Teaching and Learning Symposium Keynote

November 3, 2014

Thank you Sioban [Nelson, Vice-Provost, Academic Programs] for that kind introduction – I am delighted to be here.

It is a privilege to be offering the keynote at such an important event – particularly given the distinguished nature of the audience today.

As you know, the President’s Teaching Award is the highest honour for teaching at the University and recipients become members of the University of Toronto Teaching Academy.

I am delighted to see so many members of the Academy here – and I am especially pleased to welcome to the group my colleague Don Boyes from the Department of Geography.

The members of the Teaching Academy – and indeed all of the people assembled here today – are wonderful ambassadors for pedagogy at U of T. It is great to see so many familiar faces this morning. You are a hugely valuable network of people who provide leadership, advice, support, and passion for pedagogical initiatives at every level.

And special mention must go to the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation. Let me take this opportunity to thank Professor Carol Rolheiser and her team for organizing today’s symposium – and for the many other contributions they make to the academic life of the University of Toronto.

Ladies and gentlemen, the University of Toronto is distinguished by its singular ability to combine two distinct aspects of its mission. On the one hand, we excel as Canada’s most distinguished, globally ranked research and graduate education powerhouse.

This distinction was recently reaffirmed in the National Taiwan University (NTU) World University Rankings. The University of Toronto jumped to 4th in the world, and first in Canada.
The top four are: Harvard, Hopkins, Stanford, and Toronto

NTU’s rankings are based on research excellence, and ranking fourth in the world, of course, is an extraordinary accomplishment.

But on top of this, it is worth emphasizing that according to National Taiwan University, we are the world’s top ranked public university. At the same time, the Times Higher Education ranking places us 20th overall and 8th in the world among public universities.

This speaks to the second distinct aspect of our mission: providing a high-quality, accessible education to large numbers of undergraduates.

We are privileged to welcome more than 83,000 students to our three campuses. Moreover, we are fortunate to be able to offer the most comprehensive access guarantee in the country, underpinned by an extensive financial aid program. There are very few higher education institutions in the world that combine these attributes of research excellence with accessibility as well as we do.

However, as I mentioned in my Installation Address a year ago this week, as we look to the future, we face some increasingly strong headwinds that could well threaten our success in this dual mission and our global standing.

This audience knows the headwinds first-hand.

Public funding – already scarce – is becoming even more so.

Our recovery from the Crash of 2008 and the economic turmoil it heralded advances haltingly. Institutions of higher learning find themselves under increasing pressure to produce ‘job-ready’ graduates – whatever that might mean – and to abandon the time-honoured ideal of a broadly based education.

Furthermore, our status as a preferred producer of knowledge has been challenged by societal change. In common with every other form of knowledge-producing enterprise, we now face intense competition from multiple sources, as the dissemination of knowledge explodes throughout the online world.

In part to help us meet these challenges, I articulated three priorities for the University:

  1. First, leveraging our location more fully.
  2. Next, strengthening our international partnerships.
  3. Third, re-examining and reimagining undergraduate education.

These priorities accept and build upon the goals from the University’s Towards 2030 plan. The Towards 2030 exercise engaged the entire University community in an extensive, year-long consultation and deliberation process, and its continuing relevance has been reaffirmed in both The View from 2012 exercise and the Presidential search process.

The plan set out broad goals for our academic community, among them a fundamental commitment to enhancing our standing as:

  1. A leader in research-intensive undergraduate education
  2. A leader in graduate education
  3. A globally ranked research powerhouse 


The University-wide discussion of the Three Priorities underway this year is designed to move the University forward within this overarching framework.

It is a consultative exercise, to solicit ideas, suggestions, and feedback as our academic community responds to evolving opportunities and challenges. My goal is to draw upon the wisdom, experience, knowledge and creativity of our extended University community – not least those represented in the room today – to identify and highlight successful examples of existing activities that address these priorities, and to share these ideas more widely.

As many here will know, I have had several opportunities to elaborate on the first two priorities, including a major speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade last spring… an address in the Big Cities, Big Ideas series sponsored by the Munk School of Global Affairs last month… and a plenary address on global cities and global Universities at the University of São Paulo two weeks ago.

But while, each of the three priorities connects at its core to teaching and learning, today’s keynote address is one of my first opportunities to speak directly about the third priority, re-examining and reimagining undergraduate education.

So I want to spend the next 15 or 20 minutes this morning tying the various threads together and elaborating on what I have in mind when I say ‘reimagining’ undergraduate education.

The headwinds I rehearsed above cannot be ignored. Nor can they be met with knee-jerk, simplistic responses.

Here I am reminded of a previous provincial government’s plan to ‘reform’ higher education in Ontario floated in a hastily-conceived discussion paper: more online learning, shorter degree programs, more skill-training, universal credit transferability, …

What might the contours of a reimagined strategy look like? I am going to suggest three initial lines: First, we need to catalogue and communicate; second, we need to play to our strengths; and third, we need to elevate the value of being there.

I would like to say a word about each of these lines, but first let me set out some initial context and principles:

I would argue that, when we think about undergraduate education, our goal should be to prepare students better for lifelong success, not just short-term employability.

We need to seek the right balance between depth and specialization on one hand and breadth on the other. At the same time, we need to reaffirm the enduring value of a broad liberal education, but also to ask ourselves how we can help our students extract the full benefit from that education.

We need to demonstrate more clearly how the education we provide prepares our graduates for a lifetime of fulfillment, while also contributing to the economic, social and political success of the region, province, nation, and the world.

And we need to anticipate and respond to disruptive changes in the modes and mechanisms for education and knowledge production, in light of growing challenges to the traditional model of university education.

Here I will pause and make the obvious point: We are already doing so much of this.

