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University of Toronto president Meric Gertler photographed while walking around the campus in Toronto, Dec. 4, 2013.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The latest kink in Meric Gertler's routine makes him grimace: He almost never walks to work these days.

Two weeks ago, the University of Toronto's new president moved from his family's Annex home to the president's residence in Rosedale. It's the farthest from campus he has lived in 29 years, and he worries it may disrupt another fixture of his calendar – three weekly evening workouts with a trainer at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

After a month as president, a yellow parking ticket pinned to the windshield of his Volvo station wagon said it all: his car still went unrecognized in its reserved space outside his office.

Dr. Gertler is an urban creature, having spent most of his life observing cities. He built his career as an economic geographer, probing why prosperity and innovation clusters in certain urban regions, and his reputation as a civic thinker breeds expectations that he will deepen the university's ties with the city.

To many, it came as little surprise when Dr. Gertler was chosen as the U of T's new mayor.

The university is a small city inside the country's largest metropolis, host to more than 80,000 students and 18,000 faculty and staff. More than two-thirds of its students are concentrated at the downtown St. George campus, but its growth is mostly at the school's evolving campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga – "East and West" in administrator shorthand. For generations, the main campus has been a fixture in many residents' image of the city.

Dr. Gertler now enters a critical juncture for the university, which has a $28.5-million annual structural deficit and a "differentiation" mandate from the province, pressing him to show how the university will strike its balance between research and teaching in the years to come. He must keep U of T on a global cutting edge without losing sight of the need to nurture undergraduates or to help strengthen the fabric of Toronto.

For one week in early December, The Globe and Mail shadowed Dr. Gertler as he navigated U of T's vast enterprise, a month into his new job. Collegial by nature, he wields his considerable influence carefully and calmly, with an even demeanour, and is a stickler for politeness and punctuality. But where he was once inclined to drive change by setting a direction and not giving ground, he now calls himself a "convenor of the conversation" who has learned to "slow down and take the time to get people to buy in" to new plans.

The way Dr. Gertler chooses to tackle these issues could chart a course for Canadian universities.

It is a hallmark of university presidents to consult widely before acting, and Dr. Gertler is cut from an academic's cloth. So far, he's been cautious, but his "listening phase" may be nearing its end. At this key moment for U of T, many people will look to him to speak out. Will he be the voice the university needs?

At 2:37 p.m. on a December afternoon, Dr. Gertler sits at the head of the modest boardroom table in his orderly, elegant office. It is the school's situation room and he is breaking the first bad news of his administration to eight senior staff. A $19-million hole has just been punched in U of T's future budgets.

Twenty minutes earlier, Ontario's higher education ministry informed him in a phone call it would change the way universities can charge student fees. What will be a triumph for student leaders will cost U of T $3-million annually starting next fall, and another $16-million each year from 2016. In the school's nearly $2-billion budget, that money brought new faculty hires, room for more students in popular courses and study-abroad opportunities.

"It's truly disappointing news," a subdued Dr. Gertler tells his staff. "I'll let you draw your own conclusions as to the logic that is driving this. It's hard to reconcile with building a world-class university system."

As the 16th president of the only Canadian university consistently ranked in the global top 20, Dr. Gertler holds perhaps the most powerful office in Canadian higher education. As government spending shrinks, he is expected not only to shield the country's largest university from cuts but to expand its mission.

Concrete issues confront him at his own doorstep. He may rue his new drive to work, but he knows it is luxurious compared with the "crushing" commute times growing numbers of students endure to and from the "East and West" campuses.

When visiting U of T Scarborough, the first thing he heard from a student was, "OK, you're the urban guy. What are you going to do to fix our transportation problem?" He agrees UTSC students "desperately need" better transit options, and has since met with the presidents of Ryerson University, York University and OCAD University about mobilizing their communities together to explore transit planning beyond "the sort of blatant political criteria that seem to be colouring the debate currently."

At age 58, trim and 5-foot-7, Dr. Gertler has already had a 30-year career at the university, the past five spent as dean of arts and science – a faculty so large it is often likened to a mid-size university on its own.

His new role is much more complex. He is the university's chief bureaucrat, ambassador and diplomat and he must invigorate a sprawling institution fuelled by ideas, but where the need to save money underpins most decisions. U of T has an international reputation, but must compete to educate Canada's elite, and the world's, by juggling multiple missions: undergraduate and graduate education, Canadian-born and foreign students, research and industry outreach.

