University Rankings Winners

She hails from the great Outback, but nothing quite prepared Australian Karen George for the sheer magnitude of the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO.

University Rankings Winners

MEDICAL DOCTORAL: University of Toronto

She hails from the great Outback, but nothing quite prepared Australian Karen George for the sheer magnitude of the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO. The second-year commerce student remembers walking into her psychology 100 class in 1998 and laying eyes on the vast grandeur of Convocation Hall, packed to the rafters with 900 chattering students. The crowd was almost as big as the entire population of Leinster, her home town, 14 hours northeast of Perth. One year later, the shock has subsided and George, 19, has come to love campus life in the big city. "On the face of it, it does look like a huge, impersonal institution," she confides. "But when you go inside it, there's so much going on."

Robert Prichard, the university's ebullient bushy-browed president, calls it the best of all worlds. Toronto, which has placed first in the medical-doctoral category since 1992, has the depth and breadth of resources to enable inquiring minds to venture to the very limits of knowledge: a $1.2-billion endowment fund, 6,200 faculty, 52,000 students and 32 libraries. At the same time, the university's rich history as a federation of colleges lends it an air of relative intimacy. "No university in Canada has assembled the same scale of resources," says Prichard. "This is a community, and we're doing everything we can to strengthen it."

Over the next three years, the university plans to spend about $200 million on three major buildings in a bid to bring faculty and students from various disciplines together to spur innovation. Among them: a new Health Sciences Complex designed to house staff in such fields as biomolecular engineering and occupational therapy, currently spread over 11 locations on campus. The $68-million Centre for Information Technology, slated for completion next fall, is designed to accommodate an expected doubling in the number of students in such fields as computer science and electrical engineering. As well, Toronto hopes to boost its role as a residential university, creating 2,300 new residence spaces over the next four years.

In the end, Toronto's allure will depend largely on what goes on in the classroom. Karen Lloyd, a first-year music student, is more than satisfied: "The people you have access to as teachers are just the best quality." Even professors in large courses are readily available, says the 19-year-old native of Guelph, Ont. But for learning on a smaller scale, the university offers its 199-series of courses, which guarantee a class size in arts and science programs of no more than 25. Its 299-series of courses offers undergrads a hands-on research opportunity, while future 399 offerings will include an international experience.

Regardless of what new paths are pursued, Prichard says the university will always stay true to its passion for providing a superior education. As students strive to stay abreast of the information explosion, he argues, that need has never been greater. "Our challenge for the next decade is to harness all of our resources in a way that stretches the capacity of our graduates for critical thinking," says Prichard. "That is the heart and soul of a university education." And a key ingredient in the University of Toronto's recipe for success.

COMPREHENSIVE: University of Guelph

Horticulturalist Mike Dixon has a secret desire to grow roses on the moon. Don't laugh - he may just pull it off. In the past five years, the UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH scientist has parlayed a modest $50,000 grant into what is on its way to being a $10-million annual research program, one of the largest of its kind in the world. This week, top scientists from the European, Canadian and American space agencies are descending on Guelph, Ont., to discuss how to sustain cosmic crops during a long space mission to the moon or Mars. They will tour the university's high-tech life-support system for plants where the light from the microwave-powered lamps is so photosynthetically pure that even the sun blanches with envy.

This is the new Guelph. Building on its strengths as the country's oldest agricultural college, preoccupied with the safety and quality of food, the new Guelph is branching out dramatically into the latest biological and environmental fields. It wants to be on the cutting edge of science with a conscience. Head in the clouds, feet on the ground: that's the right prescription for university president Mordechai Rozanski. Guelph has one of the largest research budgets for its size in the country, but it is also a tight-knit community of just over 14,000 students and 620 faculty, with 13 large residences encircling the grounds. Nearly 4,600 people live on campus, and an almost equal number of students work there part time as well. This balance between high-tech research and undergraduate intimacy - not to mention a vigorous theatre and fine-arts program - is what has made Guelph the winner in the Comprehensive category, overtaking Simon Fraser, last year's winner. It also explains how Guelph can boast both the transgenic pig, whose custom-designed organs may be used in human transplants, and the two recent winners of the North American Debating Championship.

