Since The Varsity’s last interview with President Meric Gertler, U of T has dealt with the transition back to in person after online learning, reports of sexual violence in different settings, and overcapacity in campus residences.

The Varsity met President Meric Gertler at Simcoe Hall on September 30 to talk about these issues and more.

The Varsity: U of T has ended mask mandates in classrooms and other university settings. Some members of the community have expressed concerns for their well-being because of this update. What responsibility do you believe U of T has to ensure the health of its community at this moment in the pandemic? 

Meric Gertler: We have made every decision throughout the pandemic with the health and safety of every member of our community in mind. So many responsible members of our community have shown tremendous respect for one another and their safety. 

We have encouraged members of our community to do what they feel is necessary and to wear a mask in high-density settings. We’ve also encouraged instructors to underscore the social impacts of individual decisions in class with their students. 

We have also said, though, that we will bring back mask or vaccine mandates if, or when, conditions change. And we know that our community will comply when they see that this is important. At the moment, we’re worried that if we were to bring a mandate in now, there will be a lot of noncompliance. Anyway, from what I hear, the experience thus far has been pretty effective and successful. 

TV: This year, we heard reports of overcapacity in U of T’s residences, and first-years were sent to non-U of T residences like Parkside to fulfill their housing guarantees. How is the university going to improve its on-campus housing structure for next year? 

MG: Thank you for asking about housing. It’s an issue that’s near and dear to my heart; I’m an urban geographer and planner.

We are trying to build more student housing. A few months ago, we broke ground on our new student residence on St. George campus at Sussex and Spadina, the first new residence in more than 10 years. It took us 10 years of navigating the approval process and discussions with our local neighbourhood associations to finally secure approval for that project. Along the way, a 600-bed project became a 500-bed project as a result of the compromises dictated by the process. There are two aspects of that story that really frustrated me: how long it took, and the opportunity that was lost. 

We have a new residence under construction at Scarborough as well, which is around 600 beds and will be transformative for UTSC. And we would love to build more; we have the will. We just need some cooperation from our government partners to accelerate the process, because there’s tremendous urgency.

TV: Last academic year, U of T was involved in a few stories regarding sexual violence; namely Andy Orchard, and some concerning reports from the Faculty of Music. What will you do to make the academic community safer for women and women-presenting individuals, especially since the structure of academia enables powerful men to abuse their power?

MG: We are very seized with the issue of ensuring that every member of our community feels safe on our campuses and does not have to worry about being subjected to sexual violence and sexual harassment. I speak to students all the time, including survivors of sexual violence, and I know how damaging and hurtful this can be. So this is a very, very high priority for me and for other members of the senior administration. 

We do have a sexual violence and sexual harassment policy, which is subject to review every three years. We have spent a good deal of time during the past year, reviewing the current policy and reviewing the role and the capacity of the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC). We undertook over 50 consultations over the course of about nine months. We now have a revised policy, which is circulating for comment. We have been adding capacity in the SVPSC itself, with new resources being devoted to case management, survivor support, communications, and education. These are all areas that were emphasized in a lot of the consultations that we engaged in.

I’m really impressed by the efforts that were made to ensure that orientation was a success this year and to use that as an opportunity to assert a culture of consent, which is the bedrock; this is where it all starts. 

I’ve seen a lot of progress, but our work will probably never be done. We will aspire to make all of our campuses free of sexual violence and sexual harassment. That’s our goal.

TV: This summer, U of T announced a lawsuit against Easy EDU. The lawsuit came over a year after the university raised concerns with the company’s practices. Why did the university decide to take legal action now? 

MG: I can’t comment on the specifics of a legal case that is before the courts. But I will just say that our concern in cases like this is that private enterprise is profiting by accessing and making use of the intellectual property that we feel belongs appropriately to faculty members who develop and deliver courses. When we see that their right of intellectual property ownership is being violated, this is cause for concern. It’s important for our professors to see the university stepping forward and defending their interests. We’re also concerned about our students who may be put in a difficult position and taken advantage of, whether English is their first language or not. The university is the first place that students should turn to, and we have very robust support services in place.

TV: In light of the No Precarious Employment campaign, what is your view of U of T’s current employment policies for academic staff and non-tenure stream faculty? 

MG: I’m not familiar with this issue. 

TV: Last year, you issued a statement about the SCSU’s BDS policy and the university imposed sanctions on the UTGSU for its BDS policy. How do you view U of T’s relationship with its student unions? 

MG: It’s a great relationship. You know, when we cut the ribbon on the Student Commons — which was championed by UTSU, one of our leading student unions — it was a very happy occasion. It was a reminder of the great things that you can achieve when you work together and the fact that we share a common goal, which is to make the university experience as positive and rewarding as possible for all of our students. And that’s what student unions exist for. When they focus on student well-being, we can get a lot of work done. Sometimes they get a little bit distracted by other issues, which may or may not be directly relevant to issues of student well-being.

TV: Why did you decide to address the SCSU incident specifically?

MG: The initiatives that were being proposed at the time really ran the risk of promoting antisemitism. Let me be clear: universities must be places where we have difficult conversations about contentious topics. If you can’t do that at a university, where can you do it? But we also have very clear policies around how those conversations must be conducted. We expect that they will be conducted in ways that adhere to the laws of the land and do not promote racist sentiment of any kind. It was our feeling that the SCSU proposals had the potential to ferment antisemitic views and to unfairly target one segment of the student population.

TV: Considering the domestic tuition freeze and increases in international tuition, how do you plan on ensuring that U of T’s education is accessible to international students?

MG: One of our biggest goals when it comes to undergraduate education is to foster our students’ ability to work across cultural and geographical divides, and to be effective in bridging those divides. That kind of competency is really important, and enhancing the presence of international students on our campuses is a really key element of that. 

International student fees are very high. Though, I will say that we’ve been very, very careful to moderate the rate of increase. In the past year, the average rate of increase for international tuition was just over two per cent. That said, we are aware that this poses financial barriers for many families. So we’ve committed to increasing our own expenditures on financial aid for international students. One of the first big moves we made in 2017 was to create the Pearson scholarship program. And we have a number of other lucrative comprehensive scholarships for international students. All of our first entry divisions have been pumping more funds into financial aid for international students, and we have plans to continue to ramp that up aggressively. 

We would really love to see more students coming to U of T from Africa. I think there is huge potential, but we also recognize that the financial barriers are going to be particularly challenging for many Africans. This is one of the things that is driving us to commit more resources and work with charitable foundations like the MasterCard Foundation, which has been so generous in supporting the education of young Africans coming to U of T. We look forward to working in partnership with such organizations to address this issue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.