York has ‘come of age’, says front-page story in the Toronto Star

On Oct. 31, a page-one story in the Sunday edition of the Toronto Star profiled York as a university that ‘seems at last to have come of age’. The upbeat story and its companion features are reprinted here in full, with permission. Some titles and York’s age have been corrected.

York sheds its ‘U of T Lite’ identity
‘New kid’ emerges from elder’s shadow
Downtown dowager now eating its dust

By Louise Brown 
Education Reporter 

Go ahead, keep dissing York University.

Complain that it’s out in the boonies. Call it a concrete jungle. Say it has no med school, no snob appeal, no ivy.

Canada’s third-largest university is laughing all the way to the new Argos stadium. And the new $90 million arts centre. And the new campus hotel, new biz school digs and the promise of subways on the horizon.York will keep laughing all the way to Mars. Its space scientists are involved in the 2007 NASA mission to the Red Planet – York’s official colour.

As York University steps out of the shadow of the grand old elephant downtown, it wants to be seen as a very different animal from the University of Toronto.

“We’re not U of T Lite. We’re different. We’re the new kid; they’re tradition. We’re at the heart of the GTA, but we’re not downtown, so get over it,” says marketing whiz Richard Fisher, hired by York three years ago from his advertising career promoting products from Hasbro Toys to KFC.

“We’re a commuter university that serves the new, diverse Canada, with half our students coming from the 905, including first-generation families for whom leaving home is not an option.

“This is their local university.”

At a frisky 45 years old, York is a relative new kid on the Ivory Tower block. Some remember when it was a mere twinkle in the eye of U of T president Claude Bissell, who knew by the late 1950s Toronto would need another university to handle the new baby boom.

Not half a century has passed since the first 76 students enrolled in York University College, then a rookie U of T affiliate on Queen’s Park Circle.

Six years later, York cut the cord, packed its bags and became its own university north of town on a windswept farmer’s field.

Today, with a pro football stadium coming to the bustling campus encircled by highways and dotted with mature trees, ponds, a shopping mall, townhouses and 1,100 buses and 4,500 cars arriving each day with more than 49,000 students – twice as many as any other Ontario university except for the U of T – York seems at last to have come of age.

Far from its bleak beginnings – “the campus looked like Moscow until it was transformed in the 1990s,” groans York senior policy adviser Ted Spence – York now boasts fall colours and pedestrian paths, wireless classrooms and a so-called “green” building, a feisty student newspaper, rowdy protest rallies and lofty research plans in health, international studies, the environment and culture.

An aggressive new marketing blitz touts York as the “interdisciplinary university”, a flexible place that trains students to look at issues from all angles and lets them mix and match fields of study more easily than at more traditional universities where specialties stand as separate “silos”, said Fisher.

Professors from different faculties often team-teach, he said, to make sure students see issues from a variety of angles.

Students are encouraged to combine different “majors”, which has resulted in such unlikely pairings this fall as theatre and political science, biology and Latin, music and health science, and computer science and religious studies.

York students must take an interdisciplinary first year that forces them to sample a range of fields before settling on an area of specialty. Its LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence is seen as a leader in the study of bullying. Its Osgoode Hall Law School is considered a cradle of social justice.

If universities were computers, says Fisher, “the U of T would be IBM; we’d be Apple – nimble, creative, faster on our feet.”

While U of T officials bristle at the comparison, York was nimble enough to catch the falling stadium deal from the U of T this month without missing a beat.

Just 18 days after the U of T scrapped the plan to revamp the old Varsity Stadium on Bloor Street, York announced it would host the stadium instead, with former York football star David Cynamon and fellow Argonaut owner Howard Sokolowski picking up much of the $70 million tab.

“We heard the U of T deal had crumbled the Thursday night before Thanksgiving, and by Sunday we were talking face to face with the Argos,” said Gary Brewer, York’s vice-president finance and administration.

“You can’t always pick the time when opportunity knocks. We had a long-term plan for a stadium already approved, so this just allowed us to do it sooner.”

Yet even in victory, as it celebrates the stadium Fisher says “puts us on the map,” York cannot overcome its original image among many 416 dwellers as a suburban outpost, a wannabe.

“This often happens when a new university opens up in the same city as a big, rich, famous downtown university with a medical school – like McGill with Concordia or the University of British Columbia with Simon Fraser,” noted Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

“It’s easy to dismiss the new ones as johnny-come-latelys, even though they’re all very good.”

Ironically, many downtowners happily drive to the suburbs to shop at big-box stores and see movies at malls where parking is plentiful and free.

Yet some balk at driving to York, which can pose real problems for students, said drama major Anne Colangelo.

“We’re told acting agents don’t want to come ‘all the way up’ to York to do interviews with our acting class. A lot of people think of York as this place out in the middle of nowhere,” said the third-year acting major.

“It really bugs me when people think York isn’t part of Toronto. We’re at Steeles. We’re an hour from anywhere in the GTA.”

Adds classmate Beryl Bain, “that’s why we need a subway.”

