What is the future of universities in cities?

Joining CUI host Mary Rowe for our session “Cities in the time of COVID-19: What is the future of universities in cities?” are Dr. Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto; Dr. Mohamed Lachemi, President of Ryerson University; and Dr. Annette Trimbee, President of MacEwan University.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. COVID-19 has accelerated existing trends

Dr. Mohamed Lachemi, President of Ryerson University, opened the conversation by acknowledging that COVID-19 has accelerated trends already in motion, drastically affecting the way we work and study. Ryerson University faculty are fostering immersive learning experiences by utilizing virtual and augmented reality technology. Dr. Annette Trimbee, President of MacEwan University, says that hybrid learning, a mix of online and in-person attendance and work experience, is a way to improve access. Her university now offers stackable credentials that allow students to pause and exit formal education to enter the workforce.

2. Mental health concerns for students and staff have been amplified

Lachemi says there is now a bigger emphasis on resilience and mental health. Social isolation and the blurring lines between home and work are impacting quality of life. These impacts need to be thoroughly considered. Ryerson University has increased student supports and engagement. There have also been changes for staff: no weekend emails and limiting meetings to twenty minutes. The panelists agree that universities must be flexible and responsive to the needs of their students and employees as they move forward in their responses to the pandemic.

3. Universities remain vital anchors within downtowns

Universities serve a purpose beyond strictly providing education. They are communities, organizations, employers, and homes.  According to Lachemi, the campus experience is fundamental. Trimbee reiterates that the physical campus connects students to the greater community in many ways. Dr. Meric Gertler, President of the University of Toronto, says that downtown universities are the city’s ‘anchor tenants’. The student traffic that universities generate will always attract businesses, increasing the economic vitality of downtown cores. University campuses serve as hubs of activity and will continue to do so once public health measures are lifted.

4. Universities have a role to play in equitable city building and economic change

Access to online learning is often uneven. There is a pressing need to consider access to education through an equity lens. Students may not have access to reliable wi-fi, the necessary hardware, or a quiet space to study. According to Gertler, urban universities are ‘ladders for social mobility’ and should remain accessible to as diverse a student population as possible. Universities also have a role to play in the reinvention of urban economies.

5. Cities are not dead

Universities are revitalizing forces. According to Trimbee, people still want to come downtown for learning and cultural opportunities. Gertler calls universities ‘pillars’ of the local economy that are here to stay. Lachemi frames universities as places of optimism, as they are tremendous sources of talent and innovation. MacEwan University has taken part in the tech enabled diversification of Alberta’s economy. Cities will continue to be the main drivers of the national economy, and universities will remain impactful in the continuing life of these cities. Universities fuel surrounding commerce. But no actor alone can save the city, necessitating the need for collaboration across sectors and throughout all levels of government.


Full Panel

Note to readers: This video session was transcribed using auto-transcribing software. Manual editing was undertaken in an effort to improve readability and clarity. Questions or concerns with the transcription can be directed to events@canurb.org with “transcription” in the subject line.

Mary Rowe [00:00:32] Hi, everybody, it’s Mary Rowe from the Canadian Urban Institute, really pleased to have you join us again for a CityTalk, this time with three really, really busy people who managed to carve out some time to be with us for just under an hour. We’ll be together for about 50 minutes. Toronto is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Annishnabec, Chippewa, the Haudenasaunee and the Wendat peoples, home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Metis and covered under the Williams Treaty and Treaty 13. And we are continuing here at the Canadian Urban Institute to struggle with the legacies of exclusion that urbanism has reinforced, what that means in terms of our colonial legacy, how it’s affected, the way we train these folks are and educators. I’m sure that they look up as to how we’ve been training people, how we’ve been equipping people to design cities that have, in fact, as we can see during COVID, that it’s just been so clear to us and how they are exclusionary and discriminatory. And how do we come to terms with that? How do we come through this in a way that building cities that are more just more equitable? How are we going to address the sort of built in baked in anti-Black racism and anti-Indigenous activity that we see across the country?


Mary Rowe [00:01:39] And these three are stewards of sort of the intellectual underpinnings of how we’re going to advance these conversations and also how we’re training and educating the next generation to live things differently. So they’ve come together to talk with us now about what’s the future of universities in urban environments. And at the CUI, we are all about holistic, complete neighborhoods and what it takes to actually connect us. And we’re in the connective tissue business at CUI. So we’ve been having these CityTalks across since COVID and bringing people, practitioners across the country to talk about their shared experience and their unique experience and what lessons can we be learning and what can we be mutually exploring together as we try to not just build a better mousetrap, but actually build better cities. So thanks for joining us, folks. Appreciate that you’ve got you’ve wedged ust into your schedule. And as people know, you’re welcome to participate in the chat and what you put. Just remember, it’s like Vegas. What you put in the chat stays in the chat because we post people’s comments and we post these sessions by video and in a day or so, so you can share them with your colleagues. And we have a we have a wonderful repository of other sessions. So you ever missed a CityTalk? That’s what I do in the middle of the night. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has sleepless moments. And I can go back and watch a CityTalk because people are just we’re mutually struggling with what our our future looks like. And I find it reinforcing and helpful to have these kinds of folks come on these conversations. So welcome to Annette and to Meric and to Mohamed. And we’re going to put your bios up in the chat. And so everyone knows that you are a Ph.D.s and so you are doctors. But I’m dropping the honorific and taking the liberty of using your first name to engage in a conversation. And I’m going to start, if I may, with you, Mhamed, and then I’ll come to Annette and then I’ll go to Meric. Just a couple of opening comments about what the experience has been at Ryerson. What you’re seeing is the sort of pressing challenges that you’ve had to confront. And then collectively, we’re going to talk about what the future looks like. So, Mohamed, over to you first.


