Over the past year, the University of Toronto has been met with a hiring scandal in the Faculty of Law, continued attempts to move the university toward fossil fuel divestment, and a hasty transition to online learning last fall. 

The Varsity once again sat down with Gertler — in person — to discuss these topics and more.

The Varsity: The past year was maybe the most unprecedented in higher education ever. I was wondering if there’s one thing you’ve personally learned about the university or education over the past year?

Meric Gertler: First of all, it has been a very challenging year, if not 18 months. The most important thing to say is that I really appreciate the incredible fortitude, flexibility, creativity, patience, of everybody: all of our students, our faculty and staff, and librarians. People have been remarkable in their ability to accommodate these truly unusual circumstances. The second thing I would say is that we’ve learned that we are a more resilient community than we ever suspected. Looking at the amount of change that we have been able to sustain  — for the most part, successfully —  is remarkable.

TV: One major scandal that the university has been involved in has been the Canadian Association of University Teachers censure following the hiring controversy at the Faculty of Law. Many have claimed that the university’s response to the scandal, including the Cromwell report, has been lacking. In retrospect, would you have done anything differently? 

MG: This has been an area of real concern for many. I’ve certainly heard from many members of our community about this. We have tried to learn as much as we can from this experience. One of the things that we learned is that we want to make sure that our advancement professionals understand that hiring processes, whether they be for academics or for staff, are confidential and must indeed always remain confidential. So, we have spent a lot of time in the spring and summer, working with all of our advancement professionals — every one of them — to make sure that they appreciate their responsibility and the principles that they have to uphold.

We’ve also recently revised the provostial guidelines on fundraising and interaction with donors to make it crystal clear that academic priorities drive fundraising, that we go out and raise money to fulfill academic priorities that are generated by our academic community in a very bottom-up way. Of course, we welcome the opportunity to work together with donors who align well with those priorities, but the priorities have to come from us. That is a bedrock principle that has always been true, but we’ve been able to use this opportunity in revising the guidelines to accentuate that, as well as the appropriate behavior of advancement professionals. 

TV: In light of other major universities, such as Harvard University, recently announcing their intention to divest from fossil fuels, and increasingly dire reports on the realities of climate change, will you be reconsidering the decision to not divest from fossil fuels?

MG: I’ve been watching recent announcements by other universities with great interest. We’ve also been watching the horror of the climate crisis unfolding around us. This past summer, it’s been one reminder after another of the very, very significant challenges that we as a planet are facing. And I want to reassure you that the university has taken this challenge extremely seriously, and we have focused, in our investment policy, on steps that, in our view, would have the biggest impact as quickly as possible. By focusing on reducing climate-related risk in the portfolio, we believed that we would see a reduction in the carbon footprint of that portfolio over time. 

And indeed, the [University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM)] subsequently adopted clear formal goals for carbon footprint reduction — 40 per cent reduction by the year 2030. It has already achieved 37 per cent of that 40 per cent. We’ve also been tracking the absolute carbon footprint reduction, and that’s about a 20 per cent reduction since the target was introduced. To put that into context, if back in 2016, UTAM had instead said, “We’re going to divest from fossil fuels, full stop,” that would have, by our estimation, reduced the carbon footprint of the portfolio only by 13 per cent. 

This fall, we will be unveiling an even more ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions from our operations, to at least achieve net zero, and possibly go beyond that. So more details will be coming soon. It’s going to be an eventful year in that area, but it has to be because we face this existential crisis as a planet. 

TV: Last year, U of T’s reopening plans were criticized by campus unions, and criticism has been levelled at the reopening plans again this year, such as the delayed decision to require proof of vaccination following backlash. How are you confident that the university’s reopening plans are safe? 

MG: We have put a huge amount of effort into preparing for a safe return this fall. We have redoubled cleaning in all of our buildings, we have spent a lot of time upgrading our air handling and air filtration systems, [and] we’ve upgraded all the filters to MERV 13

We have also, of course, maintained the requirement to use face masks, and recently revised our face mask policy to upgrade the minimum quality expected in terms of the face masks that people use. In terms of the measures for this fall, we got the word quite late in the summer from the provincial government, indeed on the last day of August, that according to the provincial chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, if universities had these kinds of measures in place to ensure safety of their communities, and if they embraced a vaccination mandate — which [the provincial government] is now requiring us to have in place — then, in Dr. Moore’s considered opinion, it would be safe to lift the room capacity limits and the physical distancing requirements for instructional spaces only. 

TV: Does U of T have a plan to transition online again, if necessary, and will that plan be made available to the public?

MG: You’re right that last year, we had to pivot online; we started in person and then went back online as conditions changed. But again, if conditions change, we may have to translate [from] in-person teaching to online teaching. If that happens, it will be on the basis of very clear guidance that we received from public health, and we will do everything we can to make sure that students are aware of these changes in as timely a manner as possible. 

Having said that, let me just emphasize that it would have been easy to just do everything online this semester. But we know that would disappoint many members of our community, and particularly our students. We know that such a big part of the educational experience for students goes beyond what happens in the classroom, and that learning experience is deeply enriched by being there in person. So we’re doing everything we can to make that as available as possible for as long as possible. 

I am really heartened by the most recent statistics about vaccination in our community. As of [September 10], we had 54,000 people register on UCheck declaring their vaccination status, and 94 per cent of them were already fully vaccinated. We believe that all of the remaining six per cent are on the way to becoming fully vaccinated or have acceptable exemptions largely for medical reasons. 

TV: International tuition has risen by 41.2 per cent in the last decade and international students are a growing source of revenue for the university. How do you balance the revenue international students bring with ensuring that a U of T education actually remains accessible?

MG: We are indeed mindful of the impact of tuition fees on access. So I’m happy to say the average increase in international tuition fees for this year is just over 2 per cent. But I recognize that the sticker price is still high, and we have been doing everything we can to increase the amount of financial aid for international students. It is increasing quite steeply, both in terms of the funding that U of T is providing, and the funds we’ve been able to secure from charitable foundations.

TV: This past summer brought renewed discussions of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples as burial sites were discovered at multiple former residential schools across the country. In light of these discoveries, what additional action has U of T taken in the past few months to further reconciliation and justice for Indigenous communities and peoples?

MG: The first thing that we have done has been to provide support for members of our community, particularly Indigenous faculty, staff, and students. We have enlisted Elders and knowledge keepers who have facilitated gatherings amongst our community members to provide that support. I think it’s really important that we do that. In terms of the larger agenda, our own task force examining the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report from 2015 generated 34 calls to action at U of T to advance the Indigenization of the university, and we are proceeding to address all 34 of those recommendations.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.