Universities and City-Regions: A Partnership for Innovation and Opportunity

January 22, 2015

President Gertler and Minister Moridi

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President Gertler’s address to the Tenth Annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner, Intercultural Dialogue Institute GTA

Thank you, Chief La Barge, for that kind introduction. I am delighted to be here. It is an honour to address the tenth Annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner and join a history of such distinguished speakers.

I would like to thank Azim Shamshiev and the Board and executive team of the Intercultural Dialogue Institute GTA, for inviting me this evening. Thank you also to the Hosting Committee for all of their work.

Let me also thank and salute The Honourable Reza Moridi – a great friend of higher education and research – for his opening remarks.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

I am pleased to see so many distinguished guests, friends, and colleagues here this evening. And I extend congratulations, in advance, to those who will be honoured with awards later in this evening’s program.

As Chief La Barge mentioned, I am about fifteen months into my term as President of the University of Toronto. One of the reasons I was so excited to take on the Presidency is that I have spent much of my academic career studying the economies of urban regions, and the role that major institutions such as research universities play in their development.

Now, as President of Canada’s largest and most globally respected university, I have the opportunity to put some of those ideas into practice.

My starting point is that the relationship between universities and their host city-regions is fundamentally symbiotic. It is mutually enriching, along multiple dimensions.

Indeed, Universities and city-regions collaborate on many of the themes at the very heart of the Intercultural Dialogue Institute: community building, peace-building, social innovation, opportunity, and prosperity.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me start with an image from the past…

Imagine that you are standing at the corner of Bay and Richmond looking east.

• There is a large sign announcing Christie’s Biscuit factory and another for Scotland Woolen Mills Company – where apparently you could buy a beautifully hand-tailored suit for $25.

• Up the street is Nealon House where you could rent rooms for $1.50 a night.

• Muirhead Co. Paint Factory is at 215 King St. E and the Reid Lumber Company is just a block further down the way.

• From this vantage, you can count 5 water towers and no fewer than 17 smokestacks, a good number of them in full plume. The air is thick. Many of the predominantly brick buildings are stained with soot.

Welcome to downtown Toronto, circa 1913.

According to the 1915 Census of Canada, 35% of Toronto’s workforce – in a sign of the times, aged 10 years and older – were employed in the manufacturing sector, and the clothing and textile industry led the way.

Strikingly, according to the Census, clothing and textile workers outnumbered bankers 50 to 1. Even more astonishingly, for every accountant in Toronto in 1911, there were 5 musical instrument makers.

How times have changed!

• Today the Toronto CMA is the 3rd largest technology hub in North America, comprising some 43% of Canada’s tech sector investment.

• The city is the third largest financial services centre in North America
• Toronto is home to North America’s 3rd largest health sciences cluster, and it is among the top 10 life science centres in the world.

• Toronto’s film and television sector ranks 3rd in North America, employing 25,000 people. Production companies invested $1.2 billion in on-location filming in Toronto last year.

What happened? The world has changed, of course, and the Toronto region has changed along with it. And the driving forces behind that change have been – and continue to be – immigration and education.

Since 1901, more than 16M immigrants have arrived and settled in Canada, a greater number of them making their home in the Toronto region than anywhere else. In fact, today the Toronto region is home to well over one-third of Canada’s foreign-born population. That’s more than 2.5M people.

Successive waves of immigrants have come here in search of economic opportunity and social-political stability and have helped create the world’s most multicultural region. Half of those living in Toronto today were born outside of Canada.

The flood of talent that has come to Toronto has witnessed and indeed helped fuel a transformation in post-secondary education, particularly in the last 50 years.

Minister Moridi may be interested to know that, in 1920, in all of Ontario there were 9,000 post-secondary students at the undergraduate level – and fewer than 200 graduate students. In that same year, there were only 3700 female university students in all of Canada.

Today, more than 83,000 students are enrolled at the University of Toronto, and more than half of them are women.