Dr. Mohamed Lachemi [00:03:42] Good afternoon, all, and thank you, ma’am team, for inviting me to give you a perspective of the response from Ryerson to the pandemic. We move to an essential service is more than in the course of a day or two in mid-March. So we didn’t have any preparation. And I think that’s the reality with most of the organizations. Our focus was to ensure that students were able to continue their courses and programs and these finish the winter term. We aim to deliver the best possible experience for students and I give credit to our community that adapted with the resilience of faculty and staff. Very we’re very quick to respond to to the switch. The switch happened actually on the weekend. The decision was made on Friday, and then by Monday morning, everything was done. And also the student response was very positive. So as we move towards the full term, we were kind of worried that many students would not necessarily come back or may not take a full course load. But this did not happen. And I would say the government remains steady and eight months in in COVID has clearly accelerated trends that were already in motion. The way we learn, the way that we engage. But we do the work is quite different now, and I would say that faculty members are adapting by engaging in more immersive learning experiences. We have seen many examples of use of some technologies, augmented reality, virtual reality, for example, in our faculty of science. Now, most of their labs using augmented reality, also making learning more visual experience. And I think that would be here to stay with us. For students, we are all adopting by reimagining how we engage with students and help them transition to university life, especially the students who are coming directly from high school. In September, for example, we had over a hundred orientation events for students. We saw students connecting with each other in different ways, but still with the same excitement and passion as in previous years. The way that we think about the student experience has also shifted. We are trying to be more creative about the ways in which we offer students a sense of community and belonging, as well as ways to ease their transition to university. Because I think when we talk about learning, student engagement and student experience is probably the most important element of their success. We also increased student support and I’m sure this is the entire system. And certainly services such as counseling, wellness moved online. And this, in my opinion, will continue post pandemic and for students, faculty and staff. And also there is even bigger emphasis on skills such as coping, resilience and mental health. And I think mental health is probably the biggest challenge that we are all facing in society these days. One example that also to remove a little bit pressure on our staff and faculty this summer, we introduce best practices for staff limiting meetings to 50 minutes, no weekend emails, no meetings after 6:00 pm. And so so we are always learning and adapting. And it would be my opinion, very good lessons taken from the pandemic that will help shape our sector for a whole better for years to come.


Mary Rowe [00:08:13] Wow, I’m just I’m just waiting for text to come in from my colleagues and staff to say, did you hear that? No weekend emails, Mary. I didn’t realize that you were doing that. Although, you know, there are workarounds. We’re all learning. Then you can write the email and then have it since 9 in the morning the next day. But anyway, I’m interested the what some of what you’re suggesting there Mohamed, as the university as a place. It’s not just the university and the function. You’re saying we’re actually a community and we’re a place and we’re going to adopt certain as a community. So mental health supports, all these things. And so as a unit of organization, as an employer and as a home and also as you suggest, I mean, none of us really knows. We probably have academics and researchers who were studying this. What’s the impact on kids who anticipated making this transition to us at a certain stage in their lives, to pulling from their friends, their family of origin, into a new independent place and that’s been ruptured? Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, you know, I was I’m old enough that I remember when the when grade 13 was eliminated. None of you was old enough to remember, but I remember. And it was and it all of a sudden there was this whole conversation about will those kids be ready to make that jump? Does anybody remember this? Because, you know, those of us that had done 13 said, don’t know, you have to stay back for that extra year. So we forget how pedagogically it’s so important to the formation of a person. OK, Annette, let’s go to you at MacEwan. Talk to us about the experience in Edmonton and and what the particular challenges are that you’ve been facing in your context, please.


Dr. Annette Trimbee [00:09:49] Well, thank you, Mary. And good morning, everyone, this morning out west in Canada. So my name’s Annette. I’m the President of MacEwan University, which is in downtown Edmonton. But before that, I was president of the University of Winnipeg, downtown Winnipeg. So I started COVID in Winnipeg and I made the transition. So the spring pivot was that U Winnipeg and the fall relaunch was at McEwen University. So MacEwan University downtown. Just a little context because I know we have probably more of an audience from the east. We took over an old railway yard, so. Thirty six acres, seven city blocks, four hundred million dollars worth of investment. So we’re kind of central to downtown. To the east of us we have the Rogers Place, the Ice District. To the north we have quiet neighborhoods that have been around forever. And to the south we have a bunch of office towers. We bring about twenty thousand people downtown to campus every day before COVID, and there are about sixty five thousand people who work downtown just for context. So in Edmonton, kind of a double whammy, right? Because we are in the middle of an oil and gas downturn where we used to get six billion dollars in revenues. We’re now at six hundred million. So the province is actually seeing more in tuition revenue than in oil and gas revenue, which is a big switch. So obviously, the city feels a little bit deserted. And part of what Alberta is doing as part of their recovery plan is they’re looking at the whole post-secondary system and how that contributes to to our future economy. So obviously, like the other Presidents on the call, we make the case that we are critical to downtown recovery, to the province’s resiliency and to the future of our economy. Our campus is probably a little more active than some other campuses because, again, universities like ours, primarily undergraduate, it’s all about plays, it’s all about community, it’s all about connections. And we are very mindful of our future. COVID accelerated all the trends in higher education and we’re learning quickly. And I see a future that offers a hybrid learning as a way to improve access. There are some benefits to hybrid learning that we are seeing. It allows for some students to study part time. So we’re going to leverage that. So again, oh, that’s all I’m going to say for now because I’m looking forward to the conversation.


