In the past year, students and faculty have criticized the university for its responses to global crises, its public communications about donor influence, and its responses to sexual violence on campus. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence (AI) and a lack of funding opportunities from the province have altered the university landscape. 

On September 7, The Varsity sat down with Meric Gertler — who is entering his 11th year as U of T’s president — to discuss these issues and more. 

The Varsity: In your view, what role should U of T play in responding to global events, like military conflicts and environmental disasters, that personally affect international students and faculty? 

Meric Gertler: We are implicated in global events because of the globalized nature of the U of T community and the connections that we have to universities around the world.

First, we help the public understand the roots and consequences of these conflicts through the expertise that we have. Our communications departments actively make our experts available to both social and traditional media.

Second, we know that our students, in particular, are often personally connected to people who are impacted by events abroad. So we do everything possible to support these students, including directing them to resources on our three campuses. 

Third, we are often asked to accommodate people who are displaced by serious negative events abroad. For instance, our Scholars at Risk program has accommodated 92 scholars from 19 countries in the past year alone. This is a longstanding commitment and we are quite proud of our effort.

TV: That’s a good segue into my next question. In the past year, students have criticized the university for unequal responses to different international crises. For instance, U of T’s response to the war in Ukraine included an exchange program and an emergency grant program, which is far more extensive than its response to the war in Sudan

What is U of T’s process in determining how it responds to crises in international students’ home countries, and what it provides in terms of financial, academic, or mental health support?

MG: Our goal is not to treat crises unevenly, but to treat crises in ways that are most appropriate for the particular conditions or characteristics of the events themselves. Every crisis is different and unique, but we treat them all seriously.

With that, we have extended the Scholars at Risk program to scholars from all countries that have experienced hardship, whether it be Sudan or Ukraine or Türkiye or elsewhere. 

We also support and publicize efforts that our students and faculty organize on their own. I am sure that we can always do more and we are happy to do so.

TV: Every year, we ask you questions about the high costs of international tuition. Simultaneously, U of T raises international tuition every year. U of T has continuously acknowledged that its current funding structure, which is reliant on international tuition, is not ideal, but is happening partially because the province has been decreasing funding for universities. 

It seems clear that something structural needs to change — something beyond providing scholarships for international students — so that U of T’s funding structure doesn’t place unnecessary burdens on international students. How does U of T plan to get us there?

MG: We are acutely aware of the cost of education and its impact on families. With that, we’ve moderated the increases in international fees over the last few years to around two per cent a year.

We are also committed to putting more funding into scholarships for international students. This past year, we earmarked $65 million, in addition to high-profile programs like the Lester B. Pearson International Student Scholarships that U of T awards every year, which are full-ride scholarships for international students.

Recently, the provincial government has commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel to look at the future of the higher education system in Ontario — particularly, the financial stability of the system. We know that they’re looking at provincial operating grants, tuition fee frameworks, and how to support smaller universities in more remote locations that are often more vulnerable to financial fluctuations. 

That panel is supposed to report by the end of this summer. Operating grants from the provincial government have been inadequate for a long time, so that report could be a game changer. It’s a chance for this government to demonstrate how much they value a strong, publicly funded higher education system.

TV: Can you describe how the university is advocating for a stronger publicly-funded higher education system, specifically?

MG: We are working directly with the Minister of Colleges and Universities and advocating directly with the Premier’s office. We have also submitted a detailed brief to the chair and vice-chair of the Blue Ribbon Panel, which is publicly available. We have heard a very positive response to our brief from the chair and vice-chair. I think that they found our arguments to be well-structured and well-supported by evidence. 

We emphasized a couple of things in our brief. For one, we suggested that U of T’s financial aid system should be a model for the rest of the province. U of T targets students who come from the most disadvantaged families. Our Policy on Student Financial Support, which has been in place since 1998, provides the rationale for our financial aid system. We’ll see if they take our advice. 

TV: In light of the Azarova scandal, and most recently, an instance where the Faculty of Law accepted undisclosed donations from Amazon, critics have argued that donors and business interests have had an unfair influence on the university’s research through U of T’s advancement office, which connects donors directly with academic leads. How does the university plan to distribute funding in a way that would reduce the impact of donors on academic freedom?

