Excellence Seeks Excellence

In most cases, what is understood need not be discussed. But then there are times when that discussion still needs to occur, in order to keep us from forgetting the obvious. Such was the case recently as I listened to University of Toronto president Meric Gertler deliver a lecture titled “Universities, Cities and Prosperity: An Agenda for the Future” where he spoke about how strong universities can help build strong cities, and how city builders can nurture these relationships. While his job clearly is to promote U of T, his views on the role that a university should be playing in the life of a city can expand to all post-secondary institutions, particularly those embedded in an urban context.

That a strong university helps build a strong city and vice versa, and that a strong host city enables a university to excel nationally and internationally (also vice versa) is undisputed. We accept that when it comes to creative cities, well-educated ones tend to be important cities in the global economy. “Nodality and research often corresponds to nodality in other parts of the economy,” said Gertler. But the actual overall value of a healthy, dynamic university institution to the same health and dynamism of its host city seems often forgotten as we tell the stories of ourselves to ourselves. That is evident in the surprise we display when we see Canadian institutions (particularly in Ontario) rank extremely high in international peer review and reputational analyses. Did anyone know that U of T ranks second only to Harvard in research productivity and second in impact as measured by citations within North America? Has anyone even heard of the influential Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings, which show similar results in other categories?

Modesty is one thing, but undervaluing these institutions is actually dangerous, because while it would seem that our international peers know more about us than we do, very high global rankings matter because it turns out that when the best universities in the world want to collaborate, they seek out other institutions of comparable quality as partners. “Exceptional research groups share ideas, resources, and outcomes and excellence seeks excellence,” said an oft-cited study in Nature, and these collaborations often lead to ideas that fuel local innovation. Ontario benefits tremendously from the output of human capital from all of its universities and colleges. Toronto has had its up and downs but is now arguably not just one of Canada’s but indeed one of North America’s and even one of the world’s largest technology hubs. According to data from the City of Toronto and Invest in Canada, Toronto’s CMA is the third largest technology hub in North America and comprises some 43 per cent of Canada’s tech sector investment.

Yet there seems to be a disconnect between the facts of these rankings and how governments and city builders talk to universities. Case in point is something Gertler mentioned: as many know, Toronto is in the throes of a municipal election (which will be over, thankfully, by the time you read this issue), and you would think that to have a reasonable chance of becoming mayor one would want to engage the leadership of higher education institutions at some point (even privately if not publicly) to get their views on the future of the city and the role that education and research should be playing in that. According to Gertler, at the time of his lecture he’d had just one conversation with a mayoral candidate. And it was initiated by himself. Clearly symptomatic of deeper problems we have when interacting with the components of successful city building.

Call it a matter of enlightened self-interest, but it is important for any serious city builder to engage with higher education institutions in their region more effectively. As Gertler pointed out, “Universities impart dynamism and resilience to the economies of their host regions. They help these places reinvent themselves over time and that is of course, really, really critical. But at the same time that they are sources of dynamism, they are also sources of stability.” To use a real estate analogy, universities are anchor tenants that help stabilize communities, help keep property markets buoyant, and (while kind of obvious but again taken for granted) here to stay. They are not likely to pick up and move anytime soon. You can’t say that of all of the sources of employment in a city region.

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