Meric Gertler, chair of Universities Canada, inaugural speech: What do universities owe Canadians?

November 5, 2021
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President, University of Toronto
Chair of Universities Canada

Universities Canada’s fall 2021 membership meeting

I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to serve Universities Canada.  Merci pour la confiance que vous m’avez accordée.

Universities Canada leads such an important cause in the service of Canadian higher education and advanced research.  It plays a vital role in setting the agenda and trajectory for Canada’s future economic and social wellbeing.

Je tiens à remercier ma bonne amie et collègue Sophie D’Amours pour les services remarquables qu’elle a rendus au nom des universités canadiennes.  Merci, Sophie!

I am eager to carry on with the same level of commitment Sophie brought to the Chair’s role, and I am keen to work together with the leaders in this room and around this virtual table to advance our shared goals.

For my inaugural address this afternoon I want to depart from the conventional script a little bit.  It is customary on such occasions to remind our government partners of the important work we do, and to urge them to provide more generous assistance to universities to help them fulfill their important educational and research mission.

Now, let me reassure you:  I expect to spend much of my time and energy during my tenure as Chair focusing on exactly this kind of work on your behalf!

But today, I want to ask a different question—one whose answer may also have a direct bearing on our success in attracting the support we know we need from Canadians.

My question is this:  what responsibilities should universities embrace at this pivotal moment in our nation’s evolution?  Or, to paraphrase the title of a recent book, what do universities owe Canadians?

I would submit that this is an especially opportune time to be asking such a question.

After all, the Federal election took place five weeks ago, with a new Cabinet just sworn in, and a speech from Throne expected soon.

At the same time, it seems we are finally starting to see the beginning of the end of this pandemic.  The scale of the economic and human suffering has been immense, and the challenges ahead are daunting.  And yet, with many of our campuses coming back to life this fall, and with in-person activity continuing to ramp up, there appear to be grounds for cautious optimism.

Indeed, we find ourselves at a watershed moment, as we transition to a changed society and a changed world.

It’s also a time when a number of thoughtful voices are raising fundamental questions about our role.  These efforts have been stimulated by major developments in societies around the world in recent years.

Democracy seems to be under siege and authoritarianism is on the rise in many nations.  Political polarization seems to have reached all-time highs.  The urban-rural divide is large and getting larger.  Income inequality has been growing for decades, and the recent tech boom seems to be exacerbating economic divides to levels not seen since the 1920s.

Science is under siege in many quarters, despite the dramatic demonstration of its value over these last 20 months.  And of course, on the eve of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, the planet’s very survival is at stake.  So too is the credibility of governments and institutions of global governance, which are struggling to address this existential challenge effectively.

So I hope you will agree that this is a good time to take stock and reflect on the role universities can and should play in Canada’s – and the world’s – recovery in 2022 and beyond.

The deeper significance of return to campus

To answer this question, I’d like to focus on this fall’s careful – and largely successful – return to campus, and consider its deeper significance.

I would suggest that one can understand this key moment in a number of ways, each of which sheds important light on our larger contribution to Canadian society.

At its most prosaic level, our success in reopening our campuses to in-person teaching, learning and research has demonstrated to the rest of society that it is possible to return safely.

The fact that we have had few if any serious outbreaks of COVID-19 on our campuses is a testament to the tremendous work that so many have put into preparing for a safe re-inhabitation of shared spaces – classrooms, labs, libraries, cafeterias and residences.

More significantly, our campuses have been at the vanguard in this respect – demonstrating to other employers, governments and individual workers that this can be done, and largely without incident.  Many of us have pioneered vaccine mandates, the safe return to congregate living, and assembling indoors in higher densities, well before other sectors have followed suit.

Like many of you, I am struck by the stark contrast between our campuses – now beginning to hum with life – and the still largely deserted office buildings and other workplaces around us.

