Through a virtual interview with The Varsity, U of T President Meric Gertler discussed the 2019–2020 year, the university’s COVID-19 plans, and anti-Black racism at U of T.

The Varsity: Concerns have been raised that U of T has not listened to the advice of its own public health scientists following a recent ‘D’ grade on its reopening plan. How was the decision behind holding in-person classes made?

Meric Gertler: I should begin by just stating that the health and safety of all members of our community is really paramount. We have been following public health guidelines that have been informed by and created by a wide variety of experts, including our own, but also following guidance from municipal, provincial, and federal health authorities, and following the literature, which has been evolving very rapidly as you know.

Like a lot of other universities, U of T is going to offer only limited in-person activities starting this week, such as labs, which are difficult to do in virtual or online format in some small classes. In all of those cases as I think The Varsity has already reported, physical distancing measures are going to be implemented so that we will have far fewer bodies in classrooms than we normally would have — reducing the density and the occupancy.

We will have much more prevalent hand sanitizer stations, plexiglass barriers — we’ve really done a comprehensive review of air circulation and ventilation systems and air filters, as I know there’s a lot of interest in that issue, making sure that our filters meet or exceed all of the standards that have been set.

TV: And do you think, in hindsight, you would do anything differently regarding consulting unions, professors, faculty, and staff?

MG: We’ve been consulting with the [University of Toronto Faculty Association] and with our other union partners quite regularly since the pandemic began in March and informing them of our plans.

When we began planning for September a few months ago, we anticipated that the situation, in terms of the control of the virus, would be perhaps a little bit more advanced than it is now. But as it became clear that there was still a significant risk to members of our community, we began to scale back on plans. We’ve always made it optional with regard to faculty deciding to teach in person or to teach online.

And, as a result of that, the proportion of our teaching offerings that we put out in person has declined over time as faculty have updated their own decisions about whether they’re comfortable to be in the classroom or not. So we’ve done everything we can to listen and to respond and adjust, and we’ll continue to do so.

TV: What’s the enforcement protocol behind mask wearing, sanitization, and physical distancing?

MG: Like the City of Toronto and like a lot of other public health agencies, we’re emphasizing education as the kind of foundation for our enforcement based on the non-unreasonable assumption that if people understand why certain measures are being implemented, they will be much more likely to comply.

And I have to say, our experience thus far, for example, in reopening research labs over the summer has borne that out. People have adhered very closely to the kinds of guidance that we’ve provided and the kinds of new rules that we have set. We are trying to send signals as clearly as possible. We’ll put additional measures in place if need be, but by and large, we will be taking an educational approach.

TV: Earlier in March, The Varsity reported the first case of COVID-19 at U of T, but at the time, the university denied knowledge of the case. What is the university’s plan on reporting cases of COVID-19 within the community to students, faculty, and staff, and will that information be made publicly available?

MG: We have excellent plans in place for contact tracing, as well as to support students if they need a place to self-isolate, whether they’re in residence or not. And, as we did in the spring, we will be following the guidance of government and public health authorities and follow their advice in releasing information about cases on campus.

TV: Will the university close down again if a second wave comes in the fall, and is there a plan to support students in residence or those who otherwise have no options to leave the university?

MG: There’s a lot of discussion about what a second wave might look like, and I think the [Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam] has talked about a ‘slow burn’ model, where we will see smaller bumps in the curve but not a massive wave. And that does seem to be the widely agreed upon, most likely scenario.

If that is the case, we think that we can manage our activities quite successfully, but yes, if conditions worsen significantly again, the health and safety of our community members is paramount, and we will take whatever measures are necessary in order to protect our community members.

TV: Given the financial implications of the pandemic and the shift to an online learning experience, how do you balance providing tuition relief for students and paying workers who might not be fully back at the university, with faculty and administrator salaries — many of which exceed $100,000 and the highest being up to about a million?

