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How do great universities build great cities?

The "unknown, invisible" but crucial role of U of T students, faculty, staff and alumni

U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs welcomes "an astounding 33,000 visitors annually" to its seminars, conferences, lectures and other public events, says President Meric Gertler (photo by Dominc Ali)

Universities play a key role in building and strengthening cities, helping them connect with the world and reinvent themselves in dynamic ways – and it’s a symbiotic relationship, says award-winning urban theorist and University of Toronto president Meric Gertler.

"A strong university helps build a strong city and the reverse is also true: a strong city helps build a strong university,” Gertler told the sold-out crowd of urban experts, planners, students and activists. The Big City, Big Ideas event was hosted by the Institute on Municipal Finance & Government at the Munk School of Global Affairs on September 18. 

“We need to leverage this relationship to our mutual advantage to advance our shared prosperity.” 

But the crucial role of the university as a city builder is easily overlooked, Gertler said – even in Toronto, where Canada’s top-ranked university fuelled more startups between 2009 and 2012 than any other single North American institution. 

Gertler used the example of alumnus Bill Buxton and U of T’s computer science department – ranked among the top 10 in the world – to illustrate the ways in which U of T’s faculty and the 16,500 students the University graduates each year bring both dynamism and stability to the region and help connect the city to the world. 

Buxton, who graduated with an MSc in computer science from U of T in 1978, is an adjunct professor. Working with U of T colleagues and the company Alias/Wavefront (now part of AutoDesk), Buxton helped lead a revolution in human-computer interfaces and graphics. Along the way, Alias has provided more internships for U of T students than the computer science department can track, and many of its employees, recruited from U of T, have gone on to launch their own startups, Gertler said.

"When Buxton and his colleagues were developing multi-touch screens at U of T, one in four of Ontario’s jobs were in manufacturing, and sectors such as automotive parts and final assembly dominated the Ontario economy,” Gertler said. “Today, the Toronto CMA [census metropolitan area] is the third largest technology hub in North America, comprising some 43 per cent of Canada’s tech sector investment. And firms such as Alias/Autodesk have played a key role.”

Buxton’s unsung accomplishments do more than simply illustrate ways in which U of T connects its urban region to the world and helps its economy adapt and grow, said Gertler. The Buxton story is emblematic of U of T’s role as a city builder in a key way: 

“Hardly anyone here knows it.”

Acknowledging that “some institutions are better at telling their stories than others,” Gertler listed a few crucial ways the unsung success of U of T has fuelled its symbiotic relationship with the region of Toronto.

Rankings & Collaborations
“U of T is indeed among a handful of top universities in the world,” Gertler said, “far and away the top-ranked institution in Canada.”

Statistics show U of T is second only to Harvard in terms of research productivity and impact, Gertler said. That level of research excellence “marks Toronto as an important node in the global flow of ideas,” he said, and ensures that when the world’s top researchers seek partners for collaborations, they turn to U of T.

"In 2012 alone, authors with a U of T affiliation produced over 14,000 publications in scholarly journals and collaborated with colleagues at over 8,000 institutions in hundreds of municipalities around the world.”

With 48 per cent of U of T’s 83,000 students receiving needs-based financial aid and one in six the first in their family to attend university, U of T is not only one of the world’s top research institutions but one of its most accessible, Gertler said. 

“It’s really rare, increasingly rare, to find these two characteristics combined in one place,” Gertler said. “Why does it matter? What does this mean for the GTA, and for Ontario and Canada?

“It underscores how U of T functions as a critically important portal of opportunity for all segments of our diverse population, helping this region leverage more fully the talent that is born here or arrives here from across Canada and around the world.” 

Innovation & Entrepreneurship
“The truth is, you cannot situate a university just anywhere and expect it to trigger the formation of a local innovation cluster,” Gertler said, pointing out that the Toronto region’s success as an emerging innovation and entrepreneurship powerhouse rests on a high quality of life that encourages U of T’s graduates to remain in the city to build their careers and businesses.

With U of T’s academic community recently creating more startups than MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Caltech, Harvard and others, “this is the very essence of resilience and reinvention,” said Gertler. (Read more about entrepreneurship at U of T.)

Integration & Partnerships
Gertler said U of T directly employs more people than Chrysler and GM employ in all of Canada combined. The economic stimulus from the expenditures of the university and its students adds up to $12 billion a year for Ontario – most of that within the GTA. But the stabilizing role of the university goes further, he said, with students learning by working in partnership with community organizations throughout the region.

"Our dentistry students, for example, served 78,000 patient-visits in their clinics last year as part of their training,” Gertler said. “Half of these patients were children or seniors and 87 per cent had no health insurance at all.”

Building on this kind of community outreach and increasing U of T’s partnerships with GTA colleges and universities is a priority, Gertler said.

"Clearly we have some remarkable partnerships and there are many aspects of the status quo that are unknown, invisible or not well appreciated," Gertler said. 

"We have to help everyone understand the value of the remarkable resources we have in this region. And then we all have to work together to make the region – and all of those privileged to work, study and play here – happier, healthier and more prosperous.”