‘Incredible leadership’: U of T provost Cheryl Regehr leaves an enduring legacy

In her 10 years as vice-president and provost, Regehr championed student well-being, inclusive excellence and teaching innovation

(photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Champion of student success and wellness. Advocate for inclusive excellence. Compassionate leader in times of crisis.

This is how members of the University of Toronto community describe Cheryl Regehr as she prepares to step down as vice-president and provost at the end of the year – leaving a legacy that will shape U of T for generations to come.

At a recent reception, U of T President Meric Gertler said Regehr has “always put the University of Toronto first” regardless of whether she was supporting students, strengthening diversity or guiding the university community through the COVID-19 pandemic – “the worst public health crisis in a century.”

He added that Regehr’s commitment to student success and well-being was the “North Star” that guided her efforts, citing her stewardship of the transformation of mental health service delivery at the university. 

“This is typical of [Provost Regehr’s] work over the past decade – acknowledging a pressing challenge, developing an action plan driven by collegial consultation and expert leadership, embracing recommendations, outlining an ambitious agenda for change, and then rolling up her sleeves to get it done with equal measures of creativity, determination and charm.”

After spending a decade leading the university’s academic mission, Regehr will return to a full-time research and teaching role as a professor in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work on Jan. 1. She will be succeeded as U of T’s provost by Professor Trevor Young of the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

Regehr was first appointed vice-president and provost in September 2013, before being reappointed in January 2015 and one more time in January 2020 – racking up awards and honours along the way. She previously served as vice-provost, academic programs and as dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, where she has been a faculty member since 1999.

Regehr’s work on championing teaching excellence, experiential learning, and building a caring and supportive environment for students stand out among her many signature achievements. 

Her office created the “teaching stream” professorial ranks to emphasize the importance of teaching to U of T’s academic mission, devised funding streams to support teaching innovation and launched an array of teaching fellowships and awards. It also opened the doors to many opportunities for students to gain first-hand experience in subjects through summer abroad, co-op and work-study programs. 

An expert in mental health, trauma and social work practice, Regehr also recognized the unique pressures faced by university-aged youth and advanced efforts to harmonize student mental health services across the three campuses. That included more funding for mental wellness and establishing a partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to create pathways for students requiring treatment for complex mental health problems.

As a result, U of T students can now more easily access same- or next-day counselling in-person as well as 24-7 virtual support – part of a broader push to create a “stepped model of care” that prioritizes individually tailored treatment over lengthy assessments. 

“I’m extremely proud of the work we have done on student mental health,” Regehr said in a recent interview for U of T’s Defy Gravity campaign. “Youth today are under immense pressure, and the pandemic exacerbated some of those stresses … in response to this, we’ve completely redesigned our mental health services to try to make sure that students who are struggling can get the assistance they need more quickly and responsively.”

Sandy Welsh, U of T’s vice-provost, students, said Regehr’s student focus stemmed just as much from her academic expertise as it did from a “deep sense that we need to listen to our students and can always do better for them” – including thinking constantly about improving every aspect of the student experience. 

“There’s this creativity and thoughtfulness that she has. For example, she thinks about how our students move through and inhabit our three campuses,” said Welsh, adding that Regehr’s interest went far beyond ensuring there were ample spots to study. “There was a focus and encouragement to all three campuses and all the academic divisions to think about creating spaces where a commuting student who’s on campus all day can just sit in a comfortable place and relax.

“For Provost Regehr, the centre of her work is always, ‘How is this helping students?’”

In that vein, Regehr also accelerated U of T’s efforts to welcome more students from underrepresented backgrounds – with the number of access and outreach programs at U of T growing from 30 to more than 135 since 2018. “We can only be great if we ensure that every single excellent student here in the city of Toronto believes the University of Toronto is a place for them, a place where they belong,” Regehr said during the launch of one of those programs, SEE U of T,  in 2019.

Similar strides were made when it comes to making sure U of T’s faculty members better reflect the community in which U of T resides, with Regehr overseeing the creation of the Diversity in Academic Hiring Fund that has resulted in the addition of 190 faculty from underrepresented groups – mostly Black and Indigenous – and post-doctoral fellowship programs for Black and Indigenous scholars

Regehr also played a key role in advancing the university’s reckoning with various forms of racism, including collaborating with Indigenous community members to build a new Office of Indigenous Initiatives to strengthen reconciliation efforts. During her tenure, U of T set up working groups to examine anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racismantisemitism and Islamophobia on campus and provide recommendations to support the university’s response.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, Regehr oversaw U of T’s efforts to provide academic continuity and supports as the university pivoted to a virtual learning environment. 

“As we moved to remote, it meant figuring out new ways of managing things and continuing to support everyone as they tried to continue with their activities – and [Provost Regehr] provided incredible leadership through that,” said Vivek Goel, who served as special adviser to U of T’s president and provost on the pandemic and is now president of the University of Waterloo.

Regehr’s responsibilities as provost were carried out alongside distinguished scholarly work. During her 10 years in the role, she authored or co-authored more than 50 papers (including a paper describing U of T’s response to the pandemic, co-authored with Goel), and editions of four books.

“While I have continued to do research while I’ve been provost, I’m looking forward to focusing even more on this,” Regehr told the Defy Gravity campaign. She noted her work will explore topics like the impact of workplace stress and trauma on decision-making and cyber-violence against public service professionals.

Welsh said Regehr’s compassion and thoughtfulness were evident in the work environment she cultivated at U of T. 

“She is just a beautiful combination of being direct around the priorities you need to focus on, but also encouraging your ideas and having compassion and understanding for the people that work with her and the challenges they may face,” Welsh said. 

“I’ve learned a lot from her about what it means to be an academic administrator and a senior leader at the university. I’m going to miss her.”

Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science, said academic leaders across U of T’s three campuses regarded Regehr with “widespread admiration.” 

“Whenever we’re together, we inevitably end up in a conversation about the amazing qualities of our provost, Cheryl Regehr,” Woodin said during a recent event to honour the provost. 

Regehr, for her part, told attendees at the same event she relished working with the expansive U of T community during her many years in Simcoe Hall. 

“I have loved being part of this incredible group of brilliant people,” she said. “Academic leaders, staff, faculty… and our students – our wonderful students – all of us working together as a team to ensure we achieve our mission of being a world-class institution with a local heart.”