The University of Toronto has chosen one of its own to become the new chief lobbyist, fundraiser and public face of the storied institution as it grapples with financial challenges.
Meric Gertler will be the U of T’s new president, moving from his current job as dean of arts and science, a role many liken to running a mid-size university in its scope and complexity. He succeeds current president David Naylor, who will depart later this year.
Despite a track record of appointing presidents from within, U of T officials toyed with breaking the mould and appointing a non-academic. After listening to students and professors, however, they fixed on the geography professor with a passion for city-building, praising his mix of academic and administrative savvy and hoping familiarity with U of T’s culture makes for a smooth transition.
As he braces for his biggest challenge – balancing U of T’s heavy research agenda with calls to improve undergraduate experiences, all while indebted governments turn off the funding taps – Dr. Gertler thinks he has a head start.
“I know this place inside out,” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “It means I can hit the ground running.”
Many inside U of T have high regard for Dr. Gertler, who joined the university in 1983 after studying at McMaster, the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard. Yet his appointment was likely also shaped by constraints on the search process. Under a rare provision in the act governing U of T, presidents must be Canadian citizens. In addition, the association representing U of T’s professors made it known that many faculty and students would receive a non-academic leader with hostility. And provincial rules prevent the university from paying the new president more than his predecessor, Dr. Naylor, who currently earns $388,401, plus a $12,000 car allowance.
That is well shy of what several other Ontario university presidents earn, but Richard Nunn, chair of U of T’s board of governors, insists money “wasn’t an issue in this particular search.”
“It was very clear that Meric’s capabilities and credentials compared very favourably against the rest of the world,” Mr. Nunn said. “A lot of the presidents and senior positions across the Canadian universities come from … U of T, so it’s not really a surprise that we’ve developed a leader able to take on the complexity of the place.”
Dr. Gertler had a crash course in U of T’s competing interests in 2010 when he presented plans for major budget cuts that included shuttering U of T’s renowned Centre for Comparative Literature, drawing backlash from an academic community that felt blindsided. Dr. Gertler says he learned valuable lessons that will make him consult more widely.
After that dispute and other internal skirmishes, the University of Toronto Students’ Union harbours some “concerns” about Dr. Gertler’s tenure as dean, but thinks the school was right to choose an academic and remains “open-minded,” said Munib Sajjad, the UTSU’s vice-president, university affairs.
Dr. Gertler cautions not to expect radical change, saying he favours maintaining U of T’s trajectory, but also notes universities have “lost their monopoly” on learning in a digital age, “so we have to change with the times.”
And having built his academic career studying the economies of cities, urban innovation, creativity and culture, he sees “a real opportunity for the U of T to play an expanded role in city-building, and working with civic leaders.”
As universities across Canada face ongoing budget crunches, he will be leaned on to fundraise tirelessly, a task he claims to “actually enjoy,” having helped his faculty raise $175-million so far within U of T’s current $2-billion campaign. No matter how many donors he finds, he knows the University’s financial future rests largely in persuading governments to keep investing in it.
“Ultimately, it’s up to our provincial and federal partners to decide what level of support they’re going to provide in order to ensure that our universities like U of T continue to thrive on the world stage,” he said.