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The University of Toronto is big. Can it be nimble?

U of T president Meric Gertler has plans to work closely with other urban universities around the world.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

(Part II in a series. Read Part I here.)

Meric Gertler's first trip abroad as the University of Toronto's new president, just weeks into the job, was an eight-day trip to China, where keen students asked him a key question more than once: "Do your best professors really teach undergraduates?"

His visits with senior Chinese government officials in late November, as well as students at a school he likened to prestigious Toronto preparatory school UTS "on steroids," showed Dr. Gertler that China's best students hoping to go abroad for a university education are demanding a broader, better experience – a host of questions about liberal arts learning caught him off guard. But it signals that U of T's global clout may hinge on whether it can enrich experiences at home for all its students.

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The U of T has nearly doubled enrolments from abroad to more than 12,600 in the last five years.

Many students, foreign and domestic, still find its size and stature alienating, and some want the university to reach out more to help communities around its three campuses that need its expertise. The U of T name is established around the world, aided by consistent top-20 scores in global tables – the lone Canadian school to rank so highly.

But if Dr. Gertler's experience in China is any indication, rankings alone may not be enough to lure the best talent in the years to come.

For one week in early December, The Globe and Mail shadowed Dr. Gertler as he navigated U of T's vast enterprise. He is entering a decisive period where he must slay a $28.5-million annual structural deficit just as Ontario's government introduces a "differentiation" mandate pushing schools to refocus their strengths.

To sustain its standing, U of T must show that a research leader can also excel at nurturing undergrads and the city around it.

One of three broad priorities in Dr. Gertler's installation speech was "re-examining and perhaps even reinventing undergraduate education," and he expects that thrust to come first from the school's deans. But another is to "leverage our location" in a diverse city, expanding the university's reach.

Dr. Gertler is a renowned urban scholar who has spent decades studying how prosperity clusters in cities. He has ambitions to work more closely with universities in major urban centres, and expects partnerships with schools like the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil and the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay "will be gathering momentum" this year.

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U of T is, of course, a dominant presence in Toronto's landscape. The latest in a series of ambitious development plans are now in the works for the downtown St. George campus's west end, including a new student residence tower on Spadina Avenue and revamped university housing nearby. Disputes over other developments on and around campus opened a rift between the university and its vocal Annex neighbours last year, but Dr. Gertler and his deputies have been mending fences. The discussions "have really gone much better lately," he says.

Yet as the city's suburban ranks have swelled, a growing number of the university's recruits never study at the storied downtown campus, which increasingly focuses on graduate studies and research. Upwards of 90 per cent of the university's enrolment growth planned for the coming years will be at its suburban hubs in Scarborough and Mississauga, with growing demand from municipalities such as Milton and Brampton.

Toronto families have long held a U of T degree as a marker of success, but since Dr. Gertler took over, one of the most significant shifts U of T Mississauga principal Deep Saini has noticed is a greater emphasis on "connecting with the place where a university resides."

"In some ways, I can claim that we have taught that lesson to the university," said Dr. Saini, whose campus defines itself by catering to the western GTA. He says its unwritten motto is "international prominence and impact through local relevance."

With their expanding undergraduate ranks, the "East and West" campuses are key to combatting U of T's lingering reputation as an impersonal behemoth. The Mississauga campus pitch is that it offers "a smaller learning community, more personal attention, away from the distractions of downtown," Dr. Saini said.

The appeal of that promise is obvious. Last month, fourth-year psychology student David Fishbayn set up poster boards on campus inviting students to write short, anonymous answers to the question, "How does U of T make you feel?" then posted many of the 187 responses to Facebook. Some wrote "proud," "encouraged" and "fortunate," but "lonely," "sad" and "stressed" were common as well.

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"The undergraduate experience [at U of T] can be very alienating," Mr. Fishbayn said.

Dr. Gertler must tackle these many issues while fighting a deficit, and knowing the province is not likely to offer more financial help. Provincial funding increases have slowed to a crawl, and the Ontario government lowered caps on tuition fee hikes last year. The university is hunting for savings in every dusty corner: Using cold outdoor air to chill the university's data centre saves $291,000 a year, for example, as part of a drive to save $50-million on operations over six years.

U of T's current $2-billion campaign – the most ambitious ever by a Canadian university – is nearly three quarters of the way to its goal, bringing in $100-million every six months. But there is still a need for new revenues, as academic programs will undoubtedly feel the squeeze as well.

International students are one possible source, and in December, senior U of T staff debated various scenarios for hiking foreign enrolments in arts and science.

The most drastic one would have recruited 29 per cent of the faculty's incoming class from abroad, but it was swiftly scrapped, partly over fears that student supports couldn't keep up.

"Those students have to have a great experience," Dr. Gertler told senior staff. "If they don't, then we are shooting ourselves in the foot very quickly."

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