By Jake Scott
Thousands of out-of-syncfootsteps echo across Gould Street as half-lidded students march to their next class.
Some dress in full business garb – power ties and polished shoes – and others sport baggy sweatpants, too exhausted from intensive study to be bothered with denim or corduroy.
They look right through the tour group standing in front of a massive Egerton Ryerson. Prospective students listen intently to their guide, devouring every factoid.
This wasn’t always the scene. In a time long since past, when cars ruled Gould Street, Ryerson was scoffed at as “Rye-High,” a partyhard polytechnical college suffering from a severe image issue. Specialized courses like fashion and journalism were already relatively well regarded, but more universal programs such as the sciences and humanities were seen as second-class in comparison to the competition.
Some didn’t even exist. This created the stigma that led many to believe students were more likely to choose Ryerson to attend keggers and party houses than lectures.
It wasn’t until June of 1993, when Ryerson claimed university status, that it could begin to establish itself as a top tier post-secondary institute.
It had to be known that Ryerson was taking itself seriously, and that starts with visibility.
“If we’re hiding ourselves under a bush no one is going to know about us. So it’s really important for us particularly when we are the new kid on the block to get out there stronger, bigger and bolder,” says assistant vice president of communications Erin McGinn.
“We have tried to do that at the Toronto University fair – we have an enormous booth, we make sure we have our faculty there, we’re big, we’re loud. We make sure people know what we’re doing.” As part of the communications team at Ryerson, McGinn finds ways to effectively demonstrate to the public what Ryerson is all about. And Ryerson is all about that coveted employment.
“Our research is there for solving real world problems. We get it out there quickly and we are working with industry,” says McGinn.
“From a communication standpoint we really try to highlight those relationships.” This brings to mind an old saying: it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. The chance to network with industry professionals is enough to wet the lips of many a potential pupil.
That’s what sets Ryerson a cut above the rest – an emphasis on real-world application as well as networking within your chosen industry.
Journalists get access to the myriad of news outlets based in Toronto through their professors’ contacts as well as Ryerson-offered internships. Fashion students gain access to marketing resources and start-up accelerators and incubators.
Partnerships with industry juggernauts like Hydro One can give engineering students a welloiled boot in the door before they even graduate. It’s a titillating thought for students of any faculty to be able to say, “I graduated employed, you?” It takes more than massive corporate partnerships to keep a newly minted university afloat, however, and these relationships have to be earned with sweat and tears. That means graduate programs, which are an indispensable driving force behind any university.
“Every graduate program has to be peer reviewed by other universities and because of that other people saw the quality of the programs and quality of the students,” says Ryerson president Sheldon Levy.
Aside from providing a boon of internal marketing among universities these programs have brought a much more lucrative prize to the table. Put simply, graduate programs mean research and research means funding. Delicious funding.
Levy was named the 2013 CEO of the year by the Canadian Public Relations Society for his work in promoting the Ryerson brand. He is credited with helping Ryerson achieve a 30 per cent first-choice ranking in university applications, though you wouldn’t be able to tell.
“Ultimately I think it was the ability for the university to attract the very best undergraduate students in Ontario and Canada. They saw that the programs were leading to great careers and it built on itself,” he says. “If you’re going to make this change [from college to a university], it will never be made by a name or a brand. That change cannot be made by administrative work. That’s impossible, it’s superficial. It is made by evidence, that is key.”
He’s right, Ryerson isn’t marketed on superficial gimmicks. The communications and marketing department focuses on the careeroriented nature of the school, its partnerships and the prime location.
Though if it’s gimmicks you’re looking for, all it takes is a quick hop and you’re in the heart of the beast. Tucked away behind the thick cockles of Yonge and Dundas Streets, students can get their fill of pulsing lights, blazing neon adds and round-the-clock strippers without having to get out of their pyjamas (you know who you are.) Spencer Leefe is walking home from high school, his backpack bobbing and swaying like an oversized pendulum. “In Toronto, I like the atmosphere,” he says.
He is a 17-year-old Ryerson hopeful and wants to go into media production. He is a part of the 30 per cent of university applicants that have Ryerson as their first choice. He attended the Toronto University Fair.
“I noticed at the fair that the Ryerson booth was much larger and had way more people than other universities,” says Leefe.
“Ryerson is pretty prestigious and they’re competing with U of T and they’re adding more programs and people in general.” New programs that try to fill a niche that students desperately want but don’t have access to help keep Ryerson ahead of the curve.
That feat can prove difficult in these trying economic times, especially with the ever-changing workplace landscape and volatile job market.
“In marketing you’re blessed with a good product, so we’re never going to come up with a program just because we think it would look good on paper,” says McGill.
“The creative industries program, for example, is something faculty members developed because they saw the student need for it and the demand for it. Then we in the marketing and communications area are able to take that and go,
‘OK, here is how I’m going to really highlight this particular element.'” Mad Men’s Don Draper might have people convinced that marketing means creating a need for a certain product, but this is not the case in the education world. Marketing education is a matter of having what the students (or consumers) want and making it known to them. The perceived need for a post-secondary education is already bored into the skulls of every little girl and boy emerging from the wallows of their high school experience. Students are bombarded with reminders of the competitiveness of university acceptance.
Few, however, realize how much work the schools put in to enticing potential first-years. Especially since they are in the business of ranking and grading.
“Of the Canadian universities, exclude the medical universities for a moment, [we are now] in the top 12 or 13 in the research funding department,” says Sheldon Levy. “It’s an academic planning process.” That jump from having no research mandate to being a national powerhouse is part of the reason Ryerson survived its polytechnic past. It is an attempt at a measured, ongoing evolution that moves with the students.
They haven’t missed a beat when it comes to new ways to let the world know about what Ryerson is up to.
“It’s gotten increasingly sophisticated over the years. There was no social media, no electronic communication. Certainly over the years we have embraced that technology.
Generally the university has really upped its game in communications, and it’s reflected in the numbers of applications,” says director of communications Bruce Piercey.
“In the last ten years as we’ve grown our graduate studies our research profile has grown, while still maintaining career oriented programs.
We have developed strong academics and research. They are more conditional programs, but they still have that Ryerson focus on career opportunities. Ryerson had a good deal of respect from employers.” Such is the Ryerson way, use every tool at your disposal, get your name out there and get paid. Back on Gould Street students are lurching out of packed lecture halls, noses buried in their phones, nearly oblivious to the people occupying the space around them. The smell of the hot dog vendors floats through the crowd as the sound of skateboards slapping against pavement provide an off-tempo rhythm to the zombie-shuffle.
It’s high noon and the sun is illuminating the raging river that used to be Gould and Victoria Streets.
Everybody would be staring at it if it wasn’t for their phones. Another tour group makes their way through the burnt-out throngs.
Their guide explains the vibrant blue beneath their feet and they all gaze down. “Cool,” says a smiling fresh face.
It’s big, it’s loud. It’s everything Ryerson strives to be.