Not surprisingly, the diverse multicultural composition of our city-region is reflected in the enrolment of our universities and colleges. Today, well over half of U of T’s students self-identify as a ‘visible minority’. And one in four is the first in their family to attend university.

Why do these facts matter, as impressive as they are? What do they mean for the GTA, and for Ontario and Canada? I believe they underscore how the Toronto region and its universities and colleges function as critically important portals of opportunity for all segments of our diverse population.

Education has helped this region leverage more fully the talent that is born here or arrives here from across Canada and around the world. This is a huge advantage in today’s knowledge economy, and has provided the wherewithal for our city to reinvent itself continually over time. We’ve gone from trading post, textiles and tanning, to farm implements and food processing, and more recently to finance, pharma, film-making and artisanal foods.

Toronto has benefited tremendously from the output of human capital from its universities and colleges, whose graduates have been the backbone of an educated, diversified, and highly creative workforce for generations.

Most critically, immigration and education have contributed vastly to our sense of community, our social well-being, our individual and collective prosperity. I submit that this is the most important aspect of the partnership between universities, like the University of Toronto, and their host city-regions.

As some of you will know, I have spoken about the principal elements of the partnership between universities and cities on several occasions – at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, at the CD Howe Institute, and elsewhere. I want to spend a moment on those aspects of the partnership here, and I also want to address what I think are two vital catalysts for the partnership – access and opportunity.

First, as I mentioned at the outset, a strong University helps build a strong city, and vice versa: a strong host city enables a university to excel nationally and internationally.

I suggest that there are three central aspects to this partnership: Dynamism, Stability, and Openness to the world.

First, as I have already demonstrated, universities impart dynamism and resilience to the economies of urban regions, helping them to reinvent themselves over time. In the same way, diverse local populations bring vitality, energy, and ingenuity to local universities and colleges. This is most readily apparent in our students of course, but it is also evident in our faculty, staff, and alumni.

At the same time, universities are tremendously important stabilizing forces on urban economies, and on the local neighbourhoods they inhabit. U of T’s sheer size generates substantial economic impact within the region. In addition to those 83,000 students, we directly employ more than 18,000 people on three campuses – more than Chrysler and GM employ in all of Canada combined, a fact that seems to be not well-known or appreciated.

Moreover, we work in partnership with communities across the region, for mutual benefit. To take just a few examples:

• Our IMAGINE initiative – led by students in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, social work and other professions – provides free health care in downtown Toronto, for those experiencing homelessness or mental health issues, and new immigrants not covered by OHIP

• Our students at the University of Toronto Scarborough work with community partners at the East Scarborough Storefront, serving the social needs of residents in Kingston-Galloway and Orton Park.

• At the University of Toronto Mississauga, faculty and students at our Mississauga Academy of Medicine and our Institute for Management & Innovation (that’s MAM and IMI, for short) work in partnership with local health care institutions and businesses in the life science sector, together with the City of Mississauga.

o I am delighted to recognize Her Worship Bonnie Crombie, who is here this evening.

These are just three examples from scores at U of T, the institution I know best. But they are also typical of examples from institutions all around the Toronto region.

Third, universities also connect their host regions to the world.

In 2013 alone, for example, authors with a U of T affiliation produced over 15,500 publications in scholarly journals jointly with scholars at other institutions, and their collaborators were based at over 8,000 institutions in hundreds of municipalities around the world.

Quite obviously, Toronto’s present and future prosperity depend on our ability to access and use knowledge –not just knowledge that is produced locally, but also knowledge that is produced in other leading centres of research and innovation around the world. Our universities are vital gateways to that knowledge.

At the same time, Toronto’s cultural buzz and social harmony, our safe and vibrant neighbourhoods, our stable property markets, our public schools and libraries, our global reputation as a welcoming place, and other aspects of urban life make us a magnet for talent from around the world. This is surely one of the reasons why more than 20 percent of this year’s incoming undergraduate class at U of T is comprised of international students. They come from over 900 different municipalities worldwide.

