Posted on December 5, 2011
Good evening ladies and gentlemen and thank you Chancellor Peterson. It has been such a privilege to be in the company of these extraordinary volunteers, such as the three Chancellors here tonight. And, David Peterson, you have been a wonderful travelling companion for all of us in administration, all of the alumni, and all of the friends of this University.
When the University of Toronto opened its doors in 1827, the muddy little town of York was not even a city, and farmland and forest sprawled just beyond the campus. How things have changed.
Today, we welcome thousands of amazing students from scores of countries to three distinctive campuses, a dozen hospitals, and countless other sites of learning and discovery here at home and around the world. The little colonial outpost is now a vibrant megalopolis – and also the world’s most diverse region.
That said, some things were already taking shape all those decades ago. We had aspirational students, remarkable professors, and dedicated staff who then, as now, made it all possible. As well, even a hundred years ago, the support of our alumni and friends was beginning to lift this University. Without philanthropy, we could not have rebuilt University College after the Valentine’s Day fire of 1890 – or, as the Chancellor reminded us – erected this Hall in 1907, or opened Hart House in 1919.
These foundations – built by a confluence of talent, imagination, dedication and generosity – sustain us still. And they account meaningfully for the fact that the University now has a truly global reputation and footprint.
On that subject of institutional reputation – always fraught – I would suggest that two main factors, over time, shape how a university is viewed world-wide.
The first is the perceived quality of the university’s alumni. That’s tied obviously to the strength of our students. And you’ve seen already from the video, from those amazing performances by the students from the Faculty of Music, just how strong our student body is. We are fortunate to have some 500,000 alumni in more than 170 countries, with concentrations in unexpected places from Hollywood to Hong Kong. It’s an exceptional group of people. And there is no continent nor any walk of life where Toronto alumni are not in leadership roles.
The second reputational factor is the quality of the faculty, and this tends to be measured, perhaps reductively, by the quality of their research and scholarship. Throughout the last century, our professors and their students, supported by our staff, developed insulin and the electron microscope, discovered the chemical laser and stem cells, reinvented literary criticism, theorized modern media and the digital age, roamed the world to uncover ancient civilizations, invented the glycemic index – so widely used in every kitchen – and pioneered in fields as diverse as organ transplantation and computer graphics.
A simple statistic says it all. Today, in total research output, when the tally is made, the top three universities in the world, in order, are Harvard, Tokyo and Toronto.
Underneath that simple statistic is the unbelievable creativity of today’s faculty, students and staff, joined on a bright line of excellence to their predecessors. A sampling, if you will– a quick biopsy: They’ve studied the cognitive psychology of loneliness, and developed earthquake-resistant building materials. They’ve made startling revelations of cyber-spying and state-level internet censorship, and are working on novel therapies for Alzheimer disease. They’ve explored how bullies abuse cyber-space to torment their victims, and figured out car parts made out of plant materials. They’ve been cross-mapping Islamic and western legal traditions, discovering micronutrients for malnourished children in developing countries, and found new forms of artificial intelligence …
And now it’s no surprise that when professors around the world are surveyed, time after time, in discipline after discipline, the University of Toronto is the Canadian leader and a serious global competitor.
Let me try to explain why and how this matters. I’ll start with something really practical – artificial hips or knees – there are probably a few of them in the house tonight! A very common surgical procedure. The benefits are wonderful. But, with no disrespect to the professionals involved, the science behind our treatment of advanced arthritis is, frankly, pretty primitive. We saw through bones. And then we hammer in a prosthetic joint made of metal with a ceramic or plastic cap. How much better it would be if arthritic joints could be stimulated to resurface themselves by simple injections – it’s entirely feasible.
And imagine as well the change if, instead of relying on drugs or in extremis an organ transplant – the same techniques could be used to promote healing and regeneration of damaged internal organs. Here in Toronto, we have one of the world’s greatest concentrations of stem cell scientists, tissue engineers, transplant experts, and brilliant clinicians in every discipline. The possibilities for reinventing multiple fields of medical care – right here, right now – are absolutely boundless.
Let’s shift to a bigger challenge. Tens of millions of people around the globe are rising out of poverty each year. It’s a wonderful trend. But how will we meet their new energy demands without creating havoc in the world economy, ecological chaos, or recurrent conflicts over access to fossil fuels?