Mary Rowe [00:12:20] You know, I appreciate all that. You I’m just trying to try it with one finger here. I appreciate all the things you guys are adding to here about hybrid learning and Mohamed you’re coming around virtualization. So interesting. Interesting. I was going to make a quip there, Annette, that you kind of went from winter to winter in Winnipeg when winter was still on. And then you went to Edmonton where winter comes sooner. But I am appreciated what you’re suggesting about this differentiation between undergraduate and graduate. So the total student population in MacEwan would be?


Dr. Annette Trimbee [00:12:50] It’s about eighteen thousand and about two thousand employees.


Mary Rowe [00:12:54] And two thousand employees and all undergraduate, no graduate programs at MacEwan.


Dr. Annette Trimbee [00:12:57] No graduate programs. But we have our roots as a college. So we have certificates and diplomas and a lot of stackables, which is interesting in terms of higher education trends, because as populations look to upskill and reskill they want quick, they want fast, they want relevant. So, you know, we’re very well positioned to enter this new era.


Mary Rowe [00:13:20] And I just want to put up a challenge to our listeners just to show you Annette. If you are if you are dialing in from a community west of Windsor, we hope you’ll come into the chat and just reassure Annette that we do have listeners. We have people Nigeria and Seattle and various folks I know saying. Yes, there’s somebody from Calgary. So I’m going to encourage everybody to check in and tell us where you’re signing in from and and particularly if you’re from west of Windsor. Mohamed, what’s the breakdown, numerical breakdown then I’m going to come to Meric. Mohamed what is the breakdown numerically of the Ryerson population?


Dr. Mohamed Lachemi [00:13:54] At the present time, we have about forty six thousand students, and I would say in terms of graduate programs, we have just over three thousand students.


Mary Rowe [00:14:06] Right so, predominantly undergraduate. But I know like Annette was describing lots of certificates, lots of. And what did you call it Annett, stackables?


Dr. Annette Trimbee [00:14:13] Stackables where you can come and do a diploma, go out and work, come back later and receive credits. So, you know, we like to say we take the learning to where you are at. And that is really the wave of the future, convenience learning right? Affiliations with agencies, institutions that go on for a long time.


Mary Rowe [00:14:29] In urban and urban talk stackable is usually about levels of finance for housing. So I’m glad I’m glad to have a new definition of stackable. Meric, over to you to talk about the University of Toronto, which is of a different scale and a different history, which is why it’s so interesting that the three of you here. So talk to us about your experience at UofT.


Dr. Meric Gertler [00:14:48] And let me just say thank you for inviting me to join this conversation. So for those of you who don’t know much about UofT, we’ve got more than ninety thousand students across three campuses. Our main St. George campus, which is our old historic campus, is roughly about sixty thousand students. And then we’ve got roughly fifteen thousand each in Mississauga and in Scarborough. So two newer campuses established in the mid nineteen sixties, about twenty thousand graduate students of that total mix and about twenty thousand international students. So that’s a large, large number. You just say in general, in terms of what the pandemic has meant for us, it’s largely a good news story in the face of adversity. I mean, if you compare how Canadian universities, including the three are represented here today, have managed the pandemic relative to our counterparts south of the border, for example, it’s been a much more positive story. So very few stories of outbreaks. Most of the cases in our community have been acquired outside of our campuses, not on our campuses, largely because there’s not much happening on our campuses right now. We can talk a little bit about that. Compare that to the New York Times, which is tracking on a daily basis the number of of cases and outbreaks on college and university campuses across the country. So Universities Canada did some polling recently which confirmed that Canadians on the whole have a very, very positive impression of how universities in this country have managed the pandemic. And they I think we’ve done a great job or we’ve done a reasonable job under the circumstances as best as can be expected. So that’s not a bad outcome. Like Ryerson we pivoted over the course of a weekend as well. In our case, it was six thousand three hundred courses that we had to move from in class to online over the course of the weekend and tremendous work by our not just our faculty, but tremendous support staff and a huge adjustment by our students to make this switch so quickly. And obviously, our our number one goal was A to keep everybody safe and B, to do everything we could to make sure our students could finish their term and in many cases graduate successfully in June. And we were able to achieve that. Of course, in the process of doing all of that, we’ve become aware of some of the challenges. And in many cases, it’s a story of preexisting challenges being amplified, being exacerbated. So access to online learning, something that we take for granted. But of course, we were reminded is is very uneven, that not everyone has access to high quality internet connection, or the hardware that you need or a nice, quiet place to to study and work from home. So, you know, those kinds of challenges have come to the fore. We’ve Mohamed’s already touched on mental health, which, again, has been a kind of chronic challenge in our sector worldwide. And I think that the kind of isolation that is one of the unfortunate byproducts of the pandemic has simply amplified all of those challenges. There are others as well in terms of our budget and all of that. I mean, with twenty thousand international students, clearly we were concerned that that returning students would come back in September and that we could attract new students as well. I’m happy to report that our international enrollment is actually up about eight percent over our our target. And many of those new students have been tuning in from home, tuning in from abroad, and for them, the question is, you know, will they still be tuning in in January? Will they be tuning in in September if they can’t actually get here and enjoy the benefits of studying and living in a place like Toronto and a country like Canada? So we’re working very hard to do everything we can to get as many of them here. And the border has been reopened to international students. We thank the feds for for doing that. But we’re also working very hard to engage them, just as we are with our domestic students who are doing most of their learning through online means. Our domestic intake this year was down slightly. And one of the theories, which is only a hypothesis at this point, Mary, is that the fact that we’re in the middle of a big city might have played a role there. That there might be an aversion to living in a a residence tower or living in a place where you have to take public transit to and from campus every day. That’s just a hypothesis. We have no foundation on which to investigate that that thesis. But it is something that I’m certainly looking at, especially when you observe that other Ontario campuses in more bucolic setting, shall we say, in Kingston, Ontario, or London or Waterloo, actually saw fairly significant increases in domestic enrollment. So it might be a flight to more pastoral kind of settings. And I’ll stop there. But I’m really looking forward to the rest of the conversation.


