A Conversation with Meric Gertler

Interview and photograph by Jenny Lass
Introduction by Virginia Maclaren

Meric Gertler joined the department in 1983 after receiving his PhD in Urban Planning from Harvard University. He is a Registered Professional Planner and holder of the Goldring Chair in Canadian Studies. He was Director of the Program in Planning from 1988-89, 1994-96 and 1998-2000, Vice-Dean for Graduate Education and Research in the Faculty of Arts & Science from 2005-08 and Dean from 2008-13. He assumed his position as President of the University of Toronto on November 1, 2013. Jenny Lass (BA ‘97, MA ‘98), recipient of the 2012 UTAGA Honorary President Award, interviewed Meric Gertler about his career as geographer, planner and administrator.

How did you develop an interest in geography and planning, and who was your greatest influence?

It was very much at the kitchen table and the dining table. My dad was an urban planner and regional planner. He started life as a practitioner and then moved into academia later on, and like my dad, I’ve always been interested in working both sides of the theory-practice divide. I have always found it important and enriching to continue to have a presence in the world of practice. I find that it grounds my academic work. It also makes it much easier for me to have taught courses in a discipline like planning. I believe that to teach about planning you have to have had some first-hand experience actually doing it. And I’ve never found it difficult to navigate moving back and forth from the academic world to the policy world.

Did you always see yourself moving into senior administration?

No. But what I discovered along the way was that academic administration can be both interesting and rewarding. When you feel as if you have brought about some kind of improvement or advancement to the institution that you represent, it’s a very satisfying feeling. You also meet the most interesting people, and in a place like this, which is large and broad and diverse, we have a lot of interesting and smart people.

What is your favourite part of the work you do?

I really love doing field work, I have to say. I really enjoy the process of going out and interviewing people, going out and talking to managers and other people in the workplace, or government officials who are trying to do interesting things. I also love teaching.

What is the proudest moment of your career so far?

Helping restore the Faculty of Arts and Science to a position of financial stability. We faced a kind of perfect storm when I became Dean five years ago, where government funding was already somewhat perilous and was about to get worse. The world economy was slowing down, stock markets were crashing and both had a big impact on endowments and the capacity of donors to give. But we have turned that situation around through a lot of hard work by a lot of people across the Faculty. The point of it is not just to get rid of the red ink, but to create the resources that enable us to do fantastic things for our faculty and for our students – to enrich the learning experience for our students and to create the best possible research environment for our faculty.

How do you feel geography and planning play an important role in solving some of the societal challenges that we face?

Well, societies around the world are becoming more and more urban all the time. And so much of what happens, whether it’s social, political, economic, or environmental processes, takes place in cities or is shaped by decisions and actions that occur in cities. I can’t think of a better time to be interested in cities, to leverage one’s knowledge of how cities work in order to achieve broader social and economic and political and environmental goals. I just think that the disciplines of geography and planning are so beautifully situated right now to deepen our understanding of important social and economic issues. It’s remarkable how many other disciplines have discovered the power of geography and the geographical perspective, and have undergone a geographical turn.

What is your vision for U of T’s future?

U of T has a really interesting identity and it’s one that not many universities around the world share. We are, on the one hand, this incredibly strong research entity, a powerhouse, strong in so many fields by virtue of our breadth and size. At the same time, we are a large urban university situated in one of the most diverse metropolitan regions in the world. And with that characteristic comes an obligation or responsibility to be an open and accessible institution. We are a university that offers opportunity to many students, including those from families who have arrived in this country relatively recently. So at a very high level, my vision is that we continue to be able to do both of those well. We must continue to excel in research so that our global reputation is maintained and enhanced, at a time when competition between universities around the world is intensifying.
The other thing I would add is that I’m really interested in the relationship between the university and the city around it. We have all kinds of common interests with Toronto. The better we can make the Toronto region, the better we can make the University of Toronto. It also provides fantastic opportunities for our students and our faculty to engage in rich experiences working with community partners and working on really interesting research topics that are often directly suggested by the people that we work with outside the university. So the well-established legacy in geography and planning, one that encourages us to cross the boundary between the university and the city around it, is something that I will build on as president and use as much as possible.