Teachers’ Day IIT Bombay

September 8, 2020

President Gertler was the Chief Guest at the annual Teachers’ Day celebration in September, 2020. The event was held virtually in 2020. President Gertler delivered these remarks by video.

Introduction

Thank you for your kind introduction. It is a tremendous honour to be Chief Guest on this joyful occasion. I just regret that circumstances preclude me from joining you in person!

Let me start by extending my congratulations to the 15 teachers being honoured with the 2020 Excellence in Teaching award. Celebrating our teachers is a wonderful tradition. It is especially fitting to commemorate Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – an individual famed for his dedication to teaching and understanding as much as his profound intellect.

Indeed, celebrating the importance of teaching speaks directly to the core mission of institutions like IIT Bombay and the University of Toronto. It also reminds us of the most important impact we each have on our host nations and cities.

In my brief remarks today, I want to talk about the relationship between educational institutions like IIT Bombay and its host community. I will argue that, by serving one’s local community, institutions with aspirations for international reach and a more prominent global role in higher education and research, are more likely to succeed, not less.

Achieving international acclaim is not in tension with serving one’s local community – in fact, just the opposite is true. The question of international versus local is not an “either/or”, but a “both/and” – as, indeed, Dr. Radhakrishnan’s story illustrates well.

I am mindful of the fact that every institution has its own unique circumstances. Accordingly, I will talk about our experience at the University of Toronto, and cautiously draw some conclusions that might also apply in Mumbai.

The Talent Business

I think it is important, at the outset, to recognize that U of T and IIT Bombay are in the talent business. We recruit wonderfully talented students to study at our institutions, and we produce graduates who are – hopefully – even more talented when they graduate. Such highly qualified personnel constitute the single largest contribution institutions like IIT Bombay and U of T make to their local communities. Well-educated, creative, and dynamic individuals contribute to local success in every sector: public, private, and not-for-profit.

Of course, today’s IIT-B students are tomorrow’s IIT-B alumni – a group whose contributions are so evident throughout India and Mumbai.I note that, according to the QS World Employability Rankings 2020, IIT Bombay is India’s most highly ranked institution for the employability of its alumni – just as the University of Toronto leads all Canadian universities in this regard. So talented students are fundamental to what universities do.

Talented faculty are equally as fundamental. We need to recruit – and retain – brilliant minds to help educate our brilliant students. To give you a sense of scale, we employ some 11,000 faculty members at U of T, and before the pandemic made everything more complicated, we were running more than 220 academic searches. In a typical year, about one-half of our hires come from outside of Canada. In the past couple of years, the proportion coming from abroad has actually been increasing to as high as two-thirds.

Of course, this year and perhaps the next few years will be far from typical. Before the pandemic locked the world down, the best global talent was mobile and highly sought after. Leading firms, universities, and institutes devoted considerable effort to attracting this talent, and then hanging onto it. It might take a year or two, but I expect this state of affairs to return fairly quickly. And, as it does, I expect it to be more pronounced and more competitive than before. The pandemic has occasioned a kind of ‘shake-out’ in the higher education sector: it is likely that those institutions with financial stability and a strong reputation will weather the storm; those with tenuous finances and a weaker reputation will likely decline. I expect there will be reorganizations, mergers, and even outright bankruptcies.

All of this will lead to more competition for the best and the brightest. Much rides on the success of recruitment. After all, our students tell us that one of the most important factors influencing their decision to study at the University of Toronto is the chance to learn from and work with our world-renowned faculty.

I’m pleased to report that we have indeed been very successful in recruiting great teaching and research talent to U of T. Although our faculty represent only 6% of Canada’s total professoriate, U of T scholars garner a disproportionate share of Canada’s academic accolades. Over the past decade, U of T faculty have accounted for:

  •   30% of Canadian fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Science
  •   40% of Canadian-based fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
  •   nearly half of Canada’s share of Sloan Research Fellowships, and
  •   nearly 70% of Canadian appointees to the US National Academy of Medicine

And there is no doubt that our faculty have helped propel U of T to its current world ranking – 18th in the world, and 8th among the world’s public universities, according to two prestigious world university rankings: Times Higher Education (UK) and US News and World Report. IIT Bombay has also been rising through the ranks, as demonstrated by your rapid ascent in the reputable QS World Rankings over the past few years. The Excellence in Teaching award winners we are celebrating today are part of the outstanding tradition of excellence at IIT Bombay that is propelling this ascent.

There are many factors contributing to our success in recruiting and retaining faculty, including the institution’s reputation and ranking, and the quality of the research environment and support. But close to the top of the list is another set of considerations around quality of life and livability of the city:

  •   The quality and safety of our neighbourhoods and public spaces
  •   Our public schools, public transit and health care system
  •   The dynamism and cosmopolitan character of the city, including its food and music scenes, film festivals and other cultural attractions, and
  •   The quality of the physical and built environment.

In other words, the character of the urban environment, broadly defined, enhances on our success in attracting and retaining the talent that is essential for our institution’s global standing, and for our ability to educate the talent that is in such high demand locally. So, a strong city helps strengthen its local universities or institutes of technology – and vice versa.

