It is frequently said that our world is becoming smaller. Advances in information and communication technologies, coupled with the rise of social media, have seemingly made geographical separation a much less significant obstacle to social interaction. The global reach of multinationals has spread their economic influence around the world.
Within the education sector, the rise of online learning technologies – whether “massive” and free, or more restricted and fee-based – is allegedly disrupting our traditional business model and threatening the very survival of traditional bricks and mortar higher education institutions. Research networks, too, are increasingly global in scale, with growing collaboration across national boundaries suggesting that “being there” no longer matters the way it once did.
While certain aspects of this vision of a borderless, frictionless world are undeniably accurate, the picture is fundamentally misleading. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of modern life is that, for the most knowledge-intensive forms of economic activity, geography and the quality of place now matter more , not less, and geographical clustering is becoming more apparent over time. This paradox holds some interesting and important implications for universities – as educators and as research performers. Indeed, universities around the world are beginning to realise the power of place in helping them to advance their core mission of teaching and research.
In the case of the University of Toronto, we recognised several years ago that our location was a favourable but underutilised asset. We are situated in one of the world’s most culturally diverse and dynamic cities, with three campuses in the Greater Toronto area, and are able to benefit from many important advantages. With government support of our operating budget becoming more constrained over time, we realised that we needed to take full advantage of every asset available to us in order to continue to excel on the global stage. This recognition led us to develop a strategy to leverage our location, intentionally and systematically.
We were acutely aware of how local quality of life helps us to attract and retain highly talented faculty – and to recruit top-notch students – from across Canada and around the world. Anything we could do to enhance the liveability of our host region would further accentuate our attractiveness as a place of employment and study. This provided the impetus for us to mobilise the academic resources of the university to help address local economic, social and environmental challenges and opportunities within the region around us.
A review of our intellectual resources devoted to cities revealed more than 220 faculty members with urban expertise, spread across disciplines as diverse as geography, planning, economics, management, engineering, architecture, public health, education, English, women’s and gender studies, and more.
To focus and channel this expertise, and to make it more visible and available to community partners, we created a new role – presidential adviser on urban engagement – to serve as a broker and intermediary between the university and the communities around our campuses. We negotiated an agreement with the City of Toronto, articulating our shared commitment to city-building and identifying a number of concrete strategies for fostering closer collaboration between our faculty and students and city officials.
Most recently, we established a new School of Cities to provide a platform for interdisciplinary collaboration in research and teaching on a wide variety of issues related to the well-being of cities. It is designed to focus on applied research addressing the most pressing challenges facing our cities today, including income polarisation, infrastructure investment and affordable housing. In addition to providing a new structure to foster cooperation across the boundary between the university and the surrounding city, it is betting on the premise that the most intractable urban challenges can be tackled only through closer collaboration across disciplinary boundaries.
Finally, when it comes to teaching and learning, we realised that our neighbouring communities offer a range of rich opportunities for experiential learning by our students. We have created a university-wide committee to identify and scale up such opportunities as student demand for experiences such as internships, co-op placements, professional experience years, service learning and community-based research continues to skyrocket.
Such opportunities serve multiple objectives. They provide our students with valuable, hands-on learning-by-doing. They unleash a formidable wave of talented, energetic students to work with public sector and community-based clients, helping them to address urgent challenges and leverage new opportunities. Faculty advisers are developing new research topics as a serendipitous consequence of working more closely with these external partners. And the university is enhancing its reputation within the region as a city-building organisation.
The rise of online learning technologies and the potential threat they pose to traditional forms of teaching and learning have compelled us to identify new and more innovative ways to enrich our students’ experience by engaging with real issues and real partners in real communities. In the process, online teaching and learning tools have been adopted more as complements to, rather than substitutes for, the in-class and in-person experience.
Similarly, when it comes to research, our new international strategy provides both the rationale and the resources to foster stronger participation by our faculty and students in global research partnerships. At the same time, the strength of our scholarship across many fields, the quality of our graduates and the burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem developing around our campuses are attracting growing volumes of research-related investments in the Toronto region by many of the world’s largest, most knowledge-intensive firms – again, demonstrating the surprising power of place in a globalised world.
Our strategy has provided a framework for leveraging more systematically the benefits of “being there”, in a culturally rich, economically vibrant urban region. In the process, it has enhanced our ability to achieve our core academic objectives. It may also offer some useful lessons for others.
Meric S. Gertler is president of the University of Toronto.