U of T President, Meric Gertler. Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky.

On the eve of the Black History Month Opening Ceremony, we spoke with President Gertler about the role of education in fighting social and racial discrimination.

President Gertler will join students, academics and thinkers at tomorrow’s MLK Was Here event, which reflects on and explores the words and life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You have been to Hart House many times before, but you are now addressing audiences here as president of the University of Toronto. Can you tell us more about your connection to the House? 

I can tell you that Hart House was probably the first place where I connected with the University of Toronto. I was nine or ten years old when I  visited Hart House and swam in the pool and thought it was this most incredible building that represented the past and the world of education in a way that I hadn’t encountered before. I’ve been there quite a lot since then, and in my early years as a faculty member, I have always connected with Hart House as the one place on the St. George Campus that really brings together the academic and non-academic missions of the university in physical surroundings that are so uplifting and beautiful.

As president of one of the largest universities in North America, what do you see as education’s role in re-imagining the world and pushing the agenda for peace and justice? 

I can’t think of anything more fundamental in terms of a role for university education than providing the conditions and context for examining and addressing the most pressing issues of the day. In the few months since I’ve been president, I’ve talked a lot about how important it is to rethink the role that U of T plays in providing a place for these conversations, for our students, faculty and staff, and of course for the community.

I also think that it’s important for universities to make sure that we are teaching not only skills to our students; but also the ability to be critical consumers of knowledge, creative thinkers and problem-solvers, and to have a solid grounding in difficult and moral questions.

If we can achieve all of that, we would be going a long way towards ensuring that University of Toronto graduates are well placed to contribute to discussions around equity and other topics.

As a footnote I would add, if we can’t discuss difficult issues in a university setting, I don’t know where we can. A university campus should be a place where the most difficult issues are discussed and debated in a civil and fair way. It’s important for us to uphold principles that allow that to happen, and I feel this university does an excellent job in that regard.

Dr. King said at the Massey Lecture, “Deep in our history of struggle for freedom, Canada was the north star.” In terms of fighting social and racial discrimination, do you believe Canada’s most renowned university can be seen as a star? Is there room for improvement? 

(LAUGHS). I think we have excellent values and terrific policies with regard to equity and social justice, which are translated into daily practices in the way in which we interact with one another—our students, our staff and our faculty.

In many ways, it reflects the city that we are in. Toronto is a remarkable city. It is one of the most, if not the most diverse city on the planet. It is also a place where people get along with one another in remarkably harmonious ways. We take this for granted because we’ve experienced it here for a long time, but those of us who have travelled know it’s a very special quality. And I have to believe that that kind of ethos is reproduced here inside our university. We are an institution with three campuses in the middle of this great region, and when you look at our student body, you see a social composition that mirrors that of the city around us. So I think this spirit of social harmony and peaceful coexistence and due regard for one’s colleagues whom you see in the city is present here inside the university as well.

Having said that, I do think we still face an array of challenges. We know for example that we have more work to do to ensure that our staff is as diverse as the student body and the city around us. We have policies and processes in place to work towards this goal.

So are we a star? I don’t think I would go that far, although I am proud of what we have achieved. But there’s more work to be done, and it’s important we acknowledge that.

The MLK CBC Massey Lectures were from 1967. How do you think U of T has changed since then in respect to racial discrimination? 

U of T has changed so much in the way that Canada has changed and Toronto has changed. We have become a far more diverse place than we were in 1967. Along the way, we have developed practices and policies that really accentuate our commitment to diversity and equity and human rights.

One of the things that I’m especially proud of is that U of T is recognized, both locally and nationally, as an organization that really has a strong commitment to combating racism and systemic discrimination, and I point in particular to the fact that we have been named the top diversity employer again in 2013. I think this is the 6th consecutive year, if I’m not mistaken. And that’s based on our culture here, which recognizes that diversity is a strength that bolsters our academic excellence.

We have a policy that no student offered admission to a program at U of T should be unable to attend due to a lack of financial means, and we spend over $150M every year to make good on that commitment. That is an incredibly meaningful and powerful and tangible commitment to goals of accessibility and ensuring that U of T is a kind of portal of opportunity for all Canadians, and indeed citizens from the rest of the world too.

Also, we have developed policies of diversity and equity through the Vice-President, Human Resources & Equity, and the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Offices, and I’m very proud of the programs and policies that have been put in place. So we have achieved a lot since 1967. Toronto and U of T are better places. But as I said before, there’s always more work to be done.

Register online before it sells out. 

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