I am also struck by the remarkable success we have had in welcoming international students to our campuses and residences – helping them navigate border controls, public health requirements, quarantine, and the considerable challenges of international travel itself.  Here too, we are unique outliers in an economy in which international tourism and business travel have barely started to recover.

I want to suggest that this record of success should be appreciated for its larger significance: no other previously locked-down sector of the Canadian economy has returned ‘in real life’ to the extent that we have.

Apart from helping elevate our standing amongst Canadians – who have admired our ability to pull this off safely – we are showing the rest of the country how this is done – indeed, that this can be done, and done safely.  In doing so, we will hopefully inspire others to follow our example.

Why is this so important?

For starters, the recovery of many business districts and downtown economies will depend on the return of employees to the physical workplace – even if only for 3-4 days a week.  So, if our return to campus encourages other organizations to do the same – with similar thoughtfulness and care – this will accelerate Canada’s economic recovery.

But there are other implications arising from this return to campus that will have wider, more profound impacts within our society.  Which brings me to my next point…

The return to campus also signals a return to real – rather than virtual – social interaction.

Our students have already made it abundantly clear how much they appreciate this.  They recognize that so much of their learning is achieved through their interaction with their peers, in real life.  This is why so many of them were keen to live in residence, even during the darkest days of the pandemic.  And it is why they flocked to refill our residences this fall when it was possible to do so.

It is also the reason why so many of our international students have endured the hardships and overcome the obstacles of global travel to get here.  They know that a Canadian university education is a ‘package deal’ – not just the lectures, labs and tutorials, but the group projects, the social interaction with fellow students, the internships with employers and the experience of living and studying – and yes, sometimes partying – in another culture.

But there are even more profound implications of this return to real social interaction, that speak to one of the most fundamental contributions we as a sector can make to our society.

When the world went into lockdown 20 months ago, virtual interaction was a life saver – literally – in face of the pandemic.  Moving classes online was clearly necessary and undoubtedly saved lives.  It also allowed us to carry on with our core business without too much disruption.  The success with which all of you managed this transition has been well recognized, as it should be.

But one thing we have learned from our extended period of virtual interaction is that the digital is a far from perfect substitute for real, face-to-face interaction.  In his remarks to the recent Growth Summit convened by the Public Policy Forum, CIBC CEO Victor Dodig made the point that much work “still needs to be done in collaboration” and that “you can’t build a company, and a company culture that’s cohesive, just working from home”. Innovation in many sectors is known to be a team sport and, while virtual collaboration is possible, true innovation is harder to do well remotely.

Trust too is a key prerequisite for effective team work, learning and collaboration, and research has demonstrated consistently how important in-person, face-to-face interaction is for achieving, sustaining and enhancing it.  We have all been drawing down previously accumulated reserves of trust to see us through the pandemic.  By this point, we have expended much of this finite resource, and we urgently need to reinvest by getting back together around the proverbial water cooler – real, not virtual.

This is the reason why the World Economic Forum is reconvening in Davos this coming January, in person.  According to the WEF’s founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, this is also why the theme for this year’s meeting will be “Working Together, Restoring Trust”.  In his most recent book on ‘stakeholder capitalism’, Schwab argues that capitalism needs a reset, in which the deep schisms – and existential crises like climate change – that have emerged in recent years can only be resolved through strong multi-stakeholder collaboration, supported by a high degree of trust.  Hence the imperative to reconvene in place.

This emphasis on trust highlights another aspect of digital interaction that is sub-optimal.

Well before the pandemic hit, we had all become aware of the ‘mixed blessing’ that social media represents.  Originally designed as a tool for connecting people, it has all too frequently been used to propagate division, distrust, mistruths, bullying, conspiracy theories – and even hate.  Paradoxically, for a technology conceived as a bridge between individuals, it has often accentuated isolation instead.  This was true before the pandemic, when physical interaction was still possible, and even more true when it was not.

