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Big-city universities examine their relationship to the cities in which they reside

A strong university helps build a strong city and vice versa, says U of T’s Meric Gertler.


Universities and the cities where they reside have a symbiotic relationship, each deriving benefits from the other, according to Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto. “A strong university helps build a strong city and a strong city helps build a strong university,” Dr. Gertler told a panel held at U of T.

The panel was part of a two-day symposium held May 11 and 12 that explored the relationship between major research-intensive universities in the Americas and the cities and communities in which they are situated. Participants included Dr. Gertler, Marco Antonio Zago, president of the University of São Paulo in Brazil, Gabriel Capitelli, secretary of international relations at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina, and Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago.

The city of Toronto is an important asset when it comes to recruiting faculty and students from abroad, said Dr. Gertler, a renowned urban theorist. On the other hand, the university promotes economic prosperity and is one of the city’s major employers. It also works in partnership with community groups to bring volunteer medical care to the homeless and to new immigrants, and helps newcomers obtain recognition of their foreign credentials.

Still, there are challenges, Dr. Gertler acknowledged, including what he called a legacy “of mutual indifference” between Toronto and U of T. In addition, U of T has been criticized – “fairly in my view,” he said – for being focused more on global relationships, reputation and rankings than on its community partners. The city, for its part, appears to lack awareness about the role that higher education institutions play in advancing the city’s prosperity. This is compounded because the two sides seem unable to work together to pursue common goals and interests as they have done in other countries, he added.

Dr. Gertler said he plans to appoint a presidential adviser on urban initiatives to spearhead city-building undertakings and make it easier for individuals and community organizations to find experts in the university. He also has been meeting quarterly with the presidents of York University, Ryerson University and OCAD University. The four institutions are working together to sponsor joint research projects; one of these looks at their students’ daily travel patterns to better inform public transportation decisions.

Meanwhile, Dr. Zimmer said the location of the University of Chicago in the city’s troubled South Side presents “not only a challenge for the university but also an obligation.” The school, a private institution, has launched several projects in recent years to help the community and its largely African-American residents. Among other initiatives, its Urban Education Institute runs four charter schools for students from low-income families. The goal is for every entering student to enrol and complete a four-year college program. The institute also conducts research on K-12 education and shares the data with public schools throughout the country.

U of Chicago runs five research labs that conduct evidence-based analysis of public policy measures aimed at tackling urban problems. One of the labs gained national attention for evaluating a program aimed at reducing violence among young men. It was subsequently adopted by President Obama as part of his “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. (U of Chicago was recently chosen to be the future site of the Barack Obama Presidential Center.)

The university partnered with community organizations and the city on these initiatives, which are led by the university’s vice-president for civic engagement. They are funded largely by philanthropic organizations but they also require university investment and commitment, he said.

Dr. Zago, president of the University of São Paulo, said one of his institution’s most pressing challenges is providing access to students from low-income families. The majority of students now admitted to USP are from private schools and typically from high-income backgrounds. The university has had some success in addressing this issue, he said.

The symposium, “Cities of Learning: The University in the Americas,” was held in the run-up to the 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games, to be held in Toronto in July and August. Several of the athletic events will take place at the region’s universities including York, Ryerson, U of T, and U of T Scarborough.

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