Mary Rowe [00:20:36] With that last comments just filled me with all sorts of anxieties. Know and we I’m sure each of you gets asked this question, too, that are cities dead? Are people going to flee the city? I’ve been doing some interviews on this and I’m such a barker back to say don’t we can’t prognosticate. And of course, there’s always movement in and out of cities, et cetera. And you know, that quote, it’s Mark Twain. “The rumors of my death are highly exaggerated.” But but I hear your point Meric that people are rethinking some of this. And I and you’d already moved to adopting some satellites. You’d already recognize that you needed to have campuses that serve different communities. And anyone that’s gone to Erindale or to the Scarborough campus knows the Mississauga UTM or the UofT Scarborough campuses knows that they feel quite different out there. It’s a different demographic. It’s a it’s a different sort of sensibility. And I guess that’s part of what I’m struggling with as I think about the future of cities. How fundamental do you see educational institutions as a destination? So, for instance, in each of your each of your cities in terms of evidence in Toronto, but we see it in cities across the across the country. Downtowns are not occupied. Downtown Toronto is sitting in terms of commercial space, even though it may be fully leased. It’s around eight percent of the population actually going into those communities. So you can imagine that sector is in a state of shock about what the hell’s the future. So and is some of it going to be though, that will be key institutions like universities, like cultural centers, like colleges. Will those be the things that will continue to be downtown and we will find our way down there. Do you want to just take that for a minute and Annette and tell us what you’re imagining? I mean, we’ve been very cautious on CityTalk to not give platforms out to big prognostications and predictions. But I am curious what trends you might be anticipating or what planning you’re thinking about. Are you going to shrink your footprint? And Mohamed you’ve got a ton of resident residence space? What was going to have that? So Annette let’s go to you to see what you anticipate changes might look like.


Dr. Annette Trimbee [00:22:40] All right. So Edmonton, like I mentioned earlier, twenty five minute commute seems like a long commute. So the university made a decision a while ago to consolidate downtown. And we’ve got our seven city blocks still. But but at the same time. So so, yes, cities are not dead. And I think if I look at Edmonton, not only is the MacEwan University, there is the Northwest College and the University of Alberta is right across the river. But you know how river is kind of great divides. So obviously, I think you’re you’re bang on. People will want to come downtown for learning opportunities, for cultural opportunities. And that’s where I look at the mix of McEwen’s programs, where we have nursing, we have the caring professions, we have the creative professions, art, science, business. So absolutely I don’t think we’re all in a rush to the suburbs. I think people want to collide and I think there will be businesses that want to stay downtown. We crave that vibrancy. And if anything, we’re hearing from our students this on campus experience is something they highly value. Right.


Mary Rowe [00:23:44] Do you anticipate would you ever imagine, because I’m a urbanists and but I’m also a decentralizer, I mean could you ever imagine that McEwan would say, well, we may have consolidated those seven blocks, but we’re going to provide other kinds of opportunities at satellite campuses the way UofT has. Would that ever be seen as smaller storefronts or something in other parts of the city?


Dr. Annette Trimbee [00:24:07] I don’t think that would make a lot of sense for the city of Edmonton, to be honest with you, because it’s so easy to get from A to B and with hybrid learning, you can imagine offering seats where people just come in one or two days a week and accomplish the sum of the parts. Right. So.


Mary Rowe [00:24:22] What and so you’d already kind of gone through this consolidation. Mohamed, do you anticipate that you’re going to have I mean, you have a lot of space in downtown, right off of Yonge Street. We were talking about the impact on Yonge street of your campus and all those small businesses on a on a major commercial thoroughfare in Toronto are now complete in jeopardy. And they’re used to having tens of thousands of kids from Ryerson popping in for a week. Right.


Dr. Mohamed Lachemi [00:24:47] I would say to that, in terms of enrollment in September, we have not seen actually a decrease of domestic enrollment. So we I think we are up by 60 percent over last year. And I think we are seeing an increase of international student enrollment. I think one aspect that is very clear and Annette has mentioned to this, students are really asking about the campus experience because that’s for them is fundamental. And I will add that to that because we are in downtown Toronto. I always repeat this talk to our students in community. Toronto is our living lab. I think the experiential learning opportunities for students, we are actually in the middle of many possibilities for students. World class hospitals. So we have all the major financial institutions around us and those are the opportunities for more expression, learning opportunities for students. And also the aspect I think is very important for students to have the city and beyond the City of Toronto. So some of the social programs, I can tell you, we have a lot of students in some of the programs. We have a faculty that is called Faculty of Community Services is all about how to serve the communities around us. And I see this as part of what we must do as a university that defines itself as city builder. I don’t see a shift in terms of being outside outside downtown Toronto. I think it’s in our DNA, community engagement opportunities for our students. It’s a range of learning opportunities. And I would say that the moment that we will open up the campus, students will come back and will do what they love to do is to be part of a very vibrant community.


