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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Gertler takes the reins at U of T

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Meric Gertler

As the recently installed president of the University of Toronto, Meric Gertler says he’ll strive to leverage the campus’ location more effectively, strengthen its international partnerships and produce more “job-ready graduates.”

Gertler – who became U of T’s 16th president last month, three decades after joining the university as an assistant professor in the geography department – spoke to The CJN about his ambitions and addressed some issues related to the Jewish community.

Although Gertler has only been in the president’s chair for about a month and half, he said one of the things that prepared him for this challenging role was his five years of experience as U of T’s dean of arts and science.

“That is equivalent to being president of a university at many other institutions, in the sense that arts and science alone has 30,000 students. It’s bigger than most universities in Canada and has about a half-billion dollar budget,” Gertler said.

He said that since last March, when the announcement about his presidency was made, until September, he has travelled to a number of large cities that are home to some of the world’s best universities.

“I went to cities like Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Boston, and also to London in the U.K. I had a look at the activities of universities there.”

He said he wanted to get a sense of how the universities “leveraged their location, how they take advantage of their situation in large metropolitan regions to enhance their own strengths. Often that [is done] indirectly by helping to make their city stronger, and in doing so, making the university stronger by making it easier for them to attract and retain great faculty, great students, great staff.”

After spending two months job-shadowing outgoing U of T president David Naylor, and having conversations about transitioning into his new role, Gertler hit the ground running.  

In just his second month in charge of Canada’s highest-ranked university (according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings), Gertler is actively working toward his many goals, one of which is to better prepare U of T graduates for the working world.

“We’re under a lot of pressure to produce job-ready graduates, but the question is, how do we do that while retaining the best of a liberal arts education or a broadly-based undergraduate education? That is something that will continue to be a pressing challenge,” he said.

Another of his ambitions is to strengthen U of T’s international partnerships.

Gertler, a world-renowned urban policy and planning expert who gave a lecture on urban studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem two years ago, said U of T has a very strong relationship with the Israeli school.

“We also have a great relationship with the Technion in Haifa, which is only getting stronger. We just had the president, Peretz Lavie, in Toronto,” he said.

“We’re very interested in what they’re doing in the whole area of innovation and entrepreneurship and the whole start-up nation phenomenon, in which they’ve played such an important role.”

Gertler said he’s interested in bringing U of T into a new partnership with Technion and China’s Shantou University.

Chinese billionaire Li Ka Shing is funding a joint project between the Israeli and Chinese schools, and has created a new centre called the Technion Guangdong Institute of Technology.

“Soon after meeting with president Lavie, I went to China, spent eight days there, and met the director of the Li Ka Shing Foundation and had a chance to talk about that relationship with Technion,” he said.

“There is a lot of interest on both sides and I anticipate more interaction there, possibly a three-way between us, them and China.”

He said U of T also has meaningful partnerships with the Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa.

When it comes to calls by promoters of boycotts, sanctions and divestments who demand that U of T cut ties to Israeli academic institutions, Gertler said his university has always taken a very clear stance on the issue.

“We feel that academic boycotts are just completely counter to the fundamental values of the University of Toronto, and we object in principle to any boycott or ban that tries to politicize academic discourse… because they disagree with the policies of their government. That is just a non-starter.”

Gertler also addressed an ongoing issue for Jewish and pro-Israel students at schools across North America: Israeli Apartheid Week, which originated at U of T in 2005. Last month, the students’ union at U of T’s Scarborough campus voted to endorse the annual event.

“The university does not sponsor or endorse any of this activity, or any student-organized events. We also fully recognize that the very term ‘Israeli apartheid’ is distressing to many people.

“The second thing I would say is that universities… have a unique role and an important role to provide a safe venue for difficult discourse on controversial topics. We also have a responsibility to make sure that the discourse takes place in a respectful way and that… organizers… understand the difference between free speech and hate speech.”

Gertler, the son of a Holocaust survivor, boasted about U of T’s Centre for Jewish Studies, which continues to expand its reach.

“What I love about it is that it builds on all the academic strengths that we have at the university in history, philosophy, languages, in literary and cultural studies, in so many areas in politics and more,” he said. “Jewish studies has attracted burgeoning enrolments, not just from Jewish students, but something like half the enrolments in courses are from non-Jewish students.”

Gertler, who described Toronto’s Jewish community as “the most significant, best-organized, most vibrant communities we have in the city,” said he hopes to continue to build on the relationship between the university and the community “and leverage that partnership for mutual benefit.”

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