By David Naylor
President, University of Toronto
Those of us who work at the University of Toronto are often struck by a paradox. U of T’s academic standing is better appreciated outside of Canada than inside this vast and sometimes fractious federation. Like the Toronto region itself, U of T has become one of Canada’s key gateways to the world. And like U of T, the Toronto region has surprising multi-sectoral strengths that are little known to most Canadians.
Today, our three campuses welcome students from across Canada and scores of other countries to a vibrant and strikingly diverse megalopolis. They include thousands whose parents are first-generation Canadians and more than 9,000 students who have come direct to the Toronto region from all parts of the globe.
In time they will join our alumni community, about 500,000 graduates in more than 170 countries, with concentrations in unexpected places from Hollywood to Hong Kong. There is no continent nor walk of life where Toronto alumni are not in leadership roles.
This global footprint is seen also in the University’s research impact. Professors at the U of T developed insulin and the electron microscope, discovered cosmic black holes and stem cells, reinvented literary criticism, and theorized modern media and the digital age.
Our tradition of responding to global challenges continues today, with Toronto spawning innovations such as earthquake-resistant building materials, micronutrients for malnourished children, and nanoengineered paint to capture solar energy more efficiently. A simple statistic says it all. Today, in total research output, the top two universities in the world, in order, are Harvard and Toronto.
For students, our research strength translates most immediately into strong teaching and mentorship in our graduate and professional programmes. But our faculty members also have a remarkable commitment to undergraduate education.
Among our full-time staff who have won major research distinctions, more than 90 per cent are teaching undergraduates. The U of T community further supports undergraduate education with a range of special first-year programmes, small-group learning arrangements, seminar courses as a counterpoint to large classes in introductory subjects, and research opportunities.
Beyond this, the University of Toronto is one of the very few institutions in the world with the size or the breadth and depth of excellence to make a real difference in addressing complex, global challenges, such as urbanization or healthier human development. This creates a wealth of learning opportunities for our students. It helps them form the creative and critical thinking skills that will enable them to succeed and to make a difference, no matter where they live and work.
U of T students today can choose among three campuses. Our newer and smaller east and west campuses offer students academic excellence, a wonderful sense of community, and 200 hectares of beautiful parklands. Our original campus lies in the heart of downtown Toronto’s Discovery District, surrounded by major academic hospitals, research institutes and the massive MaRS innovation centre. And on all three campuses, our students take part in a vibrant social, cultural and athletic scene.
Like most public universities, we struggle with funding pressures. We cannot offer the deluxe accommodation and silver-spoon attention accorded students at some private universities in the United States. What we do offer is accessible excellence based on merit, a huge range of academic options, and membership in one of the world’s greatest communities of scholarship and learning.
This piece appeared as part of an Information Feature on Academic Excellence in the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, June 26, 2012.