TORONTO — The new president of the University of Toronto is the son of a Holocaust survivor.
Meric Gertler, whose appointment was announced in early March, will be school’s 16th president in its nearly 200 years of existence.
He will succeed incumbent David Naylor later this year.
Gertler, who joined U of T 30 years ago, is a professor of geography and planning. He holds the Goldring Chair in Canadian Studies at University College and is currently dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, a position he has held since December 2008.
Prior to this, he was vice-dean of graduate education and research.
Gertler’s father, Leonard, an urban planner, was the founding director of the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning.
His mother, born in what was then Czechoslovakia, survived the Holocaust. Gertler declined to provide her name or details of her experiences during the Nazi occupation.
Born in Edmonton, Gertler grew up mostly in Toronto and Waterloo and spent periods of time in St. Catharines and Ottawa.
He earned an undergraduate degree at McMaster University and a post-graduate degree in city planning at the University of California, Berkeley. He received a PhD from Harvard University, writing his thesis on “Capital Dynamics and Regional Development.”
In an interview, Gertler said his Montreal-born father, who headed a major study that led to the establishment of the Niagara Escarpment Planning Commission, kindled his fascination with cities.
As he put it, “The talk at the dinner table revolved around cities and urban issues for as long as I can remember.”
He added, “Today, with such a large and growing proportion of the world’s population living in cities, and with city regions emerging as the most important sites of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, my interest in the economic dynamism of cities is very timely. So, too, is my fascination with the relationship between the university and the city around it – an interest I am now able to pursue from both a scholarly and a practical perspective.”
As dean of arts and sciences, Gertler redesigned the structure of undergraduate education to emphasize “core competencies” such as writing, critical thinking and quantitative reasoning.
He also increased enrolment in doctoral programs by roughly 50 per cent and created a series of new graduate programs.
“One example I am especially proud of is the Centre for Jewish Studies, which has continued to develop and thrive in recent years, attracting large numbers of undergraduate and graduate students to its courses, and putting in place a vibrant new master’s program to complement its PhD program,” he said.
Gertler described the Centre for Jewish Studies, directed by Jeffrey Kopstein, as “a truly dynamic interdisciplinary centre” that promotes the study of Jewish thought, philosophy, history, culture and classical Judaism.
Gertler made a surprise appearance at the centre on Feb. 25, talking in general terms about U of T.
He was introduced by Kopstein, whose featured speaker, Trinity College professor Samuel Kassow, delivered a lecture on the Warsaw ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum.
Almost two years ago, Gertler went to Israel to deliver the Arie Shachar memorial lecture and seminar on urban studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
After the lecture, he co-hosted an alumni reception at which several members of U of T’s faculty were present.
Israel’s success in start-up technology makes it an example to emulate as U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs develops its new Innovation Policy Lab, Gertler said.
“The emergence of the ‘start-up nation’ phenomenon in Israel makes it a natural case study for this kind of work, alongside other standout cases such as India, Brazil, China and others,” he observed.
“In this context, our strong partnerships with the leading universities in Israel, as well as other top universities around the world, will be a major asset.”
He intends to “hit the ground running” when he takes over from Naylor.
“I have worked at U of T for my entire academic career and have spent the last eight years in senior academic administration,” noted Gertler, whose research has attracted $8.4 million in external funding. “This has given me a very detailed knowledge of how U of T works. And I have strong working relationships with many colleagues across the university.”
He said his deanship of the faculty of arts and sciences, with its 30,000 students, has given him the required experience to run a university as a big and complex as U of T.
“I am very familiar with the distinct disciplinary cultures of the sciences, humanities and social sciences. Arts and sciences also collaborates closely with other divisions in the university, such as the Rotman School of Management and the faculty of medicine, to deliver undergraduate programs. This breadth and scale provides me with an excellent foundation for leading the university.”