One intriguing answer is to emulate plants and algae. They have been the Earth’s most ingenious and efficient producers of clean power for over 3 billion years. And scientists estimate that through artificial photosynthesis a bottle of water and some sunshine could power a normal sized home.
Let’s say that doesn’t work – imagine transforming any roof or wall into an energy harvesting surface with nano-engineered spray-paint….Or new solar cells with advanced optics that double and triple the efficiency of current technologies, while simplifying them for home use. All these are currently areas for cutting-edge research at your University.
But even energy, complex though it is, is arguably simple compared to some of our other shared challenges. We have a wonderful urban context here. And cities are clearly engines of prosperity and magnets for domestic and trans-national migration alike. In fact, across the world approximately a million people a week are moving from villages and farms into cities. But cities can also be foci of alienation, poverty, pollution, crime and despair. The development of successful and sustainable cities is clearly one of the keys to humanity’s future.
It’s one of those big, complex and multi-disciplinary challenges. And there are others like it. Arguably, even more fundamental to our future is protecting the potential of the world’s children. Years ago – back when I was a medical student – things were simple. We had nature and nurture. Genetic shuffling at conception gave you a set of cards, and you played them for your entire life. Now, thanks to epigenetics, we understand that a range of factors, including the mother’s diet during pregnancy, can permanently switch genes on or off. And we also know that great teaching in early childhood can change brain wiring, and lift the trajectory of a child’s life.
When it comes to addressing these types of complex global challenges – urbanization or healthier human development – there are very few institutions in the world with the size, or the breadth and depth of excellence to make a real difference. The University of Toronto is one of those very few institutions.
As I wrap up, let me anticipate and address two skeptical questions.
Question 1: ‘Sure, Professor, all this research strength translates into strong teaching and mentorship for graduate and professional programs. What about undergraduates?’
In some institutions, I’m sorry to say, the research stars do skate away. Our faculty members, in contrast, have a remarkable commitment to undergraduate instruction. At any one time, more than 90 per cent of the professoriate who have won major research distinctions are teaching undergraduates. With your support, we can accelerate the expansion of opportunities for undergraduates to interact with these types of faculty in small-group sessions or through participating with them in research on every imaginable topic.
Question 2: ‘You’ve shown us some practical stuff, but a lot of research is pretty esoteric. How is it relevant? What do students get out of it?’
What students get is exposure to the boundless curiosity of superbly-trained minds. In natural science, this is the research that changes everything – it illuminates our world, and enables whole new lines of human endeavour. In the humanities and social sciences, these lines of inquiry speak to timeless questions of meaning and identity, and they establish the foundations for successful societies. Taken together, this continuum of fundamental and applied inquiry across disciplines, is what creates so many learning opportunities for our students. It’s the touchstone for the creative and critical thinking skills that can help our students to be successful no matter where they live and work.
And by the way, like you I hear the chorus of calls for ‘job-ready’ graduates – I sometimes call these Stepford baccalaureates. But let’s remember: The world is moving fast. We are preparing our students for careers that have not even been invented. And we are also, I hope, preparing them to be the leaders who invent those new careers.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to frame this marriage of teaching and research, of learning and scholarship. I still can’t think of better words than those coined by a friend, University Professor Ted Chamberlin of the Department of English.
Speaking in this hall a few years ago, Professor Chamberlin asked rhetorically what universities really do, and he answered: “We tell stories: old stories about evolution and the decline and fall of the Roman empire, about the Big Bang and the Great War, about justice and freedom, supply and demand, economy and efficiency. And we make up new stories. We call the old ones teaching, and the new ones research.”
What I love about Ted Chamberlin’s description is its humanity and its emphasis on narrative.
So, yes, I proudly noted that we’re third worldwide in total publication output, but none of this is really about academic papers. And yes, I am proud that we lead the country by a big margin in generation of intellectual property and spin-out companies. But it’s also not about patents and profits. It’s about people – and their individual journeys … About those of us on faculty here, telling old stories, and with the help of our students and staff, writing new ones … And it’s also very much about our students, tomorrow’s alumni, preparing to write their stories in a world full of big challenges that our generation has left them.
Ultimately, the support that so many inside and outside this Hall have so generously provided, and the support that, through this campaign, we are seeking in the years ahead, is itself in aid of a narrative – one of hope, of questioning, of imagining, and above all, unlocking the boundless potential of the next generation to make the world a slightly better place. Thank you.