MG: First of all, it was not an undisclosed gift. All donations of $250,000 or more are reported to U of T governance. So, the donation was reported to the governors of the Academic Board and the Business Board through the quarterly report on donations and Amazon was identified as the source of that gift. With that said, it is true that those reports come to governance in-camera, which means that they are not publicly available. 

So, one of the changes that we have already committed to making is to move the quarterly report on donations to open session, so that this will be publicly available.

Another is to ensure that going forward, all donations from corporate sources must be identified by the source, so sources cannot have their identities concealed.

On the matter of the gift from Amazon, Faculty of Law Dean Jutta Brunnée has said that she made the decision not to disclose the identity of the donor publicly. But ultimately, we decided to return the gift because of the perception that there was less than full transparency here. Brunnée has also said that in hindsight, this may not have been the best approach, and that’s why we’ve decided to change our approach. 

We do have very strong provostial guidelines on donations, and they have been recognized by a number of organizations both inside and outside this institution as very strong. 

TV: In November 2022, an open letter, which now has 1,971 signatures, called on U of T to terminate Professor Robert Reisz, after an external investigation found that he had violated U of T’s sexual harassment policy and failed to respect supervisory boundaries

Reisz is the only professor teaching BIO354 and BIO356 this semester, both of which are mandatory for the paleontology major at UTM. What steps has U of T taken to inform students of Reisz’s past harassment, and why has it continued to let Reisz teach these courses?

MG: I can’t comment on the specifics of individual cases above and beyond what we’ve already said in public. 

What I can say, though, is that we remain firmly committed to creating an environment in which all members of our community feel safe and believe that they can conduct their business, free of harassment of any sort.

We have recently introduced an asynchronous online module on promoting a culture of consent, which we encourage all of our students to view. It provides a lot of information about where to go if you feel you’ve been a victim of sexual violence or sexual harassment. 

Furthermore, we have recently revised our Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment after months of extensive consultation. It’s never going to be perfect or please everybody, but we feel that it has evolved in a really good direction, provides stronger protection and support for victims, and provides more effective channels for reporting on incidents. 

TV: Speaking of the revisions, many students have called on the university to commission an independent review of the policy by an expert in gender-based violence. Why hasn’t U of T commissioned this type of review, and does it plan to do so in the future?

MG: We have publicly said that we accept and embrace the idea of external expertise coming in to look at what we’re doing and telling us how we can do it better. We are committed to evolving our practices within the existing policy framework.

TV: Currently, course instructors are making their own rules in terms of students using ChatGPT and other generative AI tools. Does U of T plan to standardize rules around the use of AI in assessments?

MG: Many universities are beginning to generate policies on this, and we’re all comparing notes. At U of T, Vice-Provost, Innovations in Undergraduate Education Susan McCahan and her office have generated FAQs to help instructors, which I think are useful. 

I am quite excited by the opportunity that generative AI presents. It’s forcing instructors to ask themselves, “How do we evaluate students in ways that are more effective? How can we help students integrate these tools into the work that they do from my course?” Because we know that students will be using these tools in the working world. 

I personally do not think we should ban these tools outright. But I do think that we need to apply them thoughtfully, and that’s where we are going to be helping instructors. We are also encouraging instructors to engage in conversations with their students about these tools, rather than pretend they don’t exist, and make sure that the boundaries are clear for everyone.

TV: Have you used ChatGPT to write any of your statements?

MG: I have not! Everyone says that I should try it, and I am curious, but I have not used it.

TV: When is the data for U of T’s student equity census coming out?

MG: I am not sure, but over 95 per cent of current students responded to the survey and have answered all or most of the questions, so we are going to have fantastic data. 

We are working to generate a public-facing dashboard and a summary of the data. We will also share data at the divisional level for individual faculties, so that they can use this data to better support the student body.

A U of T spokesperson later wrote to The Varsity that initial data from the student equity census will be shared publicly later this fall.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.