U of T President Meric Gertler on why donor support will remain ‘absolutely critical’

Mar 5, 2024
Photo of president Meric Gertler smiling.

One of the world’s foremost urban theorists and policy practitioners, Meric Gertler became the 16th president of the University of Toronto in 2013 during the Boundless fundraising campaign, which set a record for philanthropy in Canada. During his second term, the university launched an even more ambitious campaign – Defy Gravity – that aims to bring together bright minds from every background and discipline to tackle the most pressing global challenges.

In a Q&A, President Gertler reflected on why fundraising is needed more than ever, how alumni contribute to the university’s mission and what U of T has accomplished during his time at Simcoe Hall.

How has fundraising changed U of T and its three campuses over the course of your time as president?

It’s important to emphasize that, at its most fundamental level, fundraising is primarily a means to help us support and enrich the educational experience of our students and to advance the research mission of the university. Our approach to fundraising has been based on the central role of academic units in identifying and developing our campaign priorities. It’s a bottom-up, consultative approach that’s always been crucial to our planning. It’s reflected in every aspect of the Defy Gravity campaign, including the extremely exciting projects that internally we’re calling Institutional Strategic Initiatives. These are areas where U of T has a demonstrated capacity for global leadership because of the breadth and depth of excellence we encompass across virtually every discipline. This bottom-up approach has really galvanized colleagues across the university. It’s been a great motivator and catalyst, inspiring colleagues across the university to articulate their aspirations and to see how we can realize those aspirations together.

We’re Canada’s leading university and one of the world’s great institutions of higher education and advanced research.

Fundraising has also made it possible for us to build new state-of-the-art spaces for our students, faculty and staff on all three campuses. And it’s enabled us to advance our academic programming, the educational experience and our institutional values, across the board.

We’re Canada’s leading university and one of the world’s great institutions of higher education and advanced research.

Why is private support necessary for a public university like U of T? How does it help students, research and innovation?

Support from our provincial government partners has been declining for more than two decades, under governments of all stripes. As the province’s Blue Ribbon Panel noted in its recent report on the financial sustainability of our post-secondary education system, Ontario provides only 57 per cent of what’s provided in the rest of the country, when it comes to per-student funding for universities. While the government has responded to the Panel’s recommendations with some new funding, our need for additional revenue remains as compelling as ever.

That’s one reason why fundraising will continue to be a key factor in our success. But for U of T, there’s an even more important reason. We’re Canada’s leading university and one of the world’s great institutions of higher education and advanced research. Naturally, we aspire to make major contributions in addressing the most important and urgent issues facing the world in the 21st century. We’ve always stood out among our global peers for our ability to make those contributions with a fraction of their resources. But the league we’re in is increasingly competitive, and all our peers, public as well as private, rely on fundraising as a major source of revenue. To avoid falling behind and to realize our aspirations, donor support will remain absolutely critical. In fact, it’s going to be increasingly necessary in the years ahead.

When the Defy Gravity campaign launched, you said that at U of T, “excellence is inclusive excellence.” How does philanthropy enable U of T to live up to this promise?

U of T’s concept of inclusive excellence captures in two words two equally fundamental elements of our DNA. First of all, our embrace of excellence in research and teaching is the common theme in everything we do. Our success in achieving this objective is reflected consistently in all the global rankings – we’re among the top 10 public universities on the planet, and we’re almost unrivalled in the number of subject areas where we rank among the greatest. At the same time, we take great pride in our longstanding tradition of financial accessibility and the commitment we made to that almost three decades ago. We’ve made good on it, building an endowment for student financial aid that’s now at $1.5 billion, to ensure that no student offered admission to a program at the University of Toronto should be unable to enter or complete the program due to lack of financial means. And other institutions have followed our example, though few have matched the level of needs-based support that we provide. Our commitment to accessibility goes hand in hand with our commitment to welcoming and fostering every other form of diversity among all members of the community, faculty and staff as well as students.

U of T’s concept of inclusive excellence captures in two words two equally fundamental elements of our DNA.

These two commitments are mutually reinforcing, and they distinguish us from our global peer institutions. U of T does excellence at scale better than any other university in the world. But to maintain this distinction, which is fundamental to our values and identity, donor support will remain a top priority. That’s why supporting student success is one of the top priorities of the Defy Gravity campaign. And our donors are totally on board – in fact, this remains one of the most popular categories of giving.

U of T’s concept of inclusive excellence captures in two words two equally fundamental elements of our DNA.

For the first time ever, the Defy Gravity campaign includes an alumni engagement target, and we’re more than halfway there with more than 150,000 newly engaged alumni and over 643,000 unique instances of engagement, from volunteering as mentors to speaking at and attending global events. Why did the university add this goal now, and what impact do alumni have on the university today?