But while York waits for governments to agree to build a subway to Steeles – expected within 10 years – downtowners need to update their mental map of Toronto, says President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden.

“We’re in the geographic centre of the GTA and we’re on the edge of York Region, which has the fastest-growing population of 15- to 21-year-olds in North America,” said Marsden, who often visits a Grade 3 class in nearby Jane-Finch to keep connected to York’s neighbours.

“The boom in the 905 is like the 1960s all over again. There’s a whole new generation of young people coming up, but downtown is not necessarily where they live.”

Biology student Ken Khan lives five minutes away on Sentinel Avenue and said, “I like the multicultural atmosphere here. I feel comfortable. It reflects the nature of Toronto.”

York is just a bike ride from home for anthropology major Anna, a Russian-born Canadian who says, “I like the different cultures here. I especially like Multicultural Week.”

That annual celebration was the brainchild of student Elizabeth Saati, who founded a spirit-boosting group called York Is U three years ago to fight the disengagement students can feel at a campus where 85 per cent go home each night.

Today, York Is U sponsors up to 30 events a month, from stress-busting clinics to talent shows, from a cricket tournament to the multicultural fair, which beat Harvard and Yale for an international prize for campus celebrations.

“A bunch of us decided to fight that commuter syndrome of going right home after class, and it’s been amazing. Students really need that campus feel,” said Saati.

But does York look pretty? Economics student Eric Huang thinks so.

“I like the modern architecture; the flat-screen TVs, the food court on campus and York has one of the best indoor tracks around. I really like the atmosphere.”

That might not have been true 15 years ago, when two parking lots hogged the centre of campus and a concrete ramp blocked entrance to the main lecture halls.

The ramp was so ugly, then president Harry Arthurs decided to spend $1 million to tear it down in 1988 and have the parking lots planted over with grass. That sparked a greening and infill campaign that continues today, with hundreds of new trees, glassed-in walkways and each new building design put through a wind-tunnel test.

“I have a chunk of that concrete ramp sitting on my desk. It was ugly and useless and totally misconceived,” recalls Arthurs, in his final year of teaching labour law at Osgoode.

“A lot of 1960s campuses suffered from the same bleak designs, from Australia to Sweden, so we decided to change the whole physical aesthetic.” The tree-lined lawn and central courtyard are named Harry Arthurs Common in his honour.

Today, York has its share of ups and downs. Marsden tried suspending a student for three years last spring for breaking campus rules governing protest rallies but later reinstated him, and the student has since sued her for $850,000 in damages.

And she recently sparred with TTC Chair Howard Moscoe over the proposed route of a temporary rapid bus lane that would cut the ride from the Downsview subway.

But in the longer term, York is working hard to brand itself an up-and-comer. It ditched its old coat-of-arms for a sleek new logo to show it doesn’t care to compete with the old ivy-draped schools.

It launched an American-style push for top high school scholars by visiting 30 students in their homes last winter, a personal touch that paid off with 40 per cent choosing York. It will run twice as many home visits this year.

York beefed up its entrance scholarships to outbid the U of T for A-plus applicants like Toronto’s Julia da Silva and Mississauga’s Sebastien Kwidzinski, both of whom said they followed the money.

York scrapped the standard campus photos on its course calendars this year for artsy close-ups of water drops and ladybugs – “images of transformation,” said Fisher. “We decided to stress what a university education can deliver: a changed person.”

Said Marsden, “We’re making a modern university for the modern Toronto, which is extremely, wonderfully diverse. We’re not rooted in the old Anglo Oxbridge tradition.

“We may have been mothered by the U of T, but we’re very different.”


“I like the diversity here at York. It’s much more multicultural than where I live in Whitby. I don’t mind the 90-minute bus ride. I just read or daydream out the window.”
Sarah Plummer, 21, nursing student

“I ride the GO bus for an hour and 15 minutes from Burlington, which gives me time to do my homework. I just make sure I don’t pick morning classes before 11:30.”
Maria Sysova, 21, psychology student, who won a free year pass this week from GO Transit for being its one-millionth rider

“I chose York partly for its left-wing reputation. I wanted to see the opposite side of the story than we usually hear. Already they had a conference about Che Guevara last month, and the young leftist clubs post a lot of meetings on the (e-mail bulletin).”
Pablo Godoy, 19, political science student

“I like York, although the architecture is a little boxy. I came here because they gave me a $2,000 entrance scholarship, and the U of T didn’t offer anything.”
Julia da Silva, psychology student


  • Total number of students enrolled, part-time and full-time – 49,700
  • Percentage of students who live in the GTA – 88 per cent
  • Split of students from the 416 and 905 – 54-46
  • Number of professors and staff – 7,000
  • Percentage growth in buildings over past eight years – 43 per cent
  • Portion of university students across the GTA who study at York – one-third
  • Number of bus bays on campus – 25
  • Price of room at campus hotel – $150 per night
  • Number of hectares of Las Nubes rainforest in Costa Rica owned by York – 124
  • Amount of money donated to conservation by Timothy’s World Coffee for every pound of York’s Las Nubes coffee it sells – $1

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