These are the key aspects of the partnership between universities and cities: Dynamism, Stability, Openness to the world. It is a partnership that amplifies the strengths of both partners.

Moreover, ladies and gentlemen, I would submit that this partnership, with all its different aspects, has done more for community building, social innovation, opportunity, and prosperity than any other single force in our history.

As we think about the future of this partnership, it is important to consider future prospects for institutions like the one I lead. Increasingly, we are being asked to demonstrate the value of a university education.

A reasonable response, of course, would be to emphasize some of the facts about Toronto I mentioned at the start. The region’s very resiliency and the role that local universities and colleges have played in fostering this, I would suggest, is persuasive evidence of the value of post-secondary education. There are many other sources of evidence as well, from lifelong earnings data to quality-of-life surveys.

Nevertheless, the value of a university education should not be taken for granted. Indeed, university education faces significant competition from other sources of knowledge creation, and its comparative value is the subject of vigorous debate.

Let me hasten to add that this debate is healthy and important – and, in the best university tradition, we will not shrink from the challenge.

At the same time, knee-jerk, simplistic responses to ‘reform’ higher education – shorter degree programs, more skills-training, an exclusive focus on ‘job readiness’ – are not the answer.

Instead, I would argue that, when we think about undergraduate education, we should look to our century-long partnership with our city-region for inspiration. Accordingly, our goal should be to prepare students not just for short-term employability but for lifelong success, in any career… in careers that haven’t even been created yet… and, yes, even to create those careers.

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.

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 inequality of opportunity.

I would suggest that answering these challenges will require not just skills, but more fundamental competencies. And this is where broad, research-intensive universities like the University of Toronto excel. Think of critical thinking… quantitative reasoning …effective writing and communications… problem-solving… ethical and social reasoning… teamwork… and entrepreneurship.

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, epidemiology, or English, the methodology is important: researching, reasoning, and arguing… creating, testing, and defending arguments and hypotheses – and this is the life-blood of a research-intensive university.

This brings me to my final point, and back to my starting point – the partnership between the University and the City. Universities need to accentuate and elevate the value of being here.

It is interesting to note something of a paradox. The rise of online learning has been characterized as the rise of a new technology with the potential to disrupt our traditional business model. But it has also been a boon in many ways, with an unexpected side effect. The truth is that online learning compels universities to ensure that the value of ‘being here’ in person – in the classroom, in the library, the lab, or the playing field – is sufficiently great to compete successfully against purely digital modes of teaching.

In fact, I believe we are already seeing how new tools and technologies can help us rethink the way we teach in the classroom and beyond. Paradoxically, online-learning is remaking campus-based education.

Critical components of this effort are experience-based education, service-learning, urban research and partnerships, co-op programs, internships: all of which are best fostered by working in collaboration with our many partners in surrounding local communities. In other words, the city itself becomes our best asset in meeting the challenge of online learning models!

Universities like the one I am honoured to lead already do a good deal of this – but we could do much more. This is a win-win opportunity for our students, faculty, and staff and for the remarkable residents of the city-region in which we are so fortunate to be located.

So the University of Toronto is embracing its role as a city-builder on all three of its campuses, and welcomes opportunities to collaborate with other actors and organizations to advance quality of life and quality of place here in the Greater Toronto region.

I have now come to the end of my allotted time, with much more that remains to be said. I hope I have provided some food for thought on the symbiotic relationship between universities and city-regions and how they collaborate on community building, peace-building, social innovation, opportunity, and prosperity.

Fortunately, I am in the perfect company. The Intercultural Dialogue Institute – and the Annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner, now a decade old – have a strong and distinguished record of fostering debate, asking and answering hard questions, and greatly enriching our community.

It has been a tremendous privilege to offer this keynote. Thank you so much for your kind attention.