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Exteriors of a Ryerson University building, in Toronto, on June 8, 2021.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Ryerson University will now be called Toronto Metropolitan University, becoming the first such institution in Canada to change its name in response to recent debates over colonization and historical commemoration.

A proposal to change the name was approved Tuesday by the university’s board of governors. Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi had recommended the Toronto Metropolitan option from a shortlist developed by a committee of professors, administrators, students and alumni.

The renaming process began last year in response to a task force that examined the legacy of the university’s namesake, 19th-century educational reformer Egerton Ryerson.

Ryerson University decides to change name amid reckoning on Indigenous residential schools

Protests over the use of the Ryerson name date back more than a decade and took aim primarily at Ryerson’s connection to the design of the Indigenous residential schools system. The task force decided his name had become linked for many people with a system that has been called an act of cultural genocide, because it forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families.

Dr. Lachemi said the new name reflects the wishes of tens of thousands of community members who said they wanted to highlight the university’s location and its values.

“It’s a name that fits us perfectly,” he said. “We’re located in the heart of our country’s biggest and most diverse city, so the university represents all that it means to be metropolitan. We are a gathering place for people from all over the world, from all walks of life, with broad and diverse perspectives, lived experiences and aspirations.”

Although the new name is similar to that of the University of Toronto, Dr. Lachemi said he thinks there’s a distinctive niche for the Toronto Metropolitan University. He pointed out that London Metropolitan University exists alongside the University of London, and Tokyo Metropolitan University alongside the University of Tokyo.

The university expects the transition to the Toronto Metropolitan name will be well under way by the start of the fall semester.

The university branding and logos, with the blue and yellow colour scheme, will not change. The Ryerson name will still appear on official documents such as transcripts and degrees until the university’s governing legislation is amended, which likely won’t happen until after a provincial election expected in June.

Ryerson began as a technical institute in 1948. Its founding principal, Howard Kerr, thought the Ryerson name would signal credibility and tradition. The new institution was located on the same spot where Ryerson had opened the Toronto Normal School for the education of teachers in 1847.

It eventually became a polytechnic, then a polytechnic university, before becoming Ryerson University in 2002. The university has grown quickly over the past two decades, expanding to 40,000 full-time students with a new law school in 2020 and a medical school scheduled to open in Brampton by 2025.

Opposition to the Ryerson name gained momentum last year after the discovery of unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops. Many Ryerson students and faculty stopped using its name in their bios and on CVs, using the name “X university” instead. A statue of Ryerson was pulled down after a demonstration in June, 2021, and the university did not replace it.

Jennifer Simpson, Ryerson’s provost, said the new name will better reflect the values the university wants to present to the world.

“The university is really out in front in finding a way forward and acknowledging the complications and complexities of colonialism,” she said.

Dr. Simpson led the renaming committee that presented a shortlist of possibilities to Dr. Lachemi, a process that began with a survey completed by 30,000 people.

Reaction to the new name has been mixed. Some suggested it evoked the old Metro Toronto political system that preceded the city’s amalgamation, others that it might be confused with the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, known as UTM. Many speculated that a popular short form is likely to evolve over time, such as TMU or Met U or Toronto Met.

“My first reaction is it’s a bit boring. But all things considered, that’s probably not a bad thing,” said Daniel Rubenson, a professor of political science at Ryerson. “The word ‘metropolitan’ next to university has a slight polytechnic ring to my mind. But I think it will grow on me.”

Tom Thorne, a 1968 Ryerson alumnus, said he was disappointed the name was changed at all because the Ryerson legacy has been misjudged. He also thinks on a practical level the school will find it more difficult than it realizes to differentiate itself with a new name.

“I find it very difficult to take as a Ryerson grad,” Mr. Thorne said. “It’s a name that lives on in the memory of a lot of people.”

A group calling itself the Friends of Egerton Ryerson campaigned to stop the name change, also arguing Ryerson had been unfairly judged. Ryerson died in 1882 before the residential school system was widespread, but his work has been linked with an 1879 report by Nicholas Flood Davin that laid the foundation for the system.

Dr. Lachemi said Ryerson’s name had come to represent something divisive, but he added the past will not be erased.

“I think it’s important to recognize that what has been done in the last 73 years is also a source of pride for all of us, and we should not shy away from that,” he said.

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