A New President and a New University: Meric Gertler Assumes University Leadership

The University of Toronto has a new captain to helm the ship, to borrow from outgoing president David Naylor’s penchant for nautical narratives. Incoming president Meric Gertler recently began his first of possibly two five-year terms as the university’s 16th president.

Gertler Photo

The University Has a New President

Meric Gertler, a professor of geography, is the first Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science to become president in the university’s modern era. Previously, professional faculty deans would generally ascend to Simcoe Hall, where they would hold the presidency and provostship in a delicate power balance, akin to cardinals politicking for the papacy.

For instance, outgoing president David Naylor was formerly Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and another long-time president, Robert Prichard, was Dean of the Faculty of Law. University presidents before then were either brought in from abroad in the early days of establishment or rose from the principalship of University College, the de facto Faculty of Arts during the university’s middle years of reorganizations. However, times have since changed and the university’s current goals are shifting towards undergraduate education once again, with Gertler right in the middle of it.

“Clearly if you look at the history of the university, it is remarkable that a Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science has not been President before now,” said Gertler. “But I will say that it is excellent training as the Faculty of Arts and Science is large and diverse; there are 29 departments, 10 to 11 schools and divisions, and a large number of smaller centres and institutes as well as the colleges. In its own way it is a microcosm of the university. It mirrors the strengths of the university. It is also home to a growing number of professional programs like the university itself.”

He has taken over during an exciting time of change. U of T is amid a massive construction boom along with the city around it, adding new buildings and renovating existing ones for sports, commerce, engineering, law, architecture, and more. Recently completed projects also include business, government, and diplomacy to name a few. Meanwhile the satellite campuses are finishing a frenzied construction spree to increase space. However, as an urban geographer would know, a city as well as a university is much more than its buildings.

As president, Gertler wants to further the university’s core mission to excel in research and teaching. “I suggested we do that by promoting three priorities. The first is leveraging our location in this region more effectively. The second is to strengthen and deepen international partnerships. Finally, the third is the great work that has been done in advancing undergraduate education and reinventing that project.”

In the contemporary world of metrics, the modern day equivalent of reputation, he has also spent much time stressing the multitudinous rankings in which U of T has seen its stature rise globally. It is now in league with top American, British, and Australian institutions.

However, he also knows that U of T has much work to do when it comes to ranking of student experience. U of T along with other large universities in major cities like UBC, McGill and York, have consistently ranked at the bottom of the National Survey of Student Experience (NSSE). Hence why he wants to work his way from the bottom up, starting with arts and science.

Fixing Undergraduate Education

Long known as a research powerhouse, Gertler wants people to see U of T as an undergraduate school as well.

“That is one of the reasons why reinventing undergraduate education was such a priority for me [as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science]. It is something that comes very naturally to me because I have spent quite some time – five years – very seized with this question.”

While U of T takes the top graduate and professional students according to Ontarian higher education statistics, it currently trails closely behind Queen’s University when it comes to undergraduate admissions. Gertler wants to change that. With U of T’s new college “One” programs as well as more emphasis on small groups, Gertler remarked that he has tried to address the challenge of having one of the highest student-to-instructor ratios. Already, he says, it is paying dividends. Long known for being quite competitive and expansive, Gertler says students are connecting with each other within the large community that is U of T undergrad. He hopes that those experiences will slowly be passed along by word of mouth, which he has already heard about from students and parents, and make their way to publications such as Maclean’s University Ranking and The Globe and Mail’s University Report. Though, U of T’s size will still remain a major issue to be resolved.

Revising the Master Plan

As for U of T’s future, plans set years prior may be seeing some revision. Back in 2007, a policy discussion that culminated in a proposal titled Towards 2030 called for major changes to the university’s business model. Approved by the Governing Council in 2008, it called for reducing the undergraduate population on the Saint George campus while growing graduate enrollment and further focusing on professional faculties. Meanwhile, the university would slowly let its satellite campuses – Mississauga and Scarborough – grow more independent into what Naylor in late 2013 called “mid-sized comprehensive universities with a real regional impact”.

The reasons for the university to alter its course from constant expansion are understandable in context. Since WWII, the population of university-age students who qualify to attend has constantly increased. However, statistics show that the number of high school seniors will peak around 2013-2014, with the percentage of students in post-secondary education already at a high that would be difficult to exceed given the current high school graduation rate. As a result, to compete in the newly saturated market, U of T had to decide whether it would continue to grow by taking marketshare from other institutions, or raise tuition. From the choices the university has made, it appears as though it chose the latter in its future plans.

The carefully written and largely non committal proposal required many economic factors to change for the proposal to be executed. At the time, it was widely believed that the plan would require steep increases in undergraduate tuition accompanied by class size reductions. U of T would effectively adopt the private Ivy League model of selective and high-priced education. It was imagined in a median case scenario that the first-entry undergraduate program would admit about 2000 to 3000 students similar to many top American universities, though such figures may have been a bit more aspirational than realistic, according to Gertler.