To strengthen its sense of community, Guelph has become one of the most aggressive universities in ensuring that students succeed in that all-important first year. New students are "clustered" in dorms with those taking the same courses, creating partnerships for newcomers. A recent innovation: the office of first-year studies has identified the seven courses with the highest dropout rate, and trained senior students to help turn the tide. These third- and fourth-year students hold weekly seminars to try to determine who is "getting" the material. Ten years ago, only about 70 per cent of Guelph students went on to second year, says Rozanski. "Now, our retention rate is over 90 per cent."

One of those who will surely go on is 19-year-old Aviva Leber of Ottawa, a first-year student in molecular biology. A top scholar and field-hockey player, as well as a dedicated volunteer, Leber chose Guelph because of its research strengths - and because she wanted a "university town" to help focus her goals. Says Leber: "I get the feeling they really want us to succeed." Success is in the air. After a severe retrenchment in the early '90s - almost 70 programs were merged or dropped - "it is time for expansion," Rozanski insists. Rooted in the fertile farming country of southern Ontario, the sky is the limit. Maybe even the moon.

PRIMARILY UNDERGRADUATE: Mount Allison University

Any great university consists of many elements: motivated students, learned profs, top-notch facilities. But anyone searching for an underlying explanation of how tiny MOUNT ALLISON UNIVERSITY has managed to top Maclean's ranking of Primarily Undergraduate universities for eight consecutive years might want to consider something a little more basic: money. Since it wiped out its debt in 1994, Mount Allison has built up an accumulated endowment of $66 million. "No question," declares president Ian Newbould, "funding is a big reason why we've been able to maintain our standard of education."

Having deep pockets makes so much possible. In the past eight years, Mount Allison has spent $35 million upgrading its Sackville, N.B., campus. It has had the money to hire 19 new tenure-track faculty members in the past two years - and the luxury of being able to pick from the best available teaching prospects. As well, more cash means no need to grow to increase the revenue base. The upshot: Mount Allison has limited its student body to 2,500 - smaller than many urban Canadian high schools - and maintained an impressive 83.6-per-cent average entering grade for new students, the highest in its category.

Mount Allison is not paradise: the wounds are still fresh from a nasty faculty strike last winter, which shut down classes for three weeks and left students feeling like pawns in a faculty-administration dispute. But the quaint, close-knit liberal arts school still offers an experience far different from the anonymity of many sprawling urban universities. "It is the type of place where you go to your prof's house for dinner," says Alicia Johnston, 20, a third-year Canadian studies student from Calgary. "You either know the name of everyone you pass on campus, or at least recognize their face."

With students from 51 different countries, the faces are changing. And Mount Allison is changing with the times - enough to have wired every classroom, dormitory and office to the Internet before any other university in Canada. But it remains the kind of place where the overall development of the student seems to matter as much as the classroom education. "Sackville doesn't have a Cineplex," explains Anamitra Deb, 21, a third-year international relations and economics student from Bombay, who also serves as student council president and a member of the university's board of regents and plays intramural soccer. "Most people direct all their energies into university life. Everybody gets involved."

That attitude seems to pay off. Mount Allison ranked second in its category in terms of student awards. It has also produced 41 Rhodes Scholars - more, on a per-capita basis, than any university in the British Commonwealth. Its alumni list is studded with business leaders like Wallace McCain, chairman of Maple Leaf Foods Inc., and Purdy Crawford, chairman of Imasco Ltd., and artists like Alex Colville, and Christopher and Mary Pratt.

Big names help with fund-raising. Along with its swelling endowment fund, the school's capital campaign - headed up by Crawford, who is also chancellor - is steaming along towards its $20-million goal. The school has grand plans for the future: building improvements, more financial aid for needy students, increased numbers of student research and teaching fellowships, expanding its centre for learning disabled students. Which just goes to show that, with money in the bank, even the best schools can get better.

Maclean's November 15, 1999