This year the University of Toronto hosted the Times Higher Education’s World Academic summit for the first time. This year also brings with it another milestone for the prestigious event as it was the first summit to be held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The summit followed the theme of “the power of place,” focusing on how the geographical and cultural environment of universities have an impact on the schools and how, in turn, the universities impact their communities both near and far. The summit’s theme also explored whether the digital realm has replaced the physical aspect of campus, which U of T President Meric Gertler discussed later on.

U of T has a lot to celebrate. The university was not only selected to host the summit this year but also kept its top 20 spot internationally and number one in Canada across all major university ranking publications. Compared to years prior, where U of T was ranked 19th and even 21st on the list, it is an accomplishment to remain as 18th for two consistent years now. The recent Times Higher Education publication ranked U of T as eighth for world rankings, and third for North America. U of T has also been selected to host the summit again next year in 2021.

In his speech, U of T President Meric Gertler discussed how the university has benefitted from being located in the Toronto area, especially as a leverage point for students deciding where they want to study. “More often than not, it was the quality of the city that helped tip the balance in our favour,” said Gerler. 

Location has become even more important with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic since many students are now required to stay home, rather than take advantage of the opportunities life in the Toronto region may provide. 

Professor Susan McCahan, the vice-provost of innovations in undergraduate education, also spoke at the summit, particularly about how the pandemic has created an accelerated shift in online education. 

“In 2018-2019, we had about 150 online courses at the University of Toronto. This coming year, we will have several thousand,” she stated. McCahan went on to predict that the future of higher education will result in “the blending of the virtual with the real and in-person.” 

Considering how many courses are being delivered via online methods this year, McCahan’s point hits close to home for many students. 

Moreover, with the assistance of digital media, recent events regarding systemic racism have gained more attention and are being recognized for the critical issues they are. President Gertler said that universities must work on challenging systemic racism through both faculty and student channels. 

President Gertler also mentioned that the university administration is putting in more effort to reach out to larger numbers of racialized students by co-operating with public schools in disadvantaged areas, hiring more Indigenous and Black faculty, and dismantling the unconscious bias in faculty search committees through targeted programs, which are yet to be announced. 

Although the U of T administration was proud of the outcomes of this year’s summit, President Gertler pointed out that universities the world over still have a lot of work to do to remain the respected institutions they are revered to be. 

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