An internationally renowned urban planning and policy expert, Meric Gertler, enjoyed a long and successful career as an academic before becoming president of the University of Toronto in 2013. In 2015, he was named a member of the Order of Canada. Here, at 61, he reflects on chasing career success, the importance of taking more risks, and what it meant to be a good father in his 40s.
I was living in Toronto for most of that time and teaching at U of T. The only time that I spent outside of Toronto was for a sabbatical where I spent half a year at Oxford.
What made me happy in my 40s? My kids, who were eight and five when I started my 40s. They were pretty small and developing into real people, so that was a huge amount of fun. Professionally, I would say becoming recognized in the wider world. It was really in my 40s that I felt like my impact in my discipline was really registering.
Success to me in my 40s was feeling like my work was having some kind of impact, both in terms of the direction of my discipline, so shaping some major debates and the evolution of the field. But also having an impact in terms of public policy. To me, that has always been important.
One of my worries was spending time away from my family. I was in big demand throughout my 40s and experienced more and more demand to travel. You’re always sort of weighing the benefits of going abroad and having an interesting experience with the cost of spending time away from your kids and your partner, particularly as they are growing up. That’s a precious time.
Being a good father in those years – there’s some very prosaic things, like being around to help with homework and help them learn how to swim or ride a bike, which are very important in terms of helping them shape their development. But also helping them understand the world around them and making sense of the puzzles that we confront in daily life. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re shaping their world view, shaping their value system. Those are really important conversations.
One thing about my life now that I couldn’t have predicted then is taking on such a big leadership role in the academic world. I would never have imagined becoming a president or even a dean. It wasn’t why I entered the university in the first place.
What do I regret from those years? I’m actually struggling with that one. I did a lot of cool stuff and I had a lot of fun. One way to answer that would be to say, “Well, I should have taken on bigger leadership roles sooner.” I am actually glad I didn’t. It was really important for me to achieve what I wanted to achieve as a scholar in my field and have that kind of global recognition at a certain point.
What did I want to be when I was a kid? I had a feeling it would have something to do with cities because my dad, at least in my earliest memories, was already working as a planner for the City of Toronto. I remember looking at these very cool models of parts of the city. One of the hot issues then, as it continues to be now, was what would the waterfront of Toronto look like in the future? There were all these futuristic, spacey models, none of which came to pass, of course. But just imagining future living environments was really exciting.
If I could go back and give myself advice on my 40th birthday, I would tell myself maybe take a few more risks. I was always very cautious and careful and studied and considered. It has worked out pretty well but you always reflect on what opportunities you might have passed up by not taking a few more risks in terms of the work that you do or the activities you get involved in.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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