Since then the university’s professional schools have largely finished their own transformation towards becoming privately-funded through higher tuition fees due to laxer regulation. The university also introduced new professional programs grown out of the Faculty of Arts and Science while expanding existing ones as new business opportunities such as in government, diplomacy, finance, industrial relations, and childhood education. Meanwhile, as Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, Gertler introduced the “program fee” or “flat fee” model that would allow for future tuition increases to be more easily budgeted.

While Gertler explained that much has remain unchanged, obstacles have slowed down further development on the undergraduate front. “The general philosophy of 2030 is definitely in play. What the presidential search committee found when they were preparing to do the consulting process across the entire university was that there is a high level of alignment around the broad goals that 2030 laid out. I believe the previous provostial exercise that generated the Year from 2012 review reaffirmed the institution-wide 2030 principles that were accentuating our strengths in research and graduate education, leveraging that identity to provide an undergraduate identity that is distinctive from other universities, among other things.”

To understand the decisions being made in Simcoe Hall, U of T’s seat of power, one must delve into U of T’s financials. The university now works on a new budget model whereby each faculty is responsible for its own finances. Additionally, a transfer mechanism known as the University Fund has allowed the much larger first-entry programs (Arts and Science on the Saint George campus and the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses) to provide up to 15% of their budgets to smaller faculties, essentially subsidizing graduate and professional units to benefit the university. Meanwhile those receiving divisions acquire up to 40% of their budgets from those funds, such as in cases of the Faculties of Law and Music.

In order to move away from the current model of using masses of undergraduates to subsidize the rest of the university including the research and graduate divisions of the Faculty of Arts and Science, U of T undergraduate programs had to follow their professional school brethren in the march to higher tuition. At about $15 000 per year, engineering and commerce have led the pack in tuition fee increases. However, as Gertler explained, “Tuition fees for domestic students are very tightly regulated by the provincial government.” Additionally, government grants per student have not risen, leaving Ontario’s higher education system with an emphasis on quantity.

“The less favorable news from the 2030 futures is that it was difficult for us to shrink our undergraduate enrollments in the face of a grant per student that was not growing,” Gertler said. “The basic income units [a method the government uses to calculate funding] have been fixed for a long time. So, its purchasing value has been declining over time. So, it is difficult to shrink undergraduate enrollments as was envisioned in that document under those economically unfavorable conditions. That has been one of the constraints.”

One note that should be made is that the university’s definition of inflation is that of higher education not consumer prices. So while government grants per student have recently kept up with consumer prices, it has fallen behind the higher academic costs largely associated with increasing salaries. These salaries are what helped attract top academics to U of T, and hence put the school on the world stage, according to Gertler.

A Shift to Internationalization

For now, there is a shift towards using international students to balance the budgets as the university slowly moves forward with its ultimate plans.

“There is more leeway for how universities set tuition fees for international students. One thing that we discovered was that our international enrollments at the institutional level were smaller relative to the size of the university when compared to peer institutions across Canada and the world. So there was scope to grow international enrollments. It is a way of widening a pool that we draw from and getting great students but also enriching the experience for all students here.”

Domestic undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts and Science currently pay about $7,000 with about $5,000 more paid by the government, totaling about $12,000 dollars per student per year. Meanwhile their international counterparts pay about $35,000 per year without additional government funding.

As for a target, Gertler said that, “We have been converging on about 20% [international intake] on the undergraduate level this year across the university. It is higher in some faculties such as engineering where it is more like 25%. Engineering has been ahead of arts and science in this matter over the past few years.”

Preliminary figures from January 2014 for the whole university show an intake of about 25% international students for the 2013-2014 school year as of November 2013. On a divisional level, some units reported over 33% international intake in 2012 including engineering and architecture, with arts and science around 25% and the satellite campuses a bit lower at roughly 20%.

During the law school’s rise in tuition fees under Ronald Daniels, Dean of the Faculty of Law from 1995 to 2005, international students who pay significantly more than domestic students saw their numbers rise significantly. Due to political pressures, the law school could not increase fees in one giant jump as initially proposed. As a result completely unregulated international fees were used to help accelerate the process. International enrollment, initially negligible, peaked around 25% in 2008 before dropping down to about 10% for 2012, the last year university statistics were available on a divisional basis. At the same time the difference between domestic (about $30,000 in tuition and $5,000 dollars from government grants, for a $35,000 total) and international (about $40,000) revenue streams had lessened as domestic tuition had increased. This decreased the economic incentive to recruit internationally, while presumably increasing prestige by taking the best domestic applicants.

It remains to be seen whether undergraduate international enrollment will follow the law school’s trend and decline if undergraduate tuition rises further. Incidentally, the same day I spoke with Gertler, the Conservative federal government announced funding to roughly double the 250,000 current international students in Canada. Amit Chakma, President of Western University, and currently chair of U15, a lobby group for research-intensive Canadian universities, had been a proponent of the move, having previously been chair of the government’s international education advisory panel.

