After an eventful 2018–2019 academic year that was filled with student protests and provincial government changes, U of T President Meric Gertler sat down with The Varsity to reflect on the past 12 months. Gertler spoke on a number of issues, including mental health, international tuition, and truth and reconciliation.
The Varsity: One of the biggest stories this past year was students’ mental health, with some students viewing U of T’s action on the topic as lacklustre. What do you say to people who believe U of T should be doing more?
Meric Gertler: We were certainly very concerned by the issues that arose during the past year and felt very strongly a responsibility to act. So I took the unusual step of writing to every member of our community. I don’t do that very often, but I just thought that for an issue like student mental health and its relationship to their well-being, it was really important to be able to communicate directly to all of our students as well as our faculty and staff to say, “We’ve heard you, we acknowledge how big an issue this is and how huge a challenge this is, and we’re committing to actually doing something concrete about it.”
TV: In the letter that you sent out to all students, faculty, and staff, you mentioned that two of your priorities would be engaging with Toronto resources as well as the province. Would you say that the onus would be more on the province and the city to provide mental health services rather than the university?
MG: So, we are not funded by the provincial government to be a health care-delivering organization, even though we deliver a lot of health care services to our students. This has been the subject of a lot of conversations with our provincial government partners. They recognize the challenge that we have. They have allocated additional funds in their last provincial budget towards mental health, in particular with a focus on student mental health.
So we continue to expect to see some financial assistance from them. But, also, as your question quite rightly implies, this is a shared responsibility. Obviously, we have primary responsibility for the well-being of our students, but it is something that we expect to address jointly with health care institutions that are primarily funded by the provincial government.
TV: Speaking of the provincial government, there have been a lot of changes this past year under the Ford administration to both university operations and university life for students. How do you view U of T’s relationship with the province?
MG: I’ll be quite honest here. We were really disappointed that the province did not communicate more openly with us before they made these many changes. That to me was the most disappointing part of the approach of the new government, and we were not quiet in communicating our unhappiness with the whole style with which they interact with us.
The Strategic Mandate Agreement changes — which are putting a focus on performance-based funding — in theory, at least, we think this can work very well for U of T. It’s designed to enable each university to come forward and articulate what it thinks its distinctive strengths are, and then to base funding on those strengths. This is actually something we’ve been arguing for for 25 years in many ways and advocating for, so at least on paper, that seems to be very nicely aligned with the approach that we’ve been taking.
Other changes, like the 10 per cent cut to tuition we, frankly, think were unhelpful. I know that that particular move has been quite damaging to our budget… Now what are the consequences of that? Well, the consequences are that we have less money available to finance our own financial aid system within the university.
MG: International students have always paid more than domestic students. That gap has grown over time but this has been true for a long, long time, and it reflects a couple of things. It reflects the fact that we receive no government grants for international students, so there’s no subsidy at all from the province of Ontario for those students… The families of those international students have not been paying taxes in Ontario either, and I suppose that the provincial government may feel that that’s some justification for the fact that there is no grant support for those students.
We are, though, mindful of the fact that we want to encourage a diverse community of international students to come to this university. It should not just be international students from wealthy families, but we want to enable all international students if they are academically qualified to potentially come here. So there too we’ve been active in creating scholarships for international students and fundraising for them.
TV: U of T has committed to the goals of the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and there was a Steering Committee report released in 2017 with recommendations for the university. Since that report came out, do you see any major gaps that U of T should be filling when it comes to truth and reconciliation?
MG: This is another topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and also near and dear to the provost’s heart. We were greatly influenced by the work of our Steering Committee and enthusiastically adopted all of their recommendations. We’ve done some amazing things since then.
This past year we have hired 18 new Indigenous scholars, which is a remarkable achievement if you think about it, because every university in Canada is trying to do the same thing so it’s a very competitive labour market right now. We’re thrilled to have this incoming talent. So I would say that’s one area where we have really succeeded dramatically in.
In the longer term, of course, we’re looking at the future of First Nations House and how best to accommodate all of the important activities that go on there. There have been discussions underway about whether the current location is the right location or not, and we’re looking at alternatives for that as well. I think we’ve got some impressive momentum underway, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
TV: Do you think that U of T has any institutional problems with addressing barriers of access for people?
MG: We’re one of the most open and accessible institutions in the world. If you think of our 90,000 students, the incredible diversity that we have, measured along any dimension you can think of, whether it’s the language that you spoke at home, the country you were born in, the ethnicity of your parents, your sexual orientation, your political views, you name it.
I think it’s one of the things that is most defining of the University of Toronto is not just our academic excellence and the great rankings and we have every year, it’s our ability to combine that academic excellence with an incredible degree of openness and access which very few other universities around the world can match.
TV: And then once these students do get here, what accommodations do you think are necessary to make sure that everyone feels welcome at the school?
MG: Making sure that everyone understands what our codes of student conduct entail, and what our policies entail with regard to freedom of expression and these kinds of important principles of academic freedom on which a university is based. That does require a little bit of effort to make sure that people understand those principles but I think we’ve got a pretty good system in place.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.