Road to Congress: York’s unsung heroes

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling the people who are working hard to bring Congress to York. Today the spotlight is on the individuals who are working behind the scenes, the unsung heroes of Congress. 

There is a hidden group of people who have been working behind the scenes for years to bring Congress 2006 to York University. The event is returning to York’s Keele campus after a 37-year hiatus.  

Above: York has changed dramatically since in the 35 years since Congress was
last hosted by the University

A group of indefatigable people at York University are the visionaries and spirited workers who accepted the challenge of presenting the case for Congress at York and whose detailed logistical planning and hard work succeeded in bringing the event to the Keele campus. They are the unsung heroes behind York’s effort to host Congress. With event now on the horizon, there are last-minute checks taking place to ensure it runs smoothly.

But planning for Congress 2006 has never been a last-minute happening. It actually began in 2002, when Vice-President Academic Sheila Embleton identified the event as one of the great opportunities to showcase York’s strengths in the social sciences and humanities, its legendary interdisciplinary focus and its fine arts achievements, and to let York’s many new buildings sparkle before more than 8,000 delegates.

Core triumvirate at work

The Office of the Vice-President Academic holds the core planning triumvirate that made the pitch more than four years ago for hosting Congress at York:

  • Vice President Academic Sheila Embleton, who ran her vision past several key administrators and academics, gained their agreement to hold Congress at York, and then spearheaded the process; 
  • Academic policy analyst Marla Chodak, who oversaw the drafting of the submission to the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, holder of the permanent secretariat for Congress; and,
  • David Thompson, senior executive officer academic, who was responsible for setting in motion the overall administrative structure and for overseeing the budget.

Right: Sheila Embleton (left), David Thompson, Marla Chodak

“Many people, including Congress delegates, remember the Keele campus as it was 25 or even 35 years ago,” says Embleton, “and we have changed radically since then. We want people to see what this University has become.”

York now has the largest concentration of humanities and social sciences scholars in the country. “It is only fitting that we should again host Congress, which hasn’t been here since 1969,” says Embleton.

With the enthusiastic backing of York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden, the core group spent untold hours creating a proposal to present to the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, competing against many other outstanding bids.

“We put a lot of thought into the submission to the federation,” says Chodak. “We wanted to emphasize our different approach to things. We were redefining the possible even before York officially had that tagline.”

The triumvirate’s dedication worked. In scant weeks, they had eager members of the federation’s executive on their doorstep for a site visit.

“It was in early April 2002 and – wouldn’t you know it – there was a blizzard,” remembers Chodak with a chuckle. “We had to scramble to work out rides so they wouldn’t have to climb snowdrifts.

“Federation members were very impressed with the level of enthusiasm that the people at York displayed, and with our facilities,” says Chodak. “I also think the idea of having Congress at York appealed to them because of York’s newness and ‘brashness’.”

A collective sigh of relief

When the University was invited to hold Congress 2006, there was a collective, but brief, sigh of relief among those who had been involved in making the proposal.

“When we heard the news from the federation, we all thought, ‘Great. Now we don’t have to think about it for a while’,” says Chodak. “Suddenly we sat up in January 2004 and said, ‘Oh-oh, it’s happening soon’, and set to work putting together an academic planning group.”

In fact, long before 2004, a corps of events organizers began working with Congress planners. Sylvia Zingrone, chief of staff in the president’s office, parachuted into the thick of the planning, taking part in discussions with the federation and campus organizers. Several planners attended Congress at Dalhousie University to begin learning the ropes and make improvements at York where necessary, and later went to congresses at University of Manitoba and University of Western Ontario.

“But first, we needed to find an academic convenor who would get things done here – someone well-respected throughout the University, and with a courteous approach, who could put people at their ease. John Lennox met all those criteria,” Chodak says. She credits the federation, too, with helping the entire process run smoothly. “They have been with us every step of the way.”

Early on in the planning, the Academic Planning Group brainstormed to find the Congress theme most appropriate for York at this point in its history. All involved agreed on The City: A Festival of Knowledge, then helped tailor the program and speakers to reflect the theme, Chodak says.

Congress culture

Nancy Accinelli, known for her affinity with fine arts at York, has been working on culture and entertainment programming with Faculty of Fine Arts professor Seth Feldman, a member of the Academic Planning Group. She also took note of how Congress was run at the University of Manitoba.

“The recent Fine Arts Festival provided us with a wonderful opportunity to spot great artists and performers in the faculty and student body,” said Accinelli, who attended Congress at the University of Manitoba. “Now we have an enviable entertainment schedule that includes dance, films, indoor-and-outdoor events, music of all genres and all sorts of performers at various sites around the campus.”

Like all the behind-the-scenes people involved with Congress 2006, Accinelli is loath to be singled out for praise.

“So many names come to mind when thinking about the planning of this event. There’s Billie Mullick, who produced early forecasts on which further planning could be projected; Stephanie Dixon, who has spent hours scheduling and riding herd on those making arrangements for booking spaces; Cindy Bettcher, Deborah Hahn, John Lennox; the group who are setting up the Research Gallery in the Scott Library; marketing & communications, research, security, caretaking, groundskeeping and technical staff…. It would be impossible to name everyone.”

Embleton adds, “This is an effort that will literally involve everybody on campus – even people in the sciences, who often say to me that it has nothing to do with them. They are going to find out that it is not true,” she says with a smile.

It is nearly four decades since Congress (then the Learneds) was held at the fledgling University, amid sparse fields and just a few buildings. Everyone involved in the planning for this event, whether behind the scenes or out in the public eye, agrees that delegates will be amazed at how York has grown up.

Members of the Academic Planning Group

  • Cindy Bettcher, project manager
  • Laurence Boucher, director, account direction
  • Marla Chodak, academic policy analyst
  • Lorraine Code, distinguished research professor of philosophy
  • David Dewitt, associate vice-president, research, social sciences and humanities
  • Seth Feldman, professor of film; director of the Robarts Centre
  • Richard Fisher, chief marketing & communications officer
  • Yves Frenette, professor of history
  • Engin Isin, Canada Research Chair in Citizenship Studies
  • John Lennox, professor of English; academic convenor
  • Suzanne MacDonald, professor of psychology
  • Adrian Shubert, professor of history; associate VP International