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Telling ‘the story of us.’ Stats and stories will form heart of U of T alumni impact survey results, says economic geographer

University of Toronto alumni are a pretty passionate and outspoken group of people – just ask Shiri M. Breznitz, who is currently leading the university’s first-ever Alumni Impact Survey.

Since it opened at uoftimpactsurvey.ca on April 19, she’s been stopped on the street by neighbours and even questioned by her Pilates classmate – all proud U of T alumni – with questions about the survey, believed to be the largest of its kind ever conducted by a Canadian university.

The voluntary survey, which takes about 15 minutes to complete, is designed to capture the social, economic, cultural and artistic impacts of U of T’s 500,000 alumni on a local, regional and global scale.

Her simple answer: Fill it out and see how you fit into the overall story of what makes U of T one of the top-ranked universities in the world.

“I think people will surprise themselves with what they have accomplished,” says Breznitz, a Faculty of Arts & Science associate professor at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs, who often advises on the economic and innovative impacts of universities.

To learn more about this research survey, U of T News sat down with Breznitz recently for a quick Q & A.

Have you been involved in doing an alumni impact survey before?

Alumni impact surveys are not very common. It’s a new phenomenon, if you like. Only a few universities have done them. They’re quite complicated. They require resources, and you need cooperation from a lot of different parts of the university.

The most famous ones have been done by Harvard, MIT and Stanford. There are some Canadian universities that have done them, too, like Waterloo and University of Alberta.

How is our survey different?

Unlike MIT, Harvard and Stanford, we’re not just focused on entrepreneurship; [we’re trying to build a much larger picture of our alumni’s impact on society]. That’s why there’s an entire section near the end on community and civic engagement (because even at Harvard and MIT, most graduates don’t build companies).

We know studies have found people with academic degrees are more engaged in their communities. That’s why we have questions examining engagement in the local school to being engaged politically, volunteering in the community garden and attending community meetings.

Our people are doing amazing things but we don’t know enough about them. 

What’s your quick pitch to someone about why they should fill out the survey?

Filling the survey will help create the grand story of U of T. We want to be able to show: ‘This is what we can do.’ It’s a way to recruit students and for alumni to be proud of their degrees and see the need and value in hiring other U of T alumni. Our network of alumni is very important.

Why is it important to do a survey like this – at this time – for U of T?

Universities are constantly under pressure to prove they are valuable. There are two reasons for that: one, as public institutions, we rely on public funding, and hence all around the world universities are to show their value added. In addition, universities are ranked. The ranking is used to recruit both faculty and students. We need to be able to show that we are not just good at research, but we also place our students well, and that we have an important role to play in our region and country.

If you look at the City of Toronto – and I’m not just talking about real estate – if you take U of T out of the equation, there’s a big hole. It’s not easily filled. U of T is not just an educational facility, we’re training professionals. There’s art here. There’s music. There are faculty and researches here who are engaged in the community all of the time. Not because they have to but because they are interested and they want to contribute. Our students volunteer in the community. There is this symbiotic relationship between the university and the city. [If you look at Yale or Waterloo, it’s easier to track their contributions to the region because they’re located in much smaller centres.] It’s hard to do the same at U of T.

I’ve studied at Yale for years. Even though it is one of the top universities in the world, it didn’t have a high-tech industry in its hometown of New Haven, Conn. In the ‘90s, thanks to its very strong medical school, the university helped the town develop an amazing biotechnology industry – that wasn’t related to the pharmaceutical industry that was already present in the region.

You can say – directly – that these companies came out of the university, and they were there because of the university. Why? Because there’s nothing else there. You can pinpoint, these companies that came from Yale.

If you look at downtown Toronto [from an entrepreneurship angle], it’s hard to say how many of the companies are located here simply because of U of T. [There are so many big industries here, from banking to the digital media] that for any researcher, it would be hard to distinguish.

This university is doing a lot of things not just for the city but for the province and the country – a lot of it is not acknowledged.

Have you taken a peek at any of the results yet, or do you have to wait until the survey closes on Monday, June 19?

I don’t get to see the results. This is very important. We have an independent company, Malatest, that is running the survey. It’s not me.

When I get the data, it will be completely anonymous. I will get bulk data, it won’t be specific. I won’t be able to connect people and names and places.

For more information, visit the survey’s FAQ section

What would be something that would surprise you from the results?

This is a research project. We don’t have any expectations about what we’ll be getting.

But in general, coming from the U.S., I think Canadians are very modest. I keep hearing, ‘We’re not Harvard, we’re not MIT.’

But U of T is not just the top university in Canada, it’s one of the top universities in the world. When you look the people who teach here and U of T graduates, these are very accomplished people. I think people will surprise themselves with what they have accomplished.