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President Gertler reflects on visit to China

Discusses importance of international partnerships

President Meric Gertler and Vice-President, University Relations Judith Wolfson chat with Rotman School of Management alumni during their visit to China (photo by Jacky Zhang)

Only a few days into taking on his new role at U of T, President Meric Gertler stepped on a plane bound for China, where he was welcomed by alumni, government officials and leaders from prestigious Chinese universities.

The University of Toronto enjoys a long history with students and scholars in China. Today, nearly 6,000 students come to the university from the Asia-Pacific and faculty collaborate on research between the two regions. The president described his views on the importance of international partnerships such as these in his installation address.

Now that he’s returned from his visit to Beijing and Hong Kong, Gertler shares his reflections on what U of T’s current and future collaborations with institutions in China could mean for the university, the city, the province, the country – and beyond.

What do you want people to know about U of T’s relationship with China?

We have established partnerships with great universities there like Peking University, Tsinghua, University of Hong Kong, University of Fudan and others, and some exciting things are already going on.

One example is a joint course between U of T and Fudan in International Relations. Joe Wong from the Asian Institute has been one of the driving forces in that project where students from both universities come together in the same class that is jointly taught by faculty from both universities. That’s just an amazing learning opportunity for everybody.

Another example is our partnership with Peking University that creates a number of research exchange programs for our applied science and engineering students.

There is a great foundation on which to build, but also terrific opportunities to enlarge those relationships and deepen them still further.

Were there any opportunities coming out of this visit that really excited you?
There’s a lot of discussion about urbanization challenges in China, as well as environmental challenges, and they are looking for assistance drawing on best practices from around the world. They recognize expertise that we have in both of those areas and there were preliminary discussions of possible partnerships between institutions where we could focus on key research themes.  

How do these plans for future collaborations fit in with your vision for U of T?
The interesting part of this for me is watching how universities in places like Beijing engage with the city around them, and help address the most pressing issues often rooted in cities, although the dimensions extend right across the entire country.

For example, in China right now the big issue is how to manage the large numbers of people migrating to cities from rural and small-town parts of the country, to recognize them properly and give them the full rights of urban citizenship. They are also trying to deal with the pressing need for housing, the growing demands on transportation systems and how to manage this in an environmentally sustainable way.

Watching our partner universities and the role that they are playing in this process is instructive for us.
I talked in my installation address about deepening global partnerships for exactly this reason – not just to celebrate the expertise of fellow scholars in great universities around the world but also to learn about their interactions with communities around them. Then we can take some of those lessons back to Toronto and apply them here, and in doing so, help us think through how we engage with our own local communities at each of our three campuses.  

What did people you visited with want to discuss in relation to U of T?
We talked a lot about cities but also about how we educate undergraduates. There appears to be growing interest in China – at the level of individual universities and at the national level – in how one creates more broadly-based undergraduate education, and how one fosters critical thinking and creativity in the student body.

There was great interest in what we’ve been doing at U of T in terms of enhancing the breadth of undergraduate programs, promoting multiple majors in different fields and giving new life to liberal arts education. That was terrific to see.

You paid a visit to the Beijing Experimental School, whose students apply to UTSC’s Green Path program. Any reflections on your time there?
This is a school that draws top students from across China. I met a grade 11 class, gave a presentation on U of T, and took some questions. They were quite assertive, not afraid to ask tough questions – and they were extremely well-informed. They knew a lot about us, and knew what they were looking for in a good university and education. They asked questions like, “Do your best professors teach undergraduates?” And I was delighted to be able to say, “Yes!” These are smart kids and I’m so pleased to know they are interested in us and that apparently they are applying to U of T this year in record numbers.

What were your experiences like meeting up with U of T alumni in Beijing and Hong Kong?
We had two fantastic alumni gatherings, one in Beijing, one in Hong Kong, record attendance at both of them. It was wonderful to meet the alumni, many of whom are major leaders in the local business community and cultural world, all with really deep loyalty to U of T.

We also held our U of T Asia-Pacific graduation ceremony, which attracted nearly 800 people. I was struck by the huge outpouring of goodwill and warmth amongst those who attended this great event.

I heard you queued in line for 90 minutes for hot pot in Beijing – which was a restaurant suggestion for you posted on U of T’s Facebook page. Was it worth the wait?
It was worth it! The food was fantastic, the experience was great. It was clearly a place inhabited by locals. I love those kinds of authentic cultural experiences – and I’m a bit of a foodie, so having an opportunity to indulge was terrific. We had a lot of fun trying to get to as many of the suggestions from the U of T Facebook page as possible, but unfortunately I was too busy to get to all of them. 

Brianna Goldberg is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.