MG: Oh, welcome to my job. University budgets are always, even in normal times, things that have to be very carefully managed. There are a number of really important principles that guide what we do. One is that our core mission is around teaching and research and that has to guide many of our — indeed, ultimately, all of our — decisions. Secondly, we are, of course, an institution that’s very committed to equity and access, and ensuring the continued diversity of both our faculty and staff, as well as our student body.

We have continued to prioritize financial aid for students. When the pandemic struck, we provided a lot of emergency bursary funding and have spent close to seven million. So we are acutely aware of the impact of this kind of cataclysmic change on our student body.

We waited as long as possible, provided as much pay continuity as possible, for as many of our employees as we possibly could. But, in services like food services or in parking services where demand basically disappeared during the pandemic, we got to a point where our ancillary budgets could no longer sustain the full cost of keeping all of those folks on the payroll.

We managed to work closely with unions to transition those folks onto emergency relief benefits that the government made available. We’ve done this in as humane and as fair a way as possible, but I just want to emphasize that the total numbers involved are pretty small relative to the size of our employment base.

TV: In light of calls to abolish police forces and an incident last year where a student was handcuffed during a mental health crisis, will the university make any changes to Campus Police, whether that be policy changes, abolition, or defunding?

MG: Campus Police and the university continue to review police practices with regard to the safety and well-being of members of our community and with a particular focus on student well-being. All officers and building patrol staff are receiving training on issues, addressing equity, diversity, and inclusion, as well as anti-bias training.

So they’ve been watching what’s happening and paying attention, and doing everything possible to make sure that they do adjust their practices and that they do take advantage of resources that we have, like the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office to make sure that everything they do serves the community and helps address the well-being of our students.

TV: How does U of T plan to combat anti-Black racism?

MG: Well, let me just say, as I’ve underscored in public statements repeatedly, we stand united with members of our Black community across all three of our campuses in both condemning anti-Black racism and committing to taking tangible actions to reduce or eradicate it.

So, several years ago, the provost, working with deans, decided to set aside a special fund to increase Black and Indigenous faculty representation, recognizing that the composition of our faculty body did not mirror the population, and that we had to do a lot of work to enhance representation. Since 2016, something like 30 new Black faculty members have been hired, including 14 who were hired in the last year alone.

We have also looked, for example, at other stages in the talent pipeline. The provost also created a postdoctoral fellows program to increase opportunities for Black and Indigenous researchers. And, as part of that exercise, we have now got 12 Black postdoctoral scholars in this program. There’s also been, of course, a lot of coverage of the wonderful initiatives in the Faculty of Medicine, with the Black Student Application Program, where we now have 24 Black medical students admitted this fall.

We’ve been working with public school systems through the academic mentorship, like the Imani program that U of T Scarborough has had in place for several years and the SEE U of T program that we’ve developed just recently with the Toronto District School Board, where we have focused on high schools and a number of disadvantaged neighbourhoods that have a high number of Black and people of colour students attending those high schools. Our efforts have been to work with those schools to encourage more of those students to, first of all, graduate, and secondly, consider applying to an institution like U of T.

TV: Certain American universities will be pursuing efforts to shield students studying Chinese politics from the country’s new national security law. Has U of T made any similar efforts, and what will the university do to protect the rights of those who protest against the Chinese government on campus?

MG: So we find ourselves in a somewhat unusual condition in which many of our students are studying from abroad, tuning into lectures and other teaching and learning activities offered here. We are, of course, mindful of this, and we’ve been working, through deans and department chairs, to encourage instructors to be thoughtful about where their students are located.

As we proceed with this somewhat unusual fall term, to remind them that in some countries there’s greater likelihood of surveillance, that this may impact a student’s ability to engage with some course material. We want our instructors to be mindful of these issues and understand the constraints and challenges that our students may face.

We’ve also taken advantage of the expertise of our Information Security Council, which is a council of faculty and staff who advise the vice-presidents and president on matters related to information technology, and there’s some great experts there. So we will continue to refine our guidance as the situation evolves, but that is something that we’re very, very mindful of.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.