People drinking coffee, writing, standing among colourful campus buildings
Illustration by Calvin Sprague

Toronto Metropolitan University’s full-scale name change sets future course

With the bold decision to rename, the community commits to a space for all

By Michelle Grady

People drinking coffee, writing, standing among colourful campus buildings
Illustration by Calvin Sprague

All across Canada, public spaces and institutions are in the process of reckoning with the legacy of the country’s past and examining monuments, statues and names with an eye toward the future. As we are learning, history isn’t static and the meanings these monuments carry can change. Over the past decade, students, faculty and staff from this university have been deeply involved in the process of reconciling Egerton Ryerson’s connection to residential schools.

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, a worldwide anti-racism movement reached a crescendo and had sports teams, institutions and even consumer products taking a deeper look at whether their names have stood the test of time.

In September 2020, university President Mohamed Lachemi established the Standing Strong Task Force to formally conduct the necessary research around Egerton Ryerson’s legacy and provide recommendations on a path forward, including whether his statue should remain on campus and if the university should change its name.

Once the university accepted the task force’s recommendations, one of which was to change the institution’s name, the university faced the challenge of finding a new name that reduces harm for community members and better reflects its values. 

Though other institutions have addressed the names of individual buildings or schools—Queen’s University removed John A. Macdonald’s name from their law school building and Carleton University decided to change the name of Robertson Hall—we are the first university to undertake a full-scale name change in this context.

A different world

On April 26, 2022, after unanimous approval from the Board of Governors, the university announced its official transition to the new name: Toronto Metropolitan University. 

President Lachemi explained the rationale for the new name: “Toronto Metropolitan University embodies so many things about our university, our community, our students, faculty, staff and alumni. Located in the heart of our country’s biggest and most diverse city —we represent all that it is to be metropolitan.

“We are a gathering place for people from all over the world, from all walks of life, with broad and diverse perspectives, lived experiences and aspirations. Our university is where it all happens—our energy, creativity, innovation and commitment to welcoming and accepting all who come here is what makes us who we are.”

An aerial shot of the quad on the university campus.

“Our university is where it all happens—our energy, creativity, innovation and commitment to welcoming and accepting all who come here is what makes us who we are,” says President Mohamed Lachemi. Photograph by Tom Ryaboi

When it comes to changing a name, “the challenges are both big and small,” said Martin Pyle, Ted Rogers School of Management professor in Marketing Management. “The university we attend is often a part of our self-concept, an identity we share with others. One challenge with the name change is making sure our students and alumni still feel connected to the university, while providing a name they can share with pride.” 

The legacy of the name Ryerson was beginning to introduce irreconcilable contradictions between this sense of pride and the name of the institution. “We learn more as time goes on and meanings change. As the meaning of a name changes, we have to change too.”

Pyle says part of this process of change is recognizing that we are in a different world than in 1948 when the name Ryerson was chosen to represent the institution’s values because Egerton Ryerson was well known at the time.

Justin Poy (Radio and Television Arts ’93), who runs his own advertising agency, says the name change marks an exciting new chapter. “The name change is an opportunity for the university to show that it wants to meet the challenges of Canada today, as we continue to evolve as a country.”

For Michael Mihalicz (Master’s of Science in Management ’19), who is a professor and Indigenous advisor at TRSM, and University Renaming Advisory Committee (URAC) member, this change has been on the horizon for some time and was a necessary move to reflect these societal shifts.

“I was aware of the petition to remove the statue of Egerton Ryerson and change the name ever since I was an undergraduate student at the university. When I heard about the statue coming down after a rally held in response to the discovery of unmarked graves on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia, the issue then became ‘what more can we do about this?’”

A name is but part of a whole brand

But this doesn’t mean the entire brand is in a process of change—a new name is but one part of a brand’s whole, and Poy sees the move as something to celebrate as a recommitment to the values that are part of the university’s brand.

Camilo Garay (Master’s in Molecular Science ’15), elected member of the Board of Governors and URAC member, agrees. “The thing that will remain core to Toronto Metropolitan University despite the name change is everything that made the institution what it was to begin with,” he said.

“The fact that we decided to pursue a name change is what this university is about: listening to the community, making bold decisions and driving action. It’s about innovation, and collaboration—it’s a space that is deeply about its people. And I think that all of those things are what put us in a position to be able to say that a name change actually made sense for this institution.”

Community members sitting outside Balzacs Coffee on campus.

The new name will better represent our university and allow our values and our accomplishments to define who we are as an institution. Photograph by Alyssa K. Faoro

In fact, Garay says that if Toronto Metropolitan University didn’t pursue a name change, what was at stake was the university’s very brand. “Then we would no longer have been living our values of caring for community, being innovative, adaptive, and being bold. So I think that the very fact that we pursued this difficult path is an indication that we will continue to uphold our values into the future no matter how difficult the conversations get.”