He is the university's first president chosen from the social sciences or humanities since Claude Bissell in 1958. And he brings a shift in tone from his frank, no-nonsense predecessor, David Naylor, but not a reversal in course.

Provincial Transportation Minister Glen Murray, whose previous portfolio was overseeing universities, thinks U of T has too often "looked in on itself, but Meric will be more outward-looking." Dr. Gertler is eager to "open up the campus" to maximize its impact on city-building, and wants to create a forum to gather the school's many urban experts at the same table more often so they can "begin to dream up projects" and connect them to "needs outside the university."

Asked to speak out on scandal-plagued Mayor Rob Ford, he is circumspect. The situation "is a concern, of course," as it distracts attention from important city issues, he says, eventually conceding, "I find it difficult to fathom that he hasn't yet resigned." Still, he hopes U of T will host at least one mayoral debate during the current campaign.

And he could prove a valuable asset for a university looking to maximize its increasingly cramped real estate while also mending fences with neighbours. At a December event hosted by CivicAction, he was warmly greeted by City Councillor Adam Vaughan, who represents the ward where U of T's downtown campus is located but has feuded with the university over development plans, including putting artificial turf on its storied back campus field and leasing land for a private student residence tower. Within days, Mr. Vaughan scheduled an hour-long meeting with Dr. Gertler where they brokered a peace.

"One of the risks in a job like this is that you allow yourself to be isolated, protected," Dr. Gertler says, so his schedule is planned, often weeks in advance, to be peripatetic. He gets energized roaming the campus, meeting professors and quizzing students about their experiences.

One day begins at 8:15 a.m. with a speech to professors and ends around 7 p.m with another, when he takes paperwork home with him. He spends his lunch hour meeting student entrepreneurs at U of T's expanding campus startup incubator. Three meetings with senior staff to plan budgets or talk strategy are dotted throughout the day, and between them he takes calls from a government funding agency and from The Canadian Jewish News, answering interview questions on thorny issues such as academic boycotts of Israel.

The volume of demands can be "numbing," especially the constant speech-making, which he calls his "substitute for teaching." Much of the time, Dr. Gertler listens more than he speaks, but not everyone has seen him that way.

As dean of arts and science, he attracted a backlash in 2010 by pushing a contentious budget-cutting plan that included closing U of T's revered Centre for Comparative Literature. The department of East Asian studies faced a similar fate until the plan was altered, and its chair, Thomas Keirstead, recalls Dr. Gertler more for "the delivering of information" than for open consultation.

Yet, Dr. Gertler has changed as a leader since his days as a rookie dean. "You can't get too far out in front of people," he says now, adding, "I was impatient." His comments, no longer his opinion alone, send powerful signals. As a result, he admits, "I'm much more scripted."

In his installation speech on Nov. 7, he outlined three deliberately broad priorities: Leveraging the university's location, scaling up international partnerships, and re-examining – "perhaps even reinventing" – undergraduate education.

Now, "people are doing sort of interesting gymnastics trying to shoehorn their proposals into [my] framework," he says.

Dr. Gertler's detailed vision for U of T is still a work in progress.

But his approach to a new provincial "differentiation" framework – the Ontario's government's bid to save money and boost quality by compelling universities and colleges to find and focus on strengths – could soon give clues about how he intends to position the school. The government hopes to measure everything from graduate employment rates and enrolments in co-op programs to researchers' total publications and citations.

This is the reason Dr. Gertler called the December meeting with senior staff: For a strategy session on U of T's response. The country's most comprehensive university is being asked to specialize more, and while the new formula could prove a financial win for U of T, its long-term impact is unclear.

"If we're going to get any value from Queen's Park, this looks like the only opportunity before us right now," he told staff. "So we have to do well by this exercise. It's as simple as that."

Four months later, "we're down to the short strokes," he says, and though it is too soon to comment in detail, "the rhetoric and the language [from government] looks good." The university highlighted its stature in research and graduate studies, hoping to enhance both through the process. But it must also show it is paying attention to undergraduates, and has had to make quick decisions on how many international students to admit and how widely it can offer small, specialized first-year courses where competition for spaces is strong.

Striking that balance is among Dr. Gertler's biggest challenges. In a breakfast speech late last year, he told new department heads the public perception that undergrads can get lost at U of T "is well justified by the past, and by certain elements of the present." Being research-intensive and accessible at the same time is "a tightrope that we walk."

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