the Steering Committee on Truth and Reconciliation encouraged the university to do more to support and nurture Indigenous students, faculty, and staff. Anything that the provincial government can do to help us in that regard is a real plus. We obviously were pleased to see the government’s support for the new Vector Institute. That was announced before the budget, but it was re-announced in the budget. $50 million of provincial support going into this institute, which will be closely affiliated with U of T. We have many students and faculty who are working in the area of artificial intelligence and a variety of different units across the university, so we are grateful to the province for its support there.
What we didn’t see was any increase to operating grants, any commitments to invest in further quality in the educational experience. There was new money for experiential learning, and that one is very important to us. I’m now sitting on, I guess a kind of a roundtable, a partnership and planning table, invited by the Minister of Advanced Education, Skills, and Development to work with them on these issues of how you create more experiential learning opportunities for students in the Ontario system. So the recent funding will certainly help us in that regard. We know a lot of our students want to have these kinds of experiences, internships, co-op places, Professional Experience Years, and other opportunities to learn by doing.
We nevertheless hope that future budgets, and we’re looking to next year in particular, will feature some kind of significant increase to funding for post-secondary education. The hospitals seem to have done quite well in this year’s budget. We hope that next year’s theme will be education and that there will be significant increases.
My sense is that the government may have held off on this year in part because we’re just involved in the renegotiation of what’s called ‘strategic mandate agreements.’ These are agreements between every university and the provincial government around things like which programs they will emphasize or specialize in, which strengths they will try to accentuate, how their role within the system will differentiate them from other universities, what kind of enrolment plans they want to adopt for the future — both undergraduate and graduate. It may well be that they’re waiting for those details to be set before they tip their hand about additional resources. I can tell you that in those discussions, we are certainly asking for provincial funds that would enhance the quality of teaching and learning at the university, and that would really allow an institution like this one to play to its strengths.
Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for length and clarity. In addition, this interview was conducted before Conservative Party Leader-elect Andrew Scheer claimed the Conservative Party of Canada leadership.