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Defy Gravity: Campaign for the University of Toronto offers vision of inclusive excellence with global impact

The University of Toronto has launched the largest university fundraising and alumni engagement campaign in Canadian history to address some of the world’s most pressing issues.

The Defy Gravity campaign will elevate U of T’s position as one of the world’s leading public universities and advance the U of T community’s outsized impact in solving complex social, economic, and health problems. It will also reinforce U of T’s commitment to excellence, equity, and inclusion, creating more opportunities and support for talented people—students, faculty, staff, alumni, and donors from every financial circumstance—to discover, learn, create, collaborate, and thrive together.

For the first time, two campaign goals

The campaign will have two ambitious goals. For the first time ever, U of T has set a bold alumni engagement target of inspiring 225,000 alumni to get involved as volunteers, mentors, donors, and leaders and contribute their time and talent to U of T one million times collectively. This effort will have a powerful and lasting effect on our institution, especially our students, as they prepare for success out in the world.

The campaign will also seek to raise $4 billion for the University’s highest priorities, a target that reflects the ambition and scale of the University’s community and its potential for global impact. Achieving this goal will generate new opportunities for talented students from every financial background, strengthen U of T’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion, spark exciting interdisciplinary research initiatives, and help us build new facilities that create community and enhance world-class teaching, research, and innovation across our three campuses.

Defy Gravity to have global impact

The virtual campaign announcement, led by University of Toronto President Meric Gertler, featured students, faculty, staff, university leadership, the campaign co-chairs, and alumni around the world speaking to the vitality, hope, and optimism of the U of T community and the transformative power of philanthropy.

President Gertler spoke to the urgency of the campaign and how it will support U of T’s efforts to lead pandemic recovery, challenge inequity and systemic racism, improve health, power a clean-tech revolution, sustain artistic and cultural communities, drive discovery and innovation, and educate the next generation of creative, engaged, and caring citizens.

“We’re one of the few institutions anywhere with the breadth and depth of talent that’s needed to solve the toughest problems and to imagine a better world,” said President Gertler. “Through the campaign we’re launching today, together we can make U of T an even more powerful engine of progress.”

A theme that reflects U of T’s spirit of ingenuity

The campaign theme, Defy Gravity, reflects U of T’s long history of discovery, advancing the frontiers of knowledge, and opening life-changing opportunities to foster a more caring and inclusive world through its faculty, students, alumni, and supporters—critical today in addressing racial injustice, climate change, technological disruption, pandemic recovery, and more.

“No phrase better captures the courageous spirit of our U of T community at this historic moment,” said David Palmer, University of Toronto vice-president, advancement. “U of T has long seen the impossible not as a barrier but as an invitation to explore new frontiers and reach new heights.

“Defy Gravity reflects our boldness, ingenuity, and resolve, our willingness to pursue knowledge, ideas, and ventures that are visionary and transformational. It captures the aspirations of our students for social change and the watershed moments of personal transformation they experience throughout their university education. And it underlines our commitment to removing barriers to inclusion and social equity wherever they appear so that our entire community can thrive.”

A framework for inclusive excellence

Enhancing and strengthening inclusive excellence at U of T will be a key priority of the campaign, recognizing that U of T’s creativity and impact are inextricably linked to its ability to bring together ideas, talent, experiences, and perspectives from every conceivable background.

The campaign will increase the number of awards for talented students in need, support vital initiatives such as the Black Research Network, and help create new, inviting spaces such as Indigenous House at U of T Scarborough. It will also support a broad range of multidisciplinary centres such as the Climate Positive Energy Initiative, the Emerging and Pandemic Infections Consortium (EPIC), and the School of Cities, which focus respectively on sustainability, health security, and urban issues through an equity lens.

“At U of T,” said President Gertler, “excellence is about openness, knowing that great ideas are the product of diverse perspectives. For us, excellence is inclusive excellence.”

Explore the full impact of Defy Gravity on the new campaign website

Alumni engagement a key priority

The campaign’s new alumni engagement goal—to inspire 225,000 alumni to get involved as volunteers, participants, mentors, donors, and leaders and encourage them to contribute their time and talent to the University one million times—recognizes the indispensable work of our graduates, said University of Toronto Chancellor Rose Patten.

“Our community of more than 640,000 alumni around the world play a vital role in the life of the University,” said Patten. “They enhance our global reputation through their work, share their expertise with our students, offer their time and wisdom to critical initiatives, and give generously to many priorities across our campuses. By doing so, they elevate our community in so many ways.”

The new alumni engagement goal will expand these activities significantly, enriching the life of the University community and advancing U of T’s impact on communities across the globe. More than 99,000 alumni have already contributed their time and talent toward this goal more than 342,000 times to date.

I’m continually amazed and inspired by how dedicated our alumni are to making a positive difference here at U of T and beyond,” said University of Toronto Alumni Association President Sana Halwani. “It’s a spirit of giving back that is truly infectious.” 

A new benchmark for philanthropy in Canada

The campaign has already raised $1.091 billion toward its record Canadian goal of $4 billion. The goal was revealed by campaign co-chairs John M. Cassaday (MBA 1981, Hon LLD 2017), Claire M.C. Kennedy (BSc 1989), Brian D. Lawson (BA 1982), and Som Seif (BASc 1999), who, along with volunteers from every division of the University, are part of a dedicated campaign leadership team championing the vision of Defy Gravity.

The co-chairs each spoke to how the new goal reflects the enormous depth and breadth of academic aspirations across U of T’s faculties, schools, colleges, and campuses, and the University’s commitment to excellence, access, and inclusion at a scale unrivalled by other institutions. They added that the $4 billion goal will help elevate U of T as a global hub for talent, knowledge, diverse perspectives, and innovative solutions for a changing world.

The co-chairs also underlined the widespread impact this goal will have on philanthropy across the country, setting a new standard for giving in Canada and internationally, encouraging historic support in a challenging time, and creating a rising tide of generosity for other groups and charities.

A community like no other

In launching the new campaign, President Gertler emphasized how the U of T community has consistently shown what is possible when our global community comes together to support the tremendous work of the University’s students, staff, faculty members, alumni, and donors across so many diverse areas.

“The U of T community has the capacity to make historic breakthroughs as well as countless daily contributions to progress across the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and professions,” he said. “We can transcend disciplines and borders. We can create new knowledge and solutions that make a major difference in the lives of individuals and communities. We can think of things no one has thought of before and achieve things no one else thought possible.”