Our extended reliance on virtual tools has, in my view, undermined mutual understanding and frayed the social fabric within our academic communities.  It has eroded trust, tolerance and social cohesion.  It has made it more difficult to bridge our differences, and easier to fragment our communities into ‘tribes’ with divergent values and worldviews.

The symptoms of this condition are widely apparent.  Tempers have become shorter, and skins thinner.  Small misunderstandings have often been amplified into larger differences.  Undoubtedly this has been exacerbated by the stress of pivoting to online teaching, and having to balance the demands of work and family in the same domestic space.

But our ability to behave as colleagues – to learn from dissent and disagreement, to argue with our peers without alienating them, to listen to new ideas without retreating into insular, like-minded communities – have all suffered.

How much more effective would our society be if we were better at listening to each other, disagreeing with each other, and learning from each other?

The return to our campuses offers the prospect of restoring this critical capacity, because it signals the return of the academic forum in a literal sense.

This represents a critically important juncture for universities, in enhancing their ability to fulfill one of their most vital responsibilities to society:  to develop the capacity of our students and faculty to conduct effective ‘dialogue across difference’, and to cultivate diverse, pluralistic communities.

My friend and former U of T colleague Ron Daniels, now President of Johns Hopkins University, has written eloquently about this core responsibility in his recent book What Universities Owe Democracy.  Daniels argues that universities fulfill a critically important role because “they so often function as one of the first opportunities many young people have to leave their local communities and navigate their own identities in the presence of others unlike themselves.”

This role brings with it three key responsibilities for us.

The first is to ensure that our campuses remain places that accommodate, support and enable important discussions about difficult and contentious issues.  Dialogue and debate across difference are the lifeblood of the academy.  This may require what Daniels calls “purposeful pluralism” on our part, including “modeling what healthy debate looks like” by hosting public debates about important topics.

If we succeed in fulfilling this responsibility, we will also be enhancing our ability to ‘educate democratic citizens’, prepared to engage fully in civic life, during and after their time on our campuses.

The second responsibility for universities is to ensure that we foster the kind of diversity that Daniels is alluding to.  This implicates diversity in all its forms: diverse ideologies, political philosophies, experiences and perspectives must be present on our campuses – and accommodated.

So too must cultural, ethnic, racial, gender, religious, socio-economic and other forms of diversity and inclusion.  Indeed, this points to the third key responsibility we must uphold: equality of access to university education, and equality of opportunity for diverse faculty and staff.

Here again, Daniels persuasively argues that universities have a special role to play in creating opportunity for students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, providing a springboard to upward social mobility.  To do this, universities must remain open and accessible to the broadest range of prospective students.

This means ensuring that our admissions processes are merit-based, needs-blind, and focused on actively recruiting students from historically underserved social groups, including Black and Indigenous students.

Not surprisingly, Daniels made headlines when he ended the practice of ‘legacy admissions’ at Hopkins – a practice that is still robustly enshrined at most Ivy League institutions to this day.  He also made headlines when he persuaded Hopkins alumnus Michael Bloomberg to donate $1.8 billion to his alma mater in 2018 to provide scholarships for low- and moderate-income students.  This was followed by a further $150 million donation from Bloomberg in May of this year to increase the racial diversity of doctoral students in STEM programs.

Transposing this argument to the Canadian context, where the practice of legacy admissions is not widespread, the public nature of our university system has, by and large, enabled us to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds much more successfully.  To use my own institution as a case in point, we have some 90,000 students across our three campuses.  More than half our domestic undergraduates come from households of modest means, and racialized students comprise more than two thirds of our enrolment.

Yet the fact that we have once again this year been ranked 18th in the world by Times Higher Education – and 8th among the world’s public universities – reflects something truly distinctive about Canada’s university system.  There is, quite frankly, no other post-secondary education system in the world that combines access and quality – that delivers a world-class education to such a large and diverse swathe of students – as well as we do.

