Ryerson becoming Toronto Metropolitan University

Canadian campus aims to trade reminder of indigenous abuses with branding that signals modern sophistication

April 27, 2022
Source: Alyssa K. Faoro
Toronto Metropolitan University

Ryerson University has chosen to rename itself Toronto Metropolitan University, hoping to replace a controversial racial connotation with a marker of cosmopolitan diversity.

The 40,000-student institution decided last August to end its identification with Egerton Ryerson, a 19th-century educator widely associated with abusive indigenous residential schools.

The switch to Toronto Metropolitan University is “not about erasing our history”, but promoting the institution’s values, Ryerson’s vice-chancellor, Mohamed Lachemi, said after securing the vote of approval from the university’s board of governors.

“Located in the heart of our country’s biggest and most diverse city, we represent all that it is to be metropolitan,” Professor Lachemi writes in a note to the Ryerson’s community.

The new name emerged from a process of community consultation that involved more than 30,000 suggestions. It still needs the formal approval of Ontario’s provincial legislature before taking effect.

The switch followed years of protests against the honouring of Mr Ryerson, who promoted the idea of teaching agricultural skills to native populations. That led to the creation of a violently coercive nationwide residential school system now recognised as responsible for thousands of student deaths.

The choice of Toronto Metropolitan University appears to be generating positive reaction, giving the institution a geographical name with an urban feel seen as likely to help raise its profile beyond Ontario and Canada.

“This anchors them, like a brand association, to a city that has a tremendous image,” said Tom Hayes, the dean of business at Xavier University, and co-founder of the higher education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough.

Yet it’s not without risks, especially with the now similar-sounding University of Toronto just a few blocks away in the nation’s largest city.

The University of Toronto might come to see Ryerson as “stealing our brand equity in some way”, said Howard Levy, president of the Red Rooster Group, which specialises in non-profit branding.

Canada’s top-ranked research institution later said, in response to questions, that it was not consulted by Ryerson on the re-naming decision but had no objection to it.

The new name also feels fairly generic, Mr Levy said, perhaps missing a chance to more clearly signal the university’s mission. “Moving away from something that has meaning – I think it’s good to replace that with something else that has meaning,” he said.

But at the Missouri University of Science and Technology – which abandoned its own far more provincial geographic name, the University of Missouri at Rolla, back in 2008 – the idea of Toronto Metropolitan University has a fan. “It's a strong name,” said Andrew Careaga, Missouri S&T’s chief marketing and communications officer. “It’s not a tweak, it’s not an evolution.”

A name tied to a place is “a blessing and a curse”, said another outside expert, Michele Levy, the president of Caravan Brand Partners. But in the case of Toronto, she said, the strength of Toronto’s global and innovative reputation outweighed the possible drawback of signalling a geographical limit.

“It's something you have to do very carefully,” she said, “and I think in this case it looks like it works for them.”

A Ryerson spokeswoman said she could not predict how soon the Ontario legislature would make formal the name change, or how much the process will ultimately cost.

Any conflict with the University of Toronto, however, should be minimal, the spokeswoman said.

“If you look across the world, you will see this is common,” she said. “Within many major cities around the world – London, New York, Hong Kong – there are multiple universities that reflect the name of the city they call home.”


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