Indeed, over the past decade, this university has led a fundamental transformation of teaching and learning.

Perhaps most notably, we have multiplied small group learning opportunities across the entire university, building on smaller communities such as our distinctive colleges, federated universities, and newer campuses.

The One Programs pioneered at Vic have proliferated across the University and beyond.

First-year learning communities have helped personalize education.

More recently, experiments with inverted classrooms have triggered a reassessment of the in-class experience.

I never believed the old myth that students were just numbers at U of T, but to borrow a malapropism, it is more false now than ever.

But the old myth persists nevertheless. To take one example: We are still punished in the media, in some of the rankings, and around dinner tables for having large student-faculty ratios. There is some truth in this, as you all will know better than anyone – and, in the best university tradition, we will not shrink from criticism.

But faculty-student ratios are a clumsy and increasingly out-dated proxy for student experience. A single number – even if it is a ratio – just doesn’t capture the range of student experiences at the University of Toronto.

Therefore, I would submit that our first task is to document. We need to catalogue everything we do, and enhance the visibility of our many successes.

In so doing we might begin to get some credit for our accomplishments. (Though, the way the media sometimes work in this country, I am not going to hold my breath!)

But more importantly, cataloging our accomplishments will help us learn from each other. Occasionally, to be fair, we do this well. But it is striking how often our institution seems to lock its creativity and ingenuity into silos. Colleagues across the globe seem to know more about what’s going on here than colleagues across the hall.

So job one, I would suggest, is about cataloguing and communication.

Job two, I would suggest, is to play to our strengths. Since we are Canada’s leading research-intensive university, and recognized internationally for our research prowess in so many different fields, it only makes sense for us to look to this most prominent and distinctive aspect of our identity when it comes to re-imagining undergraduate education.

Our deep, convergent, and brilliant research-intensive culture is the University of Toronto’s single biggest differentiator. We should continue working hard to leverage this advantage to the benefit of our students.

After all, the kinds of challenges we will increasingly confront as a global community are more intertwined, complex, and social than ever before – everything from cyber security and climate change to global epidemics, energy crises, and urbanization.

I would suggest that answering these challenges will require not just skills, but competencies. And this is where broad, research-intensive universities like the University of Toronto excel.

Think of quantitative reasoning… critical thinking… effective writing and communications… problem-solving… ethical and social reasoning… teamwork… and entrepreneurship.

Let me elaborate. In this day and age, I believe it is not simply what one studies, but how. Whether a student’s discipline of choice is engineering, economics, English, or epidemiology, the methodology is important: researching, reasoning, and arguing… creating, testing, and defending hypotheses is the life-blood of a research-intensive university.

This leads naturally to my third task: we need to elevate the value of being there. Here it is interesting to note something of a paradox: the rise of online learning may have a salutary, and perhaps surprising, effect. It compels us to ensure that the value of ‘being there’ in person, in the classroom, in the library, the lab, or even the playing field, is sufficiently great to compete successfully against purely digital modes of teaching. Indeed, I believe we are already seeing that new tools and technologies are helping us rethink the way we teach in the classroom. Paradoxically, MOOCs are remaking campus-based education.

Here is the most obvious point of intersection among the three priorities I began with. Experience-based learning and service-learning are key elements of leveraging our location. And we do them well already, as for example the popularity of the Professional Experience Year (PEY) in FASE and Computer Science, as well as the co-op programs at UTSC attest. Developing new initiatives, identifying our most successful examples amongst the current offerings, and scaling them up are win-win opportunities for both our students and the city-region around us.

Similarly, the opportunity to live and study in a foreign setting is one of the time-honoured ways of expanding horizons and developing our students by deepening their understanding of and appreciation for other cultures and places. Not surprisingly, we have adopted the goal of producing future global citizens as one of the pillars of our Boundless campaign. Yet relatively few of our undergraduates avail themselves of this opportunity, despite the large number of exchange agreements currently in place for Study Abroad experiences. There are many understandable reasons for this. We need to address them.

At the same time, the inflow of exchange students from abroad is an excellent way of bringing greater diversity into our student body, and of enriching and internationalizing the experience of those of our students who cannot travel themselves. The recent success associated with Brazil’s Science Without Borders program at U of T has underscored in a particularly dramatic way the positive effects this inward flow can generate.

As with experiential learning, developing new international initiatives and scaling up our most successful examples amongst the current offerings will bring important educational benefits for our students.

In these ways – whether on one of our campuses, in a local community, or in another country – we can elevate the value of being there and improve the educational experience and outcomes for our students.

To recapitulate: I would argue that the broad contours of a reimagined strategy for undergraduate education would have three initial lines: Cataloguing and communicating our successes, building on our strengths, and elevating the value of being there.

But these are only a start. And, as I said before, I know we are doing a great deal already – and I know there is a great deal going on that I don’t know about.

So my charge to this group is to share what you are doing. What are your best examples? What are your most creative ideas? What are your toughest challenges?

I have created an email address to facilitate what I hope will be an institution-wide conversation. Please email me at:

three.priorities@utoronto.ca

In due course, we will be finding ways to share these stories and ideas, and in so doing, collectively begin to reimagine undergraduate education.

Let me conclude these remarks with my most important message.

So many of the pedagogical advances the University of Toronto will make – so many of the steps we have already taken – have their roots in this room. Many of the University’s pedagogical pioneers and innovators are here… Many of our most inspiring teachers, mentors, and advisers are here… Many tens of thousands of students emerge from your classes, tutorials, libraries, labs, and offices better prepared for a lifetime of learning.

On behalf of all of them, and on behalf of the entire University community, I extend my heartfelt thanks for everything you have done and continue to do for our institution and our students.

Thank you.

And thank you for your kind attention.