Mary Rowe [00:26:48] So can we can we just riff on that for a bit? I mean, I heard Meric’s call out to the bucolic colleagues, and I understand that I lived in London, although I came to UofT. So I know Western and I know some of these other campuses that, Royal Roads, we have a number of them across the country that would be characterized as bucolic. Even UBC is not actually in downtown Vancouver. So and I think we have to I’m interested in us reflecting on this. You know, I was in New Orleans after Katrina for that six year period while I was rebuilding and Tulane University under the leadership, Scott Cowen was an extraordinarily important advocate and convener and puller together of how the heck that city was going to recover. Do you imagine each of you being summoned to play that role? Certainly. If you have medical faculties, we know that they’re doing work on vaccine research. I know that they’ve been doing work on contact tracing because I’m in contact with some of your engineering schools. I certainly am in contact with the planning schools in America. In terms of how you’re imagining what the University of Toronto is contribution needs to be to the to the re invigorating recovery, then whatever the hell are you thinking about that?


Dr. Meric Gertler [00:27:55] Absolutely. In fact, we’re more than thinking about it. I mean, we’re already doing a lot of things, you know, and you can answer that question a number of ways. I mean, building on your earlier point, Mary about how the lack of people on our campuses is having spillover effects, unfortunate spillover effects for local business. We are a local business as well. I mean, you know, we employ more than twenty thousand people. Our operating budget is about three billion dollars a year, so you know that we buy a lot of goods and services as well. In when the pandemic hit, we were very conscious of the need to both pay our bills quickly for our suppliers to make sure that they were not left in the lurch. Secondly, we’ve been very, very slow to lay people off just because of the kind of the anchor tenant kind of position that we occupy within the metropolitan economy of the Greater Toronto Area. So in a very direct sense, Annette was alluding to this earlier. We are pillars of of the local economy and we expect to continue to be so for for the foreseeable future. But in terms of more active strategies, I think there are a couple of things I would highlight. One is, you know, as urban universities, we are all kind of ladders for social mobility, for access. And this this very kind of difficult eight months that we’re in has just underscored the divisions, the social polarization, the very differential outcomes by social group, by neighborhood that the pandemic has has visited upon people. And universities are one of the most important factors in institutions for for overcoming those divisions. And that means we’ve got to make sure that we remain accessible to as diverse a student population as we possibly can and be attentive to the possibility that students from some communities might be dropping out at differential rates, might might be failing to participate. So that would be the first thing, you know, to really pay attention to social mobility. Secondly, obviously, you know, we are very much part of the process of enabling cities to reinvent themselves economically. And if you think of the shakeout that all of our urban economies are undergoing now as a result of the pandemic, I think the structure of our economies is going to look very different when we come back from this. And there’s a gap that’s going to need to be filled. That gap will be filled through the new firms that were spinning off an entirely new industries that were enabling to to to form as a result of the knowledge that is being both generated and translated from our campuses. So whether that’s in the bio economy or the green economy or other dynamic innovation based sectors, I think that’s going to be huge. So, you know, I think that and we’re already, of course, working closely with with governments on many of these fronts in order to to help speed that process. Mohamed and I are part of a really interesting initiative involving a partnership with the City of Toronto and the local higher education institutions, all of the universities and all of the colleges in the City of Toronto working with the Mayor’s office and with support from the other two levels of government to harness the intellectual resources of the higher education sector in service to the city, to make sure that that our experts are there to help guide not just recovery from the pandemic, but the rebuilding process. So we’re we’re definitely there. And I’m very enthusiastic.


Mary Rowe [00:31:59] And as you suggested, akin to that, there’s a bunch of crises that have to have just piled on in the sequence of all these things. And so we’ve got an issue around equity and social justice and economic opportunity and public health. And again, I go to you on the Mohamed at Ryerson. We see this manifesting around right around your campus where we’ve got safe consumption sites, right on your campus, right next to office towers and commercial areas. And without the commercial workers coming into the downtown, we’re seeing this is true in Vancouver. This is true in Ottawa and in Montreal, certainly as far as Toronto and I’m sure in Edmonton is often where there’s more street population there. More street involved people who are on those who need those supports and those supports are no longer being offered to them or just aren’t aren’t as accessible as they maybe once were. So thoughts on how a university can I mean, I hear you, Meric, about your aspiration for a university. But I don’t know if that is always the way university is perceived to be quite as welcoming and porous as I anticipate I’m understanding you would aspire to be. I suspect you’re dealing with this every day.


Dr. Mohamed Lachemi [00:33:11] We do that, and that’s that’s a reality, unfortunately, of. downtown areas in Toronto and elsewhere and I think in Meric mentioned the collaboration that all the post-secondary institutions have with the City of Toronto, and I think this is an excellent thing that can be actually serve as a model for other cities. And also the collaboration actually is also with all levels of government. So in addition to the municipal government, we have also collaboration with the provincial governments and the federal government. And I think it’s important for us to make sure that when we talk about recovery, we don’t neglect the social aspect of it, because what we are seeing in some areas of Toronto is the gap and also people who are in need for support in terms of people, affordable housing, people who are in need of support, especially with mental health issues. And we know that mental health is a big issue. And I would say that universities are needed now more than ever to really help, first of all, to stimulate the recovery, because what that’s important for new ideas, but also to contribute to finding solutions to the issues that we are facing in in cities. And we are tremendous sources of talent and innovation. And I think that’s the way that universities can really contribute to finding those solutions. We are of factory of talent and I think many universities have a huge in our diversity and also collaborating with government departments that can be part of the solution. I’ll probably give you a couple of examples of things that we are targeting right now. Ryerson University’s leading a national initiative about future skills. It’s called the Future Skills Center in collaboration with the Conference Board of Canada and Blueprint. And in the last few few months, the center has invested thirty seven million dollars in 30 projects to also fill the skills gap that is exist, but also to help people, especially people that are belonging to some communities that are in need of help. Indigenous youth in particular, but also other groups that are really in in difficulty. And one of the aspects of one of the projects that the center has invested money is really to help some sectors that are under huge pressure because of the pandemic. For example, the hospitality and tourism sector in our cities definitely is under huge pressure. And the idea here is really to bring some capacity to try to help and develop also some skills that are needed for the future. We know that the cybersecurity sector is in need of a lot of talent. I think it’s important for us to focus on people who can really be there when the recovery is, is.


