The University of Toronto: The medium is the message; the message is opportunity

January 1, 1990

6 October 2011

A serendipitous combination of great location, staff dedication and alumni loyalty has helped to propel Toronto to world-class status, says David Naylor, and promises to keep it there

The emergence of many of the world's prominent universities is closely tied to the development of their surrounding communities into global cities of influence. So it is with Toronto.

When the University of Toronto opened its doors in 1827, Canada was still decades away from becoming a country and the muddy town of York was not yet even a city. Today, our three campuses welcome students and faculty from around the globe to a vibrant and strikingly diverse megalopolis - the world's most multicultural region and home to more than one in six Canadians.

Like the Toronto region, the university has a large and increasingly global footprint. Two newer campuses, founded in the 1960s, each accommodate more than 10,000 students, while the original downtown campus has an enrolment of about 50,000. These numbers include thousands of the offspring of first-generation Canadians and more than 9,000 students who have come direct to the Toronto region from scores of different nations.

Academic plans are made carefully to promote differentiated development across the three campuses. At the same time, a single graduate department governs each major discipline for the entire university. This convergence of size, structure and strategy has fostered unusual academic breadth and depth. It has also allowed us to pursue interdisciplinary initiatives aggressively without diluting our core disciplinary excellence.

As very long-term institutions, universities tend to earn their wider reputations from two sources.

One is the quality of their alumni, tied closely to the strength of the students they recruit. Here, the university has benefited generally from its location in a fast-growing region with an incredible range of business and cultural activity, and has capitalised specifically on the influx of talented and ambitious immigrants.

In addition, Toronto has about 500,000 living alumni in more than 170 countries, with concentrations in unexpected places from Hollywood to Hong Kong. Size matters. There is no continent nor walk of life where Toronto alumni are not in leadership roles.

The second reputational factor is research impact. Here, too, Toronto's combination of size and strength makes it a global heavyweight. Down the decades, its professors developed insulin and the electron microscope, discovered cosmic black holes and stem cells, and pioneered in fields as diverse as organ transplantation and computer graphics.

A tradition of responding to global challenges continues today, with Toronto spawning innovations such as earthquake-resistant building materials, micronutrients for malnourished children, nanoengineered paint to capture solar energy more efficiently, and the Citizen Lab, a multidisciplinary group that made headlines worldwide last year for uncovering online espionage networks.

In the social sciences, yesterday's public luminaries - such as media theorist Marshall McLuhan - have been succeeded by business guru Roger Martin and urban analyst Richard Florida. A similar continuum runs in the humanities from Northrop Frye, a giant of literary criticism in the 1950s and 1960s, to Toronto's back-to-back Holberg laureates - philosopher Ian Hacking and historian Natalie Zemon Davis.

For students, our research strength translates most immediately into strong teaching and mentorship in our graduate and professional programmes. As one example, the combination of the university with its 10 partner hospitals brings together more than 1,500 researchers and 5,000 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

Our faculty members, however, also have a remarkable commitment to undergraduate instruction. More than 90 per cent of our tenured staff who have won research distinctions teach at least one undergraduate course. The university community further supports undergraduate education with a range of special first-year programmes, small-group learning arrangements, seminar courses as a counterpoint to large classes in introductory subjects, and research opportunities.

Like most public universities, we struggle with funding pressures. We accordingly run a lean administration and use a decentralised budget model to align incentives. Moreover, to ensure that spending stays focused on the academic coalface, vice-presidents must justify their annual budgets to a committee of deans chaired by the president.

We cannot offer the deluxe accommodation and silver-spoon attention accorded students at some private universities in the US. What we do offer is accessible excellence based on merit, together with a huge range of academic options for students.

Location, too, is optional. Our smaller east and west campuses, both popular with international students, provide more than 200 hectares of woods, parklands and hiking trails. Our original campus lies in the heart of downtown Toronto's Discovery District, surrounded by major academic hospitals, research institutes and the massive MaRS innovation centre.

Wherever they are based, our students enjoy a vibrant social and athletic scene that encompasses myriad sports facilities, campus radio stations and newspapers, art galleries, theatres and hundreds of clubs. There has also been a flowering of student involvement in business start-ups and social innovation, with hundreds of students now taking entrepreneurship courses.

As a big public university in a small nation (in terms of population, at least), we take nothing for granted. Toronto's academic prominence would never have been possible without enormous dedication by staff over many generations, extraordinary alumni loyalty and support, and, frankly, the serendipity of our location in a region that has emerged as one of the world's great urban hubs.

State-funding constraints are a recurring frustration, but I remain optimistic about Toronto's prospects. Indeed, I often tell colleagues that universities, like some of us with Y chromosomes, do not really begin to mature until they are 50 or 60. If that is true, then at 185, the best years for the University of Toronto almost certainly lie ahead.

David Naylor is president, University of Toronto

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