Presidents talk about The University and the City

Universities are ancient institutions that have always been strongly associated with cities, said Adrian Shubert, associate vice-president international, in his introduction to four university presidents assembled at York Wednesday for a panel discussion about this symbiotic relationship.

 Above: A panel of presidents from universities in Bangkok, Cleveland and Toronto
 discuss the university and the city in York’s Senate Chamber

The panellists came from Bangkok, Cleveland and Toronto to talk about The University and the City, a topic congruous with the city theme of the 75th Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences, hosted this year by York.

Khunying Suchada Kiranandana is president of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s oldest university, established by the king in 1917 as a bulwark against British colonialism. Located in the heart of Bangkok, it not only offers rare green space in a crowded and growing modern metropolis of 10 million, but has carefully preserved its traditional Thai architecture. Through its efforts, classical Thai music and art has been revived. While the city provides a rich field for urban researchers, the university takes seriously its mission to provide education and training to meet the changing needs of Thailand’s population, including the underprivileged. Suchada said she and the 2,800 faculty are frequently called upon to develop government policy and “guide the people.”

Left: Khunying Suchada Kiranandana addresses the panel. Pictured to her left are Edward Hundert, Sheldon Levy, Lorna R. Marsden and York Region’s Bill Fisch

Edward Hundert of Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University said the medium-size private research institution has been focusing on being a good neighbour over the past four years. “Geography is destiny,” he said. Case Western and all the city’s cultural institutions were built in a cluster five miles outside the downtown 120 years ago and the university has many joint programs with museums and art galleries. Yet, when it comes to the surrounding community, “we have to overcome decades of being a bad neighbour,” said Hundert. He listed ways Case has reached out to the people who live next door: a $25 identity card that gives non-students access to the university library, performances and programs; a Case for Community program where university faculty, students and staff paint houses or do other neighbourhood improvement projects; a dental outreach program for children; a homebuyer’s assistance program in which Case gives $10,000-$15,000 to faculty and staff who buy a house near the university, thus helping to stabilize the neighborhood; partnerships with developers to build retail space that open up the university’s facade to the external community; creating a community-wide wireless network; and hiring local companies to build and service seven new residences.

Left: Edward Hundert

Case has also co-branded with Cleveland. “Part of what makes a great town is a great university,” said Hundert. Case, and by extension Cleveland, has become a regional centre for healthcare data systems and biomedical ethics.

“We want to try to make sure the goal of the university is to try to be at the forefront of research and to address the real issues of the city we live in,” said Hundert. “If you start at home, you are going to make your own city healthier.”

Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University and a former York  VP for institutional affairs, said his university has long responded to the practical educational needs of a changing Toronto, from providing teacher training in the 1850s to offering hospitality, retail and industrial training 100 years later, to most recently upgrading immigrants’ credentials. But Canada’s most downtown university has always been invisible behind Yonge Street’s seedy rows of pornography stores and the landmark Sam the Record Man. Levy spoke of buying up some of those stores and making Ryerson a presence on Toronto’s main street. “As you develop your campus, you develop Toronto,” he said. “The health of Ryerson is connected in a physical sense to the health of Toronto.”

Right: Sheldon Levy addresses the panel

York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden said history and geography haven’t determined York’s destiny so much as constrained it. “This campus has coloured all our relationships.” Built on a field on the periphery of Toronto when York Region consisted of small villages, the Keele campus is now in the centre of the Greater Toronto Area. However, it remains a “tale of two cities,” said Marsden, given its location right on the border of Toronto and York Region. Half the students come from downtown, half from the 905 area. Most faculty members live downtown, most students and staff live in the suburbs. “The goal now is to help faculty understand the advantage of living to the north, west and east of us.” And “transit is the key,” she said, and only a subway system to York will relieve the congestion and air pollution. Students at York are preoccupied with the commute and with part-time jobs, she said. The University does do community outreach, but until transportation is easier to and from York, “it will continue to be awfully difficult to engage in community outreach from this campus.” She said “it will be transit that will help us unlock the door to much more and enrich the lives of students, staff and faculty and, I believe, enrich the lives of the entire community.”

Left: Lorna R. Marsden delivers her remarks to the panel

In concluding remarks, Bill Fisch, Chair and chief executive officer of York Region, noted that Case Western has greater means as a private institution than Canada’s publicly funded universities. “We need to get the province to allow universities to be more leaders at city-building.” Fisch said York University and York Region have been advocating hard together for a subway and “that is true city building.” City-building is part of what a university is meant to do, he said, and it is clear that universities also add cultural, economic and social value to communities. Fisch joked that if he could, he would have York Region annex the small square of Toronto where York University sits, because “we see it as our university.”