Mary Rowe [00:36:39] I want to I want to appropriate your term, not call it a factory town, but an ‘ecosystem’ of talent. Only because only because of our kind of allergy to this notion of standardization, because we really need a whole bunch of different ideas. Right. And I’m interested, Annette, in terms of the Edmonton experience. But also your experience when you were in Manitoba. What’s what is the what are what are the challenges? I mean, you’re all talking so positively about all the things that you’ve done and that you’ve done well. And I appreciate that because it’s important people know this. But what are some of the challenges that you think are ahead in terms of the future of your own institution. Like a presumably in Alberta, we read the papers. There’s not a lot of money happening from the province of Alberta. Right. You’re in and you’re in a tough economic position, which you’ve been in for years before COVID. So you’re ahead of the game on this. What are some of the challenges you’re anticipating that you’re going to have to come to terms with?


Dr. Annette Trimbee [00:37:35] First, I have to say that I love you mentioning ecosystems because I’m actually an ecologist by training and ecosystems are more resilient when they have a lot of diversity. But I want to make one point in response to what I have been hearing in terms of the role of urban universities. I think sometimes when we talk about ourselves as a local business, when we talk about our our footprint in city building and assets in that way, I think the part I really want to emphasize is what we bring to our downtowns is a source of energy, fresh ideas, young minds. So so I think that’s something we really have to focus on. And in terms of working on community issues and showing leadership, one of the things I said yes to is to chair a task force in Edmonton on community safety and well-being. Which is very sensitive because at its core, people are asking questions about the role of police, the conduct of police, and we don’t shy away from that. As a downtown university, we are all in the safety and security issues. They affect all of us. Now, in terms of challenges in Alberta, the province is looking at how to grow enrollments and reduce expenditures because we are seen as a spending outlier in terms of cost per FLE. So obviously in Alberta, like many other provinces, they hear from industry that there’s this skills gap and often when you probe a little further, I think sometimes people get confused with respect to job skills and durable skills, and when you ask them what they really need, these are the things that our graduates are coming out with. So obviously we’re going to have to do better. What is better mean: more with less. And again, it depends on who you are talking to. And often these expressions are articulated through quite a utilitarian lens. And I would like to say we’re not factories, we’re not training institutions or educational institutions. And I like to look at the sum of the parts as a President, what gives me joy is seeing how students evolve from the time they start to the time they finish. I like to keep track of alumni and the contributions they make to our cities. But we do have to be more innovative because we will be expected to not only deal with the equity gaps that we’ve been talking about, but to be engines of growth and to absolutely on a daily basis demonstrate our relevance to anybody who is interested in learning more about us. We fall in love with our institutions because we get to go to convocations. We get to interact with students and very bright people. But I think we have to remember that not everybody has that same joy we have and not everybody has had the privileges we’ve had to attend universities and to work at universities.


Mary Rowe [00:40:18] I appreciate your your human humanness coming through there because you’re really here in the nurturing business the same way that an ecosystem 10 years in the nurturing business and I appreciate that. Meric, I have a question for you at UofT, which I think would be unique to you, to your institution in terms of the three represented here. You’ve had a strong, strong research agenda for years and you have a large post graduate faculty and postgraduate community. And how are you balancing the university’s investments? Because as Mohamed just suggested and Annette reinforced, there’s a gazillion tough questions out there that we need Canada’s best researchers. Everybody is unsettled by the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we don’t have the capacity to make a vaccine. And I think the bet now is that a gazillion Canadian companies are on the phone to their local MP saying, wait a second, we repurposed and went into the PPE business. Well, you know what I mean. So can you talk to us about how are you balancing that in terms of your priorities with a large university that has had research as a key component?


Dr. Meric Gertler [00:41:20] And that’s a great question. So, you know, we have a big commitment to to local city building, but we also are recognizing our role as a center of expertize on public health and medicine. Our experts have been in the news practically on the hour every day for the last eight months. They’re also providing guidance to governments at all three levels. UofT Faculty are on the National Vaccine Task Force, on the Immunity Task Force. They’re advising the government on border security protocols. They’re working with Air Canada on a very interesting study at Pearson, which is designed to try and shorten the quarantine period for passengers arriving from outside of the country. Similar efforts are being undertaken by colleagues across the country. We’ve also got one of only two level three containment labs in the city at the Faculty of Medicine, the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, which is where the work was done to sequence the genome of the coronavirus and where samples have been made available to support research for the development of new diagnostic and testing devices, for the development of new therapeutics and also for vaccine development. So we’ve got this huge expertise and we’ve also got a lot of specialized facilities. But it does come back to what I touched on briefly earlier, and that is that if you think about the Prime Minister’s statement, which certainly a lot of folks inside government have been talking about quietly for the last eight months, it’s now out in the open. It does pose a huge national challenge for us about how we build or rebuild a Canadian bio economy. Connaught Labs, which used to be part of UofT led the world at one time in vaccine development. And we’ve lost that capacity. Also, there were a lot of pharma companies in the Montreal area who closed their vaccine production capacity. So, you know, I think we can we can we have the raw materials to create a lot of new economic activity that builds on the science and the knowledge production that exists in our universities. And I think it really does call for a kind of all hands on deck campaign to do this in ways that we’ve never done before. And when you talk to federal deputy ministers and ministers, they are now using this concept of ‘health security’ as the sort of galvanizing and organizing concept to sort of help people understand what the challenges that the country is facing. So, yes, for sure, institutions like ours are keen to contribute to that and to harness the intellectual resources that we have as well as the facilities.