U of T really does defy gravity, when you consider our very high standing in the world and the very low levels of support we receive from our government partners, compared to our international peers. This is due to the incredible commitment and generosity of our alumni, and we see this not only in their financial contributions. Our alumni are also heavily involved in supporting our students, faculty and staff as volunteers – as mentors, advisors, advocates and champions.

For any university, its alumni networks are extremely important in developing opportunities for students in particular. U of T is blessed with a global community of alumni who are world leaders in every field, across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. This is a fundamental element of the wonderful ecosystem of entrepreneurship that’s developed on our three campuses. The huge range of experiential learning opportunities we’re able to provide is another example. U of T grads are opening doors for our students in countless ways, every day. Donor and volunteer support has been a huge factor in all of this, and the new Experiential Learning Commons is a brilliant example.

In fact, our alumni are active participants in every aspect of our academic mission and a crucial component of the gravity-defying machinery that enables us to excel and to keep reaching higher. So we want to build on this strength in a systematic way. That’s why we’ve made alumni engagement one of the top goals of the current campaign. And it’s the reason we’ve made it a major element of the university’s international strategy. Over the past 10 years we’ve established alumni leadership councils in key regions around the world. They’re helping us heighten our profile, forge new partnerships and recruit outstanding students.

At the beginning of your presidency, you named three priorities for the university: leveraging our locations more fully, strengthening international partnerships and reimagining undergraduate education. A decade later, how do you think U of T is faring in these areas?

We’ve boosted our profile as a city-building institution quite significantly. We’ve done this by supporting marquee research initiatives such as the School of Cities. The School has allowed us to bring together expertise from across the university to tackle the challenges faced by our host city-region and urban regions around the globe. It’s so gratifying to see its prominent and ever-rising profile in the public discussion of urban issues, including its work on the pace of downtown recovery in the wake of the pandemic, which has received worldwide attention from major media and policymakers alike.

We’re also “walking the talk” on city-building in other ways. First, we’re elevating the quality of life in the Toronto region through remarkably well-designed new buildings and other projects. These include the new science building at U of T Mississauga, the Harmony Commons student residence at U of T Scarborough and the historic reimagining of the green spaces at the heart of our St. George campus. In every case, these additions to our urban environment aren’t just beautiful. They’re also designed with sustainability as a top priority. That’s enabling us to meet the university’s own plans to be climate-positive no later than 2050 – and hopefully well before. And it’s demonstrating to other large organizations, businesses as well as institutions and governments, that decisive local action in response to the climate crisis really is possible.

On deepening our international partnerships, we’ve made huge strides through the implementation of the university’s international strategic plan. This is the first time in our history that we’ve intentionally developed such a plan. Creating a dedicated international vice-presidential portfolio reflects the importance we place on this aspect of our outlook and mission. This systematic approach is now very well established – in fact, we are now implementing our second five-year plan, after the successful implementation of the original plan.

Our alumni are active participants in every aspect of our academic mission and a crucial component of the gravity-defying machinery that enables us to excel and to keep reaching higher.

I mentioned one key element already – cultivating the engagement of our global alumni community. The plan includes several other ambitious goals, one of which is to encourage all our undergraduate students to take advantage of an international experience during their time at U of T. We’ve made huge strides in increasing the proportion who’ve been able to do that. We’re also constantly working to expand these opportunities for our students to broaden their horizons through innovative strategic partnerships around the world. Our new research centre in Mumbai, which we opened in partnership with Tata Trusts and Social Alpha, is a great example, focused on entrepreneurship and urban development. The Africa Higher Education Health Collaborative is another very exciting initiative. It’s a partnership between U of T, leading African universities and the Mastercard Foundation, a 10-year initiative to enhance primary health care workforce education, entrepreneurship and innovation across Africa.

Our alumni are active participants in every aspect of our academic mission and a crucial component of the gravity-defying machinery that enables us to excel and to keep reaching higher.

Regarding the priority of reimagining undergraduate education, I’ve mentioned the progress we’ve made in encouraging our students to gain international experience. I’ve also mentioned the rise of experiential learning as a very significant part of a U of T education. Experiential learning is about gaining practical knowledge in real-world settings, as a complement to what students learn in the classroom. It comes in many forms, and many units across the university are constantly opening new doors to such opportunities.

When it comes to the dramatic increase in entrepreneurship activity on our campuses, it’s wonderful to see how many students are availing themselves of opportunities to start a company or work for a startup connected to the university. The opening of phase one of the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Campus reflects this development and will amplify it tremendously in the years to come.

Finally, let me mention the incredible work by our faculty and staff in transforming teaching and learning. The pandemic greatly accelerated this transformation, which was already underway, with our faculty exploring the potential of the “inverted classroom,” among other things. Digital teaching tools, hybrid learning models and the “global classroom” are now increasingly widespread. This is helping ensure that we’re responding effectively to students’ evolving needs. It’s also enabling us to reach new student markets farther afield – students who might otherwise face accessibility barriers of various kinds. Most recently, like all universities, we’re focusing on the advent of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT as potentially transformative innovations.