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Why Metropolitan? An Institutional Renaming Through an International Lens

A name change for a sizeable institution in one of North America’s largest cities is not a re-write of the past but a new direction moving forward.
A name change for a sizeable institution in one of North America’s largest cities is not a re-write of the past but a new direction moving forward.

The nature of my work requires me to represent Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University) to a wide range of institutional partners in a variety of national and international settings. Perhaps the question posed to me most frequently since the renaming of our university is “Why Metropolitan?” My interactions over the past few months have led me to the realization that without sufficient context and awareness it is easy to classify the new name as a rebranding initiative. However, those of us who have experienced the process first-hand know that it is anything but that.

The Process

The search for our new name began in 2021, following recommendations from the Standing Strong (Mash Koh Wee Kah Pooh Win) Task Force established to guide commemoration at the university and to address Egerton Ryerson’s legacy in alignment with our university’s values. The task force conducted an in-depth reassessment of Egerton Ryerson’s legacy and, as part of several recommendations, advised that the institution should be renamed to better reflect the values that define it. Accordingly, the University Renaming Advisory Committee (URAC) was created and carried out extensive research and community consultations to identify names that more accurately represent our values and an inclusive learning environment. 

This process belonged to everyone; it brought forward ideas from employees, current students, alumni and other community members. In many ways, it exemplified what it means to be metropolitan: an amalgamation of different perspectives and ideas. This comprehensive exercise of diligent and collaborative deliberation resulted in a name that centres on our location as well as our commitment to diversity and inclusion. The name highlights that important duality: We are located in an urban centre and embrace the city’s multicultural identity but, given the city’s inherent diversity, we also experience perspectives and outlooks that sometimes conflict. The multitude of cultural values and norms housed in a metropolitan city may also stand in contrast to the more universal Canadian values of openness, respect and equity that we as a society aspire to.

Higher ed institutions provide an important platform for different perspectives to be a source of constructive and open dialogue instead of divisiveness. By channeling informed discussions, we can ensure a sustained and collective effort to simultaneously respect diverse viewpoints and uphold universal values—values that make us a welcoming nation and guide us on our path toward truth and reconciliation. Being identified as metropolitan in a richly diverse but somewhat chaotic environment provides our students with a space to be themselves while teaching them to be respectful of others in what is plausibly the true Canadian way.

Becoming a Global University

The renaming has been a challenging but necessary process to acknowledge our history and to make intentional efforts to learn from it as we progress as an institution. Since the process involved university stakeholders as well as the community at large, the significance of this initiative has been well known nationally. However, due to limited awareness of the context and our truth and reconciliation efforts internationally, it has been difficult to adopt a standardized approach in our messaging when introducing the new name in other parts of the world. 

The use of the word metropolitan has been helpful in this regard, as it highlights both our downtown location and our multicultural and diverse learning environment. To be recognized as Toronto Metropolitan University in the global education market helps us position ourselves as an innovative urban university in Canada’s largest city. As a relatively lesser-known institution currently implementing its first internationalization strategy, we have embraced this opportunity to create our international presence through a name that distinguishes us based on our urban location and commitment to inclusion. 

The new name, however, is not an end in itself. Critical discourse and educated discussions are a hallmark of academic institutions, and the university’s renaming has allowed us to encourage and facilitate dialogue around violence, oppression and discrimination, which are as relevant here as they are in other parts of the world. Notwithstanding differences in language and culture, our continued efforts to achieve truth and reconciliation demonstrate a spirit of resilience and commitment to equity for which Canada is internationally recognized and that we are proud to embody as an institution.

Need for Indigenous Education

An important consideration noted in the Standing Strong Task Force report was that, despite its visibility and impact, the name change alone does not do much to address the systemic barriers and inequities Indigenous and Black community members continue to face. It is therefore important to understand that the new name is just one component of a transformational process to uphold our institutional values and our aspiration to become a university where students develop both the spirit of innovative entrepreneurship and a sense of social responsibility.

Part of this social responsibility and an essential step toward acknowledging, understanding and promoting truth and reconciliation efforts is developing resources and educating our students about the historic atrocities committed against Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and the role they must play in creating a more equitable society. This is especially relevant for international students who join us from different parts of the world with little to no understanding of Canada’s colonial history and the lasting impact it has had on the community that they could become part of as future residents.

The 2021 CBIE International Student Survey indicates that 85% of postsecondary international students reported gaining some form of awareness of Indigenous Peoples and their history and culture over the course of their studies. While efforts are clearly underway, much more needs to be done. In Ontario, for example, over 15% of the surveyed international students reported that they have not gained any knowledge about Indigenous Peoples since the beginning of their studies. The renaming has given us the opportunity to increase awareness of the legacy of residential schools to support the process of Canadian reconciliation. Educating international students about the continuing struggles Indigenous Peoples face while preparing them to become functional members of our society will empower them as future leaders to advocate for Indigenous rights, contribute toward reconciliation efforts and create an inclusive society.

So, Why Metropolitan?

Having built my career around multiple urban centres across the globe with cultural roots spanning four continents and encompassing several languages, the value of celebrating differences is something I hold in very high regard. As an international student and an immigrant, I also understand the effort it takes to not feel out of place. That’s why the institution’s spirit of embracing diversity and supporting inclusion by identifying as metropolitan is particularly inspiring for me—it tells our students that no matter where they come from they belong here.

The simple answer to the question “Why Metropolitan?” is that it is a representation of who we collectively identify as: an urban postsecondary institution that values excellence and innovation, stemming from a collaborative learning environment comprising multicultural and diverse perspectives. It also signifies whom we aspire to be: an inclusive space where all members of our community are equally recognized and celebrated. For us, being metropolitan is who we are as well as our way forward.

As we embark on our next chapter, we are committed to the Standing Strong Task Force’s 22 recommendations—of which the renaming was just one. This new name and the underlying shared identity will play a pivotal role in guiding our efforts toward achieving truth and reconciliation as well as positioning ourselves as a leading innovation university with global reach. 

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