Mary Rowe [00:44:28] I mean Annette’s in the belly of the beast here of a community that has tons of tacit knowledge and over and over decades and a resource that’s actually extracted resources, it’s gone or that’s in the process of going and how do you repurpose that, so are we all going to mobilize in a new kind of way? We only have a few minutes left. I’m going to ask each of you to just if you can just highlight one particular priority that you think we should be all doubling down on and what role you see your university playing in achieving that. One thing is that manufacturing is it? I don’t know. And I don’t know if it’s as easy as just let’s make a vaccine. But is there some larger pursuit that, what’s your North Star folks as you lead your faculties and your directors and your vice presidents and your broader community over the next four or five months? Go to you first, Mohamed.


Dr. Mohamed Lachemi [00:45:19] I thank you very much, I would say that despite the pandemic, universities remain the places of optimism. And I think that’s the most important thing that we have to take out of a discussion like this.


Mary Rowe [00:45:32] Makings of hope.


Dr. Mohamed Lachemi [00:45:33] I think that’s important. And I would say what the greatest challenges in our recovery is, making sure that we can make the recovery more equitable. I think the social gap, especially in big cities like Toronto, I think if the university sector can help making sure that the gap is is is smaller, I think that would be a great contribution to our society.


Mary Rowe [00:45:58] A very noble thing. Meric you, and then Annette last words you. So Meric.


Dr. Meric Gertler [00:46:03] Here so riffing off the the theme of this panel. I think the city building role that universities play has never been more important. And I think we’ll we’ll think of it as city building and rebuilding. We are I use the term anchor tenants before in the figurative sense, but also in the literal sense. We’re not going anywhere. We’re here for the long haul. You know, UofT has been in place since 1827. And while, you know, Shopify may say we’re not going to create office space in downtown Toronto anymore, frankly, that’s not even an option for us. We are here and I really believe that, as Mohammed suggested a few minutes ago, students are going to come flocking back as soon as we have a vaccine that’s widely available and distributed. I think the the advantages, the benefits of studying in the city are going to be so obvious that people are so hungry to get back that we’ll see a pretty impressive recovery. Of course, our new normal is going to be a little bit different, and we’ve touched on some aspects of that. But look, you know, we had a few in-person offerings in September and they filled up instantly. And we’re hearing from international students that a thousand of them are planning to come back to Toronto after Christmas. They really want to be here, even if they’re going to have to be contained in terms of the ability to circulate. That speaks to the power of a university in the city.


Mary Rowe [00:47:41] And so so, Mohamed, we’re in the hope business. And I love this term Meric that you’re the you’re the anchor tenant of the city.


Dr. Meric Gertler [00:47:48] We are.


Mary Rowe [00:47:49] Yeah. You’re like you’re like the anchor of the city. I hear you on that. You’re going nowhere. Annette last word to you, what’s the one North Star you’re going to focus on?


Dr. Annette Trimbee [00:47:57] I’m going to say tech enabled diversification of the Alberta economy. I accepted the job at MacEwan before COVID hit and before I went to UW, I was a Deputy Minister in the Province of Alberta and we were trying to diversify for a long time. Now we really will, and now we really must. And I think downtown universities in cities like Edmonton and Calgary and Lethbridge are going to play a huge role.


Mary Rowe [00:48:22] We’re using #nomoreexcuses. You know, all the things that preexisted that were troubling in our environments, our cities. And we said, oh, that’s a problem. That’s a problem. Now, we’ve got no more excuses. We’ve just got to double down fix these things. Thank you very, very much for taking time out of your schedules, folks. I really very much appreciate from having Annette, and Meric, and Mohamed with us. And we salute you in terms of being on the beacon here, being the beacon of hope and stick to it of this and what progressive economic development is going to look like. Tech enabled. Really appreciate your perspectives. For city talkers next week we’re actually coming on the road. CUI is doing as CUI x Edmonton next week. We are in Edmonton all week, your your town Annette and then the week after that will be in Calgary. We’re doing virtual residency where we are listening, listening, listening like crazy to hear what’s working, what’s not and what’s next so that we can arrive at a watch list. We’re building a bunch of watch lists across the country, part of that connective tissue mandate. So you’ll be able to see a city talk next December 2 on Friday on Edmonton, spotlight on Edmonton. What’s going on in cities in Alberta. And two days before on Wednesday, the second sorry, the the residences on Friday, the fourth and on Wednesday the second. Merick ,this is a talk that you will love. It’s Cities in the Time of COVID: what is the future of powers for cities? And that we’re doing with the City Charter Toronto folks. And we have Doug Earl from Charter City Toronto, the Mayor of Burlington, Juliana Charchun from the Mayor’s Office in Edmonton, Annette, and Richard Alpert from the University of Texas to talk about favorite topics, whether we need charters. Edmonton almost had one. Toronto has one, Vancouver has one. And what are the new models of governance to be able to really strengthen our local communities? So, again, thank you very much, Mohamed, Meric, Annette, really great to have you talk about the future of the university in a city. I look forward to having more conversation with you.