We have an obligation to make sure we retain our ability to uphold these dual objectives of access and quality.  Our failure to do so would have very serious consequences, on a number of fronts.

First, in an increasingly tight labour market, employers will be depending on us to provide well educated graduates in numbers sufficient to meet demand.  We simply cannot afford to exclude any qualified applicants, no matter what their background.  Moreover, we know that a diverse workforce is also an innovative and creative workforce.  Diversity is one of the wellsprings of prosperity.

Second, our ability to act as social mobility boosters – as portals of opportunity for our most disadvantaged students – has huge implications for prosperity and for social cohesion.  This is particularly apparent in large metropolitan regions, where many new Canadians reside.  Our success in welcoming talented newcomers through the doors of our universities has a direct bearing on the long-term prosperity and social cohesion of our largest cities – and especially the inner suburbs which many of these newcomers call home.

But our local impact is no less important in mid-sized and smaller communities.

Here, I want to acknowledge the work of my U of T colleague Dan Breznitz, who addressed this membership meeting yesterday.  As he has argued persuasively in his new book Innovation in Real Places, universities should embrace their traditional, core role in fostering the creative capacity of the labour force, and in enhancing the full innovative capacity of firms in the local economy.  This is part and parcel of a more inclusive model – and geography – of innovation and prosperity; one that is strikingly different from the ‘Unicorn obsession’ of the Silicon Valley paradigm.

Third, the support we enjoy from the public may well depend on our success in ensuring access for academically deserving students, regardless of their means or socio-cultural background.  Veterans of Universities Canada gatherings will know – thanks to Bruce Anderson at Abacus Data – that public opinion in this country is much more favourably disposed with respect to universities than it is in the US or the UK.  I would submit that this is due, in large part, to our success in ensuring access.  The absence of legacy admissions and ‘Varsity Blues’ scandals is a testament to our ability to welcome students from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.

By the same token, our ability to maintain historically high levels of access and openness is critical if we are to continue to command the respect and support of Canadians.  As you well know, it is becoming more and more difficult to ensure access, particularly in those provincial jurisdictions where public sector support for post-secondary education has been flagging or declining.  And yet, our continued ability to uphold ‘inclusive excellence’ is fundamental to our nation’s success.

The university as model community

If we succeed in upholding the responsibilities I have outlined in this address, we will have done our bit to help overcome political polarization, democratic deficits, and growing socio-economic and geographical divides within Canada.

‘Returning to campus’ has both material and metaphoric significance in this regard.  The transition back to the in-person, on-campus experience will allow us to leverage our unique capacities as institutions of higher learning and research, to foster trust and mutual understanding, to enhance access and inclusion and, in doing so, to shore up support for our mission amongst Canadians.

But there is at least one more important way in which our return to campus will contribute to the greater good.

I mentioned COP26 and the climate crisis at the start of my remarks.  Universities can and must play an outsized role in helping our planet combat this existential threat.  Our teaching, research and innovation will figure prominently in this effort.

But so too will our campuses and the way we manage our operations.

Many of our campuses are akin to small (or, in our case, large) cities in and of themselves.  As the single owners of extensive real estate, with engaged stakeholders, direct access to in-house expertise, and an inherently long-term time horizon, we have a unique ability to develop, deploy and demonstrate cutting-edge technologies and innovative practices on a meaningful scale.  Moreover, we can do this relatively quickly and have a measurable impact on the health of our planet.  Our university is the third-largest public sector emitter of GHGs in all of Ontario!  So our plan to reduce our GHG emissions and become a climate-positive carbon sink by 2050 will make a substantial difference.

To conclude, as university leaders, let’s focus on enhancing the ability of our institutions to break down barriers, educate citizens, foster debate, engage difference, prize truth and discovery, create sustainable communities, and open portals for social mobility.  For everyone.

This is what we owe our communities – and ourselves.

Merci de votre aimable attention.  Thank you for your kind attention.

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