However, immediately afterwards some university leaders questioned whether there would be space for domestic Canadian students (whose parents still significantly fund the system) and if the Ontarian and Canadian governments would fulfill their promises for spaces.

On this tack, Gertler is also interested in the model of London Higher, a consortium of London-based British universities, which promotes British education to the world. Universities such as the colleges of the de-federated University of London have lately looked abroad to buoy their fortunes with some consisting of 40 to 80% international students. Following his analogs across the pond, Gertler recently approached other Toronto-based Canadian universities about forming an equivalent here. No announcement has been made yet regarding a “Toronto Higher”.

Is This The Desired Goal?

Many have criticized U of T for moving towards privately-funded education and adopting the trappings of the Ivy League including high tuition and large donations. Canadian universities have generally been seen as equal and egalitarian, as Malcolm Gladwell put it, when describing Canada’s ethos regarding education to Americans.

Critics have said that the high tuition model only includes those who can afford higher education and not those who are the best students and hence most deserving. However, others have contended that any qualified student will be able to attend as per the university’s policy.

During his presidency, Naylor, a proponent of the system dubbed the “High Tuition-High Aid” (“HT-HA”) model, explained in late 2013 that the university would “tax the tuitions, and redistribute the money like progressive taxation in a democracy to reduce tuitions paid by students from lower income families,” thereby alleviating what many considered barriers to higher education. Meanwhile the model would also reduce what a government report prepared by Bob Rae (commonly called the Rae Report) described as a subsidy to what was seen as a the better off demographic who attend and have attended university.

On the other hand, U of T has largely received all of its capital from the people via the government including its campus, most of its buildings, and continued teaching and research funding, leading many to see this as a privatization of public funds. Though such issues enter the realm of provincial politics, a contentious area for any public institution.

There are also other considerations, such as job prospects that have not been analyzed in detail. The move may present benefits for future U of T undergrads who will be part of a much smaller cohort size. Because of the exceptionally high number of students graduating from U of T, competition within the undergraduate school has become renowned and employment on graduation difficult to find. This has been leading to future schooling for many due to labor supply imbalances. As such, smaller graduating classes for such a prominent university could aid graduates in terms of jobs and prestige akin to the top schools in America.

At the same time, rising student debt has begun to make many re-think whether such an education is worth it. With fees continually increasing at about 5 to 8% per year, many programs are on the verge of broaching $50,000 per year, leading many to calculate whether the return on investment is worth it. Such issues may require U of T and other high tuition schools to adjust their strategies accordingly, though for now demand continues to grow.

Even students at the Faculty of Law have been upset with the current trend of the 2030 business model, despite the school’s top ranking in Maclean’s magazine and the Faculty’s comparatively high employment statistics.

Last year, law students organized a protest that saw about two-thirds of the class sign a petition to stop ever-increasing tuition. Students also launched a detailed investigation of how the funds were spent on salaries. However, as of the time of publication, the law school has not committed to any changes in its tuition policy.

The University of Toronto Student Union has also largely been unable to mount any sort of objection, besides annual tuition marches.

At the same time, the Province of Ontario, which has been long aware of the plans, has been noncommittal either way. It continues to regulate universities through specific funding and tuition frameworks that allow for significant run arounds, which can lead to undesirable outcomes and externalities from their point of view.

What the Future Holds

Back in 2010 Naylor highlighted the growing independence of U of T when he called it a “publicly-assisted not-for-profit corporation.” Since its first charter in 1827, then known as the University of King’s College at York, Upper Canada, it has moved further from political control. Initially under the aegis of the Church of England until 1849 when it was secularized, to 1906 when it gained institutional autonomy from political interference with a new bicameral senate and board of governors (which became a standard model across Canada), to most recently in 1971 when it threw out the standard model it pioneered and took on a new unicameral university council which no longer reported to the government.

Locally, political changes may also be in the winds. With a provincial election widely expected for this spring in Ontario, policy changes may come quickly. While the governing Liberals have implemented and are proposing new tuition caps and restrictions on flat fees, the opposition Conservatives have proposed that some “research-intensive” universities be completely unregulated, allowing them to set tuition fees as they see fit. Neither plan is concrete. With a slate of recent provincial elections and a current minority government in Ontario, there is uncertainty at hand.

Gertler is hopeful that within one year, an election will mitigate many of the currently proposed regulations.

“That [university] regulation seems to be growing ever tighter with each passing year, especially as the government provides less of our budget,” said Gertler, whose corporate style of referring to business cases and new markets stands in contrast to Naylor’s bureaucratic leadership.

Only time will tell where the winds will blow and which direction the University of Toronto will take to adapt to the current regulatory and competitive commercial environment.

Sitting in the Office of the President on the second floor of Simcoe Hall, in the center of Downtown Toronto, Gertler is right at home, a geographer at heart, in the heart of the city.

Disclosure: Kent Kuran is a former Governor of the University of Toronto.

Thanks to Xuelun Liang for assisting with this article.