Full Audience
Chatroom Transcript

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From Canadian Urban Institute: You can find transcripts and recordings of today’s and all our webinars at https://canurb.org/citytalk

12:01:01 From Canadian Urban Institute : Welcome! Folks, please change your chat settings to “all panelists and attendees” so everyone can see your comments.

12:01:31 From Lucy Inyang Edet : Hello Everyone. Greetings from Nigeria

12:01:43 From Canadian Urban Institute : Attendees: where are you tuning in from today?

12:02:01 From Alex Verdecchia : tuning in from Vancouver, Canada!

12:02:17 From Lucy Inyang Edet : Lucy Inyang Edet tuning in from Nigeria

12:02:30 From Victoria White to All panelists : listening in from Pickering

12:02:38 From Robin McPherson : St. Catharines, ON

12:03:06 From Hafsat Adebayo : From Calgary, Alberta

12:03:15 From Brian MacMillan : Edmonton, AB! Hi, everyone. Looking forward to this talk.

12:03:56 From Canadian Urban Institute : Dr. Meric Gertler

Dr. Mohamed Lachemi

Dr. Annette Trimbee

12:04:50 From sue uteck : hello from Halifax!

12:05:19 From Maisha Barnett to All panelists : Greetings from Seattle

12:08:13 From Darryl R. Gaston CLP : Greetings CLT, NC, USA

12:14:04 From Katherine Danks to All panelists : Hello from Toronto

12:14:20 From Sandra Shehadeh : Greetings from Mississauga, ON

12:14:22 From Jennifer Alsop : Greetings from Oshawa, Ontario – Ontario Tech University

12:14:46 From Janne Corneil to All panelists : From south of the border:-) Boston, but experienced Grade 13 in Toronto, back in the day.

12:14:50 From Mohamed Dhanani to All panelists : greetings from Toronto – Go Ryerson Go!

12:14:59 From Alyson King : Cobourg Ontario, but also Ontario Tech University

12:15:31 From Canadian Urban Institute : Reminding attendees to please change your chat settings to “all panelists and attendees” so everyone can see your comments. Thanks!

12:17:01 From Jimmy Johnson to All panelists : Greetings from jimmy johnson

12:19:02 From Janne Corneil : From south of the border:-) Boston, but experienced Grade 13 in Toronto, back in the day.

12:19:32 From Veronica Izsak to All panelists : Greetings from MacEwan University, Edmonton, AB

12:22:57 From Jimmy Johnson to All panelists : Mary I appreciate you from jimmy Johnson in Nigeria/Lagos

12:28:41 From Susan Fletcher : I previously supervised social work placement students in a community agency. The pandemic has closed many services temporarily and its economic impacts may close them permanently. How do you anticipate student placements being completed in the near future?

12:29:27 From Janne Corneil : The pandemic has brought to the forefront, the interdependence of public health and the economy. Do the panelists have a stance on how the pandemic changes your thinking regarding the interrelationship between higher education and local economic development? Sounds like Meric is answering this question:-)

12:31:40 From Jimmy Johnson to All panelists : The pandemic has change everybody thinking and the economy…jimmy johnson from Nigeria/Lagos

12:33:21 From Guillermo (Gil) Penalosa : These 3 great people have done outstanding work within their superb universities. However, they have failed in Toronto to be pro-active on most equity issues. Two examples: city wasting over $2 Billion to move elevated Gardiner, when a Blvd with wide sidewalks, bikeways, trees, etc, would be better and save over $1Bn to fight poverty. The province wants to put Eglinton W LRT underground at an additional cost of $2.6 Billion! Don’t they see an obligation to speak up on huge issues, and not just be a passive participant when invited? Politically correctness does not work; respectful opinion, especially if different to elected officials. Not a time for civic leaders to be mute.

12:35:41 From AARON POSLUNS : How has student housing been affected during the pandemic? What measures are being introduced to combat the challenge of mental health within student living environments?

12:36:01 From sue uteck : I hope that the Universities will press the federal government for continued wage subsidies for students. I will have no job opportunities for students due to covid- no tourists, no cruise ships etc.

12:37:45 From Christine Drimmie : Any thought of converting/offering vacant (if vacant) student housing as affordable alternatives, places to allow people from crowded homes to isolate?

12:41:16 From Gil Katz : Are you working on enhancing and growing mentoring programs?

12:44:23 From Gil Katz : Has the Covid-19 genome been defined at UofT? at all?

12:47:12 From Gil Katz : Mentoring programs seem to grow these days

12:47:41 From Canadian Urban Institute : What did you think of today’s conversation? Help us improve our programming with a short post-webinar survey – https://bit.ly/378yUiF

12:47:54 From Guillermo (Gil) Penalosa : Great point of Dr Mohamed Lachemi on equity. Ryerson U is leading universities in developing an interwoven win-win relationship university/city.

12:48:53 From Jimmy Johnson to All panelists : very nice…from jimmy Johnson…Nigeria/Lagos

12:49:05 From Alex Verdecchia : Excellent discussion. Thank you.

12:49:09 From Garson Law to All panelists : Thanks all!

12:49:10 From sue uteck : thank you, very informative!

12:49:16 From Jennifer Alsop : thank you!

12:49:57 From Gordon Harris : Great session, thanks to CUI and the three panelists.

12:50:32 From Darryl R. Gaston CLP : Excellent presentation