Canada’s premier research powerhouse is broadening its horizons while continuing to enhance the undergraduate experience, writes VICTOR DWYER
WHEN Zahra Ziaie Moayyed moved from Manchester, England, to Toronto in Grade 10, she promised herself that she would spend as much time at extracurricular activities as she would in class. By her last year of high school, she was volunteering with Kids Help Phone and the Toronto-based legal clinic Justice for Children and Youth, and was travelling to New York City as a delegate to the Model United Nations. “When it came time for university,” says Ziaie Moayyed, “I wanted one that would push me to expand my horizons as far as they could go, and put me in the path of people from the widest variety of backgrounds.” Now in her first year studying
international relations and French at the University of Toronto, and living in residence at historic University College in the heart of downtown, Ziaie Moayyed is convinced she chose well. “In terms of the professors, of the students, of life outside of class, U of T is my kind of school,” she says. “It’s an in-yourface kind of place.”
With its roughly 3,500 faculty, 32 libraries and PhD programs in 76 disciplines, Canada’s top-ranked Medical-Doctoral university is one of the world’s pre-eminent research
institutions. But for students like Ziaie Moayyed, it’s also a great place to be an undergrad. And although it is not immune to problems of underfunding and overcrowding, its $ 1.4-billion endowment has placed it in an enviable position as it stretches to make room for next fall’s double cohort of Ontario high-school grads. “There will be challenges ahead,” says president Robert Birgeneau, “but we feel both prepared to meet them and confident that we will.”
For starters, Birgeneau is promising to increase the university’s already remarkable $30-million commitment to need-based student aid in an effort to ensure that nearly
one of every two undergrads continues to get such help. And at a university known for its close-knit colleges—many of them more than a century old, each with its own distinctive programs, social clubs and residences—1,200 new dorm spaces are being added over the next two years, paving the way for more students to enjoy what Ziaie Moayyed describes as “a strong, and plain fun, sense of community. I’m at University College, living at Whitney Hall, in Ferguson House,” she notes. “As those groupings get smaller and smaller, you’re able to get more and more involved, and really bond with the people you’re meeting every single day.”
Academically, too, U of T has been making major investments in the future. Over the past year, it hired 152 new tenure-stream professors, who will join such world-famous names as philosopher Mark Kingwell, demographer David Foot and Nobel Prize-winning chemist John Polanyi. As well, this fall saw the opening of the Bahen Centre for Information Technology, home to eight storeys of classrooms, research space and study lounges. Just days before that, building began on the Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular
Research, which will gather scholars in the fields of pharmacy, medicine and engineering into a single cross-disciplinary facility. Students like fourth-year chemistry major Sharonna Greenberg, who has earned both credits and cash working on summer research projects in areas as varied as aquatic ecology and inorganic chemistry, know well the benefits of pursuing a degree in the thick of such cutting-edge research. “I’ve spent three summers learning from professors who care not only about their research, but about their students,” she says. “I’ve also learned a heck of a lot about my field in the process.”
Big changes are also afoot at U of T’s two suburban campuses, which, says Birgeneau, “will operate from now on more like their own universities.” Already, Mississauga has begun construction on a new residence complex, has initiated new programs in biotechnology and communications with nearby Sheridan College, and is expanding in fields as diverse as mathematics, social policy and ethnomusicology. In eastern Toronto, the Scarborough campus is in the midst of its greatest capital expansion program in four decades. On line for next fall: a range of
new co-op programs to beef up its already healthy commitment to hands-on learning; a new residence; and the opening of the Academic Resource Centre, which will house a digital library, expanded study space and a state-of-the-art computerized lecture and performance theatre.
Of course, you don’t have to sniff out the flashy, the new or the in-your-face to fully appreciate the U of T’s many charms. On a recent autumn day, in the cozy confines of Hart House Library, a dozen or so students, their noses in books as varied as The Greek Historians and Professional Liability, studied under decades-old portraits of patrons Vincent and Alice Massey. On one wall, a snappy computer-generated poster read, “Feel free to ask snoring patrons to knock it off, or leave”—just a few feet from a young man sprawled on a red leather couch, softly but distinctly whirring the afternoon away. As a copy of Single Variable Calculus rose and fell on his chest, no one seemed to notice, and certainly no one deemed it necessary to disturb his reverie. Even at a university as dynamic as this one, there can sometimes be no improving on tradition.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.