This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 20, 1995
University of Toronto: Maclean's 1995 Rankings
To the uneducated eye, they are simply broken bits of red-and-beige clay. But for the five undergraduate students, the detritus laid out on the table represents the bare bones of ancient cultures. As participants in the University of Toronto's Research Opportunities Program, the second-year students spend 10 hours a week in the West Asian studies department of the Royal Ontario Museum, where they categorize and study pottery - some of it dating from biblical times - recovered from a dig in Jordan in the 1950s. It is original research, an endeavor traditionally reserved for graduate students and professors. And the undergraduates' enthusiasm is palpable. "It's more fun than sitting in a classroom," says Daniela Evtimova, 20. Adds Jeremy Burke, 32: "Courses like this remove the abstraction, and give you an idea of how things are really done."
Like the telltale shards of pottery, the Research Opportunities Program - an innovative venture that allows 162 second-year undergraduates to research in fields ranging from literature to archeology - is part of a larger story: how Canada's biggest university, with more than 49,000 full- and part-time students, has maintained its status as a top-notch research institution while reinforcing its own high standards of teaching. "Coming to the University of Toronto should be a distinctive undergraduate experience," says president Robert Prichard. "What we have asked ourselves is, 'How can we ensure the most intimate connection between this extraordinary research faculty and our teaching programs?' " In searching for the answer, the University of Toronto has clearly hit the mark. For the second year in a row, Maclean's ranked it No. 1 overall among Medical/ Doctoral universities.
Toronto's recipe for excellence is complex and uniquely cosmopolitan. The main St. George campus is in the heart of downtown Toronto, and for some, the university can seem a forbidding place. But that is tempered by its long-standing collegiate system: nine main undergraduate colleges, each offering its own sense of community. But what really matters at the University of Toronto is scholarship. Its library holdings are immense - more than 10 million items in 50 libraries - and its academic staff tops 3,000. Every first-year arts and science student is guaranteed the chance to take a seminar course with no more than 20 students, taught by a tenured professor. And what a core of knowledge Toronto offers. The university's scholars include Nobel Prize-winning chemist John Polanyi, political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon and genetic researcher Peter St. George-Hyslop.
For St. George-Hyslop, the University of Toronto experience has come full circle. He interned at St. Michael's Hospital, one of Toronto's teaching institutions, and later did postgraduate study at the university. In 1991, after a teaching stint at Harvard, he returned to become the director of the new Centre for Research in Neurodegenerative Diseases. "I trained here because it had an excellent teaching environment," he says. "Coming back, it is clear there are world-class research institutions as well." Last June, St. George-Hyslop and his team discovered the gene responsible for a form of Alzheimer's disease - a discovery that came after years of heated competition around the world. What gave St. George-Hyslop the edge? "The atmosphere," he explains, "is one of clear-cut thinking and good collegial relationships." In the end, those may be intangible qualities - but they define the University of Toronto for faculty and students alike.
Maclean's November 20, 1995