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University of Toronto president Meric Gertler tours the neighbourhood that the University of Toronto is merging into.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

To understand Meric Gertler, the president of the University of Toronto, it is instructive to examine how he decided to become involved in one of the most important and heated debates to ever engulf the city of Toronto: the question of whether police officers have the right to randomly stop people not associated with a crime.

"I get approached to sign petitions all the time, and mostly I don't," Dr. Gertler recalled recently over a lunch of pad Thai and cold rolls at a restaurant in Scarborough.

But when he was asked last year to sign a petition to Mayor John Tory and Police Chief Mark Saunders demanding a stop to the practice of "carding," he immediately wanted to say yes. Students on the university's three campuses had told him frequently enough that they had been carded themselves.

"It just seemed to be a practice that could not be justified," he said.

Yet the globally renowned economic geographer with a PhD from Harvard and hundreds of publications to his name could not act on instinct alone.

Before signing the petition, he turned to professors at U of T, from criminology to law.

"I told them I want to know that this decision is not just based on emotion, but reason and evidence – so help me with this. They all said, 'We can't support it based on the evidence.'" So he signed.

U of T has often been perceived as more of a refuge from the city it inhabits rather than its public square; it is seen as protected, even isolated from the hubbub and mess of urban life. In the Gertler era, however, bold gestures are changing that perception. Raised in a family that cared passionately about cities and their impact – his father, Leonard, was an urban and regional planner and adviser to multiple levels of government – the president believes that his school's mission must include serving and changing the city.

Direct political intervention is rare. More often, under Dr. Gertler, the university provides expertise, research and models of how to make the city better. It's a gentle prod, but it's persistent.

The examples of outreach are plentiful: U of T participated in a survey of student transportation in the GTA; it held a competition to redesign and pedestrianize the central part of the downtown campus; its faculty deliver courses in Regent Park, and it is increasingly active in biotech entrepreneurship and startups.

"The more we can do to make this a livable place, the more we succeed on the global stage," Dr. Gertler said.

David Wolfe, a political science professor who worked with Dr. Gertler on research on regional innovation for many years, argues U of T's three campuses have long been active in their neighbourhoods.

"Meric being president is bringing more general recognition of what the university has to offer and how it contributes," he says. "I think the recognition is overdue."

Working with Dr. Gertler was "a dream," Dr. Wolfe said. "He's very well-organized. One thing many have observed about him is that he never loses his cool; he's collected under any circumstances."

In previous interviews, Dr. Gertler has said that, in 2010, when he was dean of arts and science, a high-profile conflict around a proposal to roll several language and literature departments into a new, larger department taught him to "consult, consult, consult."

Even those who have been skeptical about the university say they have noticed a change in tone and substance.

"It is an era of cordiality," said Sue Dexter, the university liaison for the Harbord Village Residents' Association.

Ms. Dexter has been involved in frequent discussions with the university about its real estate developments on the downtown St. George campus, often at loggerheads. This year, she asked to speak to senior administrators about the institution's plan to redevelop University of Toronto Schools at the corner of Bloor and Huron.

Changes were made as a result of her group's suggestions.

"To be at the business board was unheard of," Ms. Dexter said. "But to be treated with respect … that was a very unusual thing. In the old days we would have been at war and yelling at each other," she said.

She argues that the closer U of T works with its neighbourhoods, the more clearly they will see each other's point of view. "We would like them to be more inspired in how communities work together," she said. "And we will be there as their partners."

Universities around the world have realized they need their regions if they are to survive, says Mamdouh Shoukri, the president of York University. ("We collaborate more than compete," he said of his relationship with U of T.)

"We can't afford to have knowledge sitting on the shelf," Dr. Shoukri said. "We need to test out our knowledge and understand our communities."

One of Dr. Gertler's main frustrations is that people in the city are still uncertain, even skeptical, of what U of T does.

"People don't know how good we are and in which area," he said.

"We are ranked 10th in the world for the employability of our graduates, according to the Times Higher Education, we have gone up steadily. … It does not seem to conform with the image that people have of this place, that we are focused mostly on research, and that somehow the fate of our graduates is an afterthought," he said.

How those students will fare in the future is something that preoccupies the school. U of T researchers participated in a study on how students at the four universities in the GTA get around the region because the university wanted to understand the impact of long commutes on students' lives and education.

The research found a third of students were travelling over two hours to get to campus. Many are choosing courses based on how long they will have to spend commuting.

"We suspected that was happening. Now we have proof," Dr. Gertler said.

He would like municipal and regional transportation planners to use the data when they make decisions about where to expand the system. Many of the discussions with the city happen formally – with the mayor, and increasingly, with chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat. Where it's heading remains to be seen.

Away from the office, the U of T president does what everyone else in Toronto does on their time off: checks out new places to eat and posts them on Instagram.

Kub Khao, the restaurant where we are having lunch, was his pick, a discovery he made with his wife on a Friday night drive to the family's cottage in Bancroft. The pit stops began as a way to beat traffic out of the city and have developed into a ritual.

His engagement with the city is long and personal: His father authored a landmark study of the Niagara Escarpment that led to the region's protection. Leonard Gertler also founded the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Waterloo University.

"We always debated," Dr. Gertler recalled. "My dad came out of an era when the public sector was seen as the primary source of solutions. … Now we tend to think in terms of public and private, civic organizations: How can they work together? And what can they achieve through that kind of collaboration?" he said.

One of his children is continuing the family's urban preoccupation. His son's M.A. thesis in architecture focused on how cities deal with dead bodies.

Dr. Gertler is optimistic about Toronto's future. Even as income polarization has grown, it has not been as sharp as that of other cities with exponential increases in wealth and income.

"For a city of this size, Toronto has few neighbourhoods of serious economic deprivation," he said. "Things have gotten worse, but at a pace that has moderated."

Optimism is a character trait, colleagues note in interviews. It is something he inherited from his artist mother, Anita, although he jokes that the artistic genes skipped a generation. (His son is a photographer and artist as well.)

When his mother arrived in Canada, it was as a young woman who had survived the Holocaust.

"She was someone who was clearly revelling in life and encouraged us to do the same," he said. "As an artist, she was driven by curiosity."

He remains convinced that scholarship, ideas, evidence can help solve most of Toronto's issues. At a time of populism and skepticism toward experts, that faith seems almost idealistic.

For example, one of the major projects he hopes to see succeed is a new campus-based institute for the study of cities.

"It would possibly include a school for new mayors," he said, modelled in part on the summer school for new university presidents Dr. Gertler attended at Harvard the summer before he took over the president's job.

He knows that postsecondary schooling in general has received a jaundiced eye in the existing environment of tough competition for good, permanent jobs and persistent questioning about the value of a liberal arts degree in particular. He talks about the solutions U of T has developed to address the problem, from a record of a student's extracurricular activities that they can show a prospective employer, to teaching students how to talk about the skills they acquired as they were learning German or doing philosophy.

If it is to succeed in playing all these roles – in the city, in students' lives, in the world – U of T needs more money, he says. Ontario has promised to change how it funds universities to recognize different needs among the province's institutions. U of T argues that its research heft deserves recognition.

"We appreciate the position the government is in, provincially," he said. But government funding "is a continuous source of frustration."

It's a gentle prod, but it's persistent.

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