Mihalicz echoes this. “We like our culture and the impact that we’re making. We don’t want to change any of that. And the association with Egerton Ryerson would have become increasingly problematic.” To Mihalicz and many within the community, Ryerson has come to symbolize the historical and ongoing violences against Indigenous Peoples that is contrary to who we are, the work we do and the values we embody.

“When I was in my undergrad, I was involved in a tragic incident in my third year,” Mihalicz says. “I had to complete the majority of my studies remotely and no one had ever done that at the time and they didn’t know how it was going to be done. I had limited access to the internet but I knew that I needed this positive influence in my life. 

“And I reached out to professors, staff, family and friends to ask how we could make this work. You should have seen how many people came together to make that possible for me.

“To me, that is who we are: we are willing to go above and beyond to provide the opportunity for people to come to the university to receive their education and to make it a space that works for everyone. I feel that we owe it to ourselves to have a name that reflects that.”

Addressing what we commemorate

When brands fail to change with the times, they risk alienating their support base, as brands are part of a co-creation process—one where the fans or stakeholders play an integral part. “With brands, you want people to feel connected and positive; instead, we were faced with a group being alienated and hurt by the very name,” said Pyle. “This new name shows that our principles of boldness and inclusivity are supported by actions, and this will increase the value of the brand, for many.”

Mihalicz sees this as one step of many in the ongoing process of truth and reconciliation. “It’s not just reconciliation: it includes truth. And to me, this is about the need for truth. Which also means being true to ourselves and taking a hard look at who we are as an institution and how who we are and what we’re doing could perpetuate harm among our community.

“And only then can we really decide what we could be doing differently. For reconciliation to occur, we must first do the hard work of finding our truth and I think that’s what this name change gets down to.”

Students sitting in chairs talking and looking out a window.

Community engagement was key to the renaming process

The work to get to this place has been in service of this. “The recommendation to rename the university through a process that engages with community members was contextualized by the Standing Strong Task Force as a necessary step to recognize the need for the university to uphold institutional values,” said Jennifer S. Simpson, URAC chair, and provost and vice-president, academic. 

“Particularly at academic institutions, we work hard to encourage a layered understanding of the world around us.” 

URAC vice-chair Tanya (Toni) De Mello, assistant dean, student programming, development and equity at the Lincoln Alexander School of Law, says the renaming process was of national importance. “We committed to a process to address how to deal with the legacies of colonialism, how we rename our institutions and how we pay tribute to where we are today and where we aspire to be, that the nation was watching closely.”

Understanding the process

The Standing Strong Task Force completed its thorough review of Egerton Ryerson’s historical role and legacy and prepared a final report sharing their learnings as well as 22 recommendations to address the impact of commemoration within the context of the university’s values—one of which was a name change for the institution.

On August 26, 2021, the Board of Governors accepted all 22 recommendations.

Thereafter, the University Renaming Advisory Committee launched a robust, six-month long process which included broad community engagement, extensive research, discussion and deliberation. This engagement included a three-week-long public survey period to learn what the community felt were the most critical considerations in the search for the new name and to generate ideas for what the new name could be.

They received over 30,000 responses and deliberated on over 2,600 name suggestions. The committee presented President Lachemi with a short list of new names for consideration as a result of this process. Thus, we embarked on our new chapter with the name, Toronto Metropolitan University.

“It’s our hope that our students, faculty, staff and alumni feel proud to be part of an institution that takes reconciliation and diversity, equity and inclusion seriously,” said De Mello. “Our belief is that the new name will better represent our university and allow our values and our accomplishments to define who we are as an institution.”

The renaming is an act of courage and it sets a precedent, says Garay. “It shows what we can do in difficult situations—there aren’t mountains too big for the university to overcome. I’m sure there are a lot of people that might feel like there’s no point in investing this much in a name change. But again, I believe this is an indication that even when something might feel too difficult, or might be a huge risk, the institution will do what it needs to do to continue to live its values.” 

Garay urges the university’s large alumni community to celebrate this bold move toward truth and share the reasons behind it with their own communities.

“It’s a chance to celebrate the new name and all that it means. It might not be the name you submitted or the one you would have chosen, but as ambassadors of the institution it is our duty to spread awareness around the new name and the intentions behind it. 

“A university is only as strong as the community behind it—so I feel like it’s on us to get behind TMU and continue to grow the movement—how will you help?”

Michelle Grady is a senior writer and editor at Toronto Metropolitan University.

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