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

Higher education

The University of Toronto's new mayor Add to ...

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.”

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