Universities and Institutes as City-Builders

So here is the most direct link to serving our host communities. The centrality of talent to our global standing and our wider institutional success at home and abroad provides a clear and compelling rationale for U of T and IIT-B to embrace their role as city-building institutions. Following the principle of enlightened self-interest, the more we do to make Toronto or Mumbai more livable places, the more we do to help ourselves succeed on the world stage, by enhancing our ability to attract and retain academic talent. So how might we do this?

Local impact

In many ways, the pandemic has focused attention on the partnership between the City of Toronto and its namesake university. But this relationship has always been fundamental to the success of both parties. Since the middle of March, U of T has collected and shared PPE, repurposed lab space to accelerate COVID-19 related research; and advised local officials on everything from public health policy to plans for restarting the local economy. We have worked with Toronto to restructure daily work routines to alleviate pressure on public transit, and are helping shape conversations about the city’s economic recovery post-pandemic. It is a long list. And part of a recent trend.

For the past 7 or so years, we have been actively focused on strengthening the partnership between the city and the university. We have done so by leveraging our research strengths, our teaching, and our engagement and outreach. We conducted a survey of our urban research strengths a few years ago, based on the hunch that our depth and breadth of urban expertise was considerable. That turned out to be something of an understatement: we have more than 400 faculty members with research interests in cities. They are distributed across many disciplines and faculties of the university: from architecture and civil engineering to economics, political science and public health.

Our expertise covers many pressing urban challenges, including transportation, housing and homelessness, crime, sustainability, public health, waste management, municipal finance and many other topics. To highlight this expertise, make it more accessible, and encourage collaboration on large urban challenges, we created a new School of Cities – a multidisciplinary centre for research, teaching and outreach.

Similarly, we have decided to leverage our location in the middle of Canada’s largest metropolitan region to deepen and enrich our students’ understanding of cities through experiential learning. Working with local private-sector employers, government agencies and community-based organizations, we have expanded the number of internships and service learning opportunities for our students. This brings a double payoff – to our students, who have the chance to acquire rich and interesting work experience, and to our community partners, who benefit from the energy and creativity of our students to help them improve the livability of the city. The city itself becomes a teacher.

To formalize our partnership, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Toronto in 2018. This document enshrines a fundamental commitment to work in partnership, outlining the expectations, resources and responsibilities that each side brings to the relationship. Among other things, it makes it easier for City staff to get access to our extensive expertise on a wide range of urban matters.

We are also reducing our Green House Gas emissions through retrofits, new geothermal facilities, and other applications of clean building technologies, helping Toronto and Canada meet their ambitious GHG reduction targets.

This kind of city-building activity is not limited to the obvious urban professions.
For example, our dentistry students serve 78,000 patient-visits in their clinics each year, as part of their training – half of these patients are children or seniors, and most of them have no dental insurance. Similarly, a group called IMAGINE – 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 for new immigrants not covered by public health insurance. It almost goes without saying, but in the present public health emergency, the importance of these kinds of partnerships is hard to overstate. Our Memorandum has helped the city and the university work together in this time of crisis.

Facilitating entrepreneurship represents another facet to local city-building. U of T is home to some 11 startup accelerators and incubators, in addition to local affiliated partners such as the MaRS Discovery District and the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

We have seen a surge in innovation and entrepreneurship during these difficult times. Examples include teams working on:

  •   a low-cost COVID-19 antibody test for emerging markets;
  •   using AI to model COVID-19 spread patterns;
  •   an online platform to help businesses and charities obtain protective gear; and
  •   a subscription service for parents to teach their kids at home about science.

Emergency is clearly the mother of invention!

Here, I should mention how excited we are to be partnering with IIT Bombay and its Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The joint venture, which was announced just before the pandemic really hit, will enable our institutions to develop an innovation talent pipeline, and exchange cohorts of students and early-stage entrepreneurs between our two cities.

Conclusion

If I could close with one humble suggestion for your consideration, it would be to embrace a city-building agenda as fully as possible. Whatever IIT-B faculty and students can do to improve the quality of life in the Mumbai metropolitan region will ultimately make it easier for you to attract, retain, and train great academic talent. And who knows – perhaps by openly demonstrating your commitment to the improvement of Mumbai and the wellbeing of Mumbaikars, you might also attract more generous funding from your government partners.

From my perspective, you are already working from a position of considerable strength. Mumbai is home to a spectacular array of cultural industries, linguistic and culinary traditions, cinema and festivals. The vibrancy and energy of your city are simply astounding. Mumbai’s high-tech industry is also flourishing, much as it is in Toronto. Google, Facebook, Apple, and Oracle, as well as Tata, Infosys, and dozens of other leading technology firms, have made major investments in your region. And they are drawn, no doubt, by the talent, teaching, and research at institutions like IIT Bombay. There is a clear line connecting the work and leadership of the teachers we celebrate today, to Mumbai’s success as a centre for innovation and excellence.

As an informed outsider with huge admiration and respect for both IIT Bombay and the city of Mumbai itself, I believe there are tremendous opportunities for both the Mumbai region and its flagship institution in deepening their dynamic partnership. Indeed, I continue to be struck by the extraordinary talent assembled at IIT Bombay, and the very bright future it represents.

Thank you for the honour of being the Chief Guest today, and for your kind attention.

To all of the award winners, to all of our teachers: congratulations – and thank you!