York gets good marks for student experience, teaching and research

On Oct. 31, The Globe and Mail featured York in several stories in a special magazine and online section featuring its annual University Report Card (see also Headline News). Below is a selection of excerpts mentioning York.

  • The Student Experience

“Large schools can’t help but make you feel like you’re a number, not a person,” said Reta Franci, a 21-year-old psychology student who was born in Iraq and commutes 30 minutes each way to York’s Keele campus. Creating a rich university experience for each and every student is a daunting challenge. The balancing act that is running a university gets more difficult each year.

Who is getting it right? York, for one, is now working to address the sense of alienation some of its students feel. “We’ve made helping our students adapt to university life a priority, with programs such as York is U, which sees a multicultural mix of students organized to offer peer counselling – a spirit society, if you will,” says Keith Marnoch, York’s associate director, media relations.

The students themselves recognize that part of the university experience is taking responsibilities for their own studies, and their own social lives. “The key is to get involved, somehow, somewhere, so you feel part of the school,” says Franci. “No on else can do that for you, it’s got to come from within.”

At U of T, the country’s largest student body sees its school as having the country’s worst school spirit. U of T’s faculty feedback and class size also get C grades. York, only slightly smaller than U of T and boasting thousands of commuter students, also scored a C in these areas. Yet the same students give these two huge Ontario schools top marks for academic reputation and professional school prowess, a tacit endorsement of the decision to value research and graduate work over the undergrad experience.

At the undergraduate level, huge schools face the issue of welcoming a multicultural clientele – York boasts students from 107 different countries this year. Schools didn’t create this situation, nevertheless they’re the ones responsible for addressing it. “York deals extremely well with a set of educational challenges different from those at just about any other large school, challenges like diversity and the commuters,” says the Educational Policy Institute’s Sean Junor.

To the extent some undergraduates feel alienated, part of their anxiety must reflect the jarring adaptation facing an 18-year-old subjected to campus life for the first time. “First year is not something you enjoy, it’s something you survive,” says Bai Bunpanya, a 22-year-old York student from Thailand who spent his first year focused on computer science but expects to graduate this year with a degree in international development. He said it wasn’t until second year that he clicked with a professor teaching a course in Third World development, “and I began to find something to get excited about.”

  • Top Teachers

Professors who bring something special to the lecture theatre are the ones students truly revere, wrote the Globe, in a preface to its story on top teachers that included Paul Delaney, professor of physics & astronomy in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering for 20 years.

Awards: Was named one of the top 10 best lecturers in Ontario, according to voters in a TV Ontario competition last year. Has received York University senior lecturer and Faculty of Science & Engineering teaching awards.

Why he’s cool: Besides his enthusiasm for turning non-science majors on to the wonders in the skies, Delaney is devoted to sharing his passion outside the classroom. He is the staff supervisor for the university’s astronomy club and the director of the campus observatory, for which he does public outreach – showing everyone from kindergarten students to retirees the use of a telescope. But supervising the science department student-run support group and helping students one-on-one is what really makes it all worthwhile.

“All of my classes know that I arrive early and I stay late. Students know that they can call on me, day and night, to go through some of the points. Or, if there’s a problem in the observatory at 3am, they can call. And they have. If you’re heavily engaged in research, you’re probably not spending as much time refining a course,” he adds, referring to the minimal travel and outside research he does compared to most astronomers. “I’m very satisfied; I don’t need a big telescope.”

  • Canadian thinking that’s out of this world

While Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean (BSc ‘77, PhD ‘83) took a stunning spacewalk last month for a complex construction job at the International Space Station, most of Canada’s innovative space work is done much closer to home – in university labs and research centres. The Canadian Space Agency’s first mission to Mars is planned for 2007, when York University’s meteorological station, MET, will launch on NASA’s Phoenix lander.

“Phoenix will land on Mars and be involved in making measurements of the meteorology,” says Professor Gordon Shepherd, director of York’s Centre for Research on Earth and Space Science (CRESS). York currently has four projects on the go, “which is a pretty high-level of involvement for a Canadian university,” said Shepherd. “Canada has a really good space program, especially for a country of its size.”

York University is looking at another angle related to Mars by testing what happens to instrumentation in Mars-like conditions. “To make something work in space, you have to test it,” said Ben Quine, director of York’s Space Engineering Program and a professor of physics & astronomy in the Faculty of Science & Engineering. The new CRESS space instrumentation lab, designed to reproduce the challenges of space flight, officially opened on Oct. 11.

York University is the official research host of a project known as Northern Light, which plans to send a small lander to the surface of Mars in 2009. Like staking a claim in North America in the 19th century, “presence is what counts,” said Quine, who is leading the mission. York’s space research is also focused on miniaturization, since the prohibitive cost of a satellite launch can be eased by using microsatellites attached to rockets that are typically paid for by big commercial customers launching direct broadcast TV satellite systems or communications equipment. “Underneath that spacecraft are a whole host of little spacecraft…that’s where the universities are really getting involved in the space business,” Quine said.

  • Tax change boosts donations

In the last federal budget, the Conservatives bowed to a decade of lobbying by groups that included Canada’s universities, and eliminated all capital gains tax on gifts of stock and other securities to charities. In the past, only 50 per cent of these gifts was deductible. “This change had an immediate impact, we see it every day in the gifts we’re receiving,” says Susan Mullin, director of development at the York University Foundation.

Just half way through the year, and coming out of the usually slow summer months, Mullin says York fundraising has already pulled in 75 per cent of last year’s total donations. Mullin said: “There are major donors across the country who have been waiting for this type of incentive so they can make their gift.” The new rewards for philanthropy are expected to see more alumni follow the example of mining financier Seymour Schulich, who has funded programs in several schools.

Universities split on how to deal with academic performance

The Gazette (Montreal) on Oct. 31 looked at how universities are dealing with the gap between the number of entrants and those who graduate. Some universities try to raise the bar on entrance standards. But others, like Concordia University, the University of Winnipeg, the University of Calgary and York University, don’t analyze graduation rates by average entering grades. “As a general rule, it’s fair to say the higher the student’s academic performance, the greater likelihood of persisting and graduating,” conceded Robert Tiffin, vice-president of students at York, where the degree-completion rate stands at 67.8 per cent.  But York has a different mandate than other institutions, Tiffin said. York, he said, serves first-generation students from the Toronto area. York also has an access program to help mature students with sometimes checkered academic records to earn a spot in university.

Halloween show must go on

Halloween has had its fair share of backlashes, reported the Long Island, NY, newspaper Newsday Oct. 31. But Halloween opportunists took fears of things like razor-rigged apples and turned them into cider. “There was a dramatic fall in the amount of trick or treating but, at that moment , a lot of people saw an opportunity for alternate events for children and adolescents,” says Nicholas Rogers, author of Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford University Press, $18.95) and Chair of the history department in York’s Faculty of Arts. As the 1980s progressed, “the community haunted house appeared, with 2,000 of them at its peak.” It was only a goblin jump from there to the very 1990s idea of house decorating for a frisson of excitement within your own white-picketed empire. After the national tragedy of 9/11, “there was some concern in the press about do we need fake scares when we’ve just had this terrible one,” Rogers says. “But people said ‘no, the show must go on.'”

Speed skating: life after hockey

There are more than 30 speed skating clubs in communities across Ontario and the majority of people joining these clubs are adults and children who have decided to take up speed skating after, and sometimes while, they play organized hockey, reported the Peterborough Examiner Oct. 31. York student Dan Growden, was a local hockey player who competed at the very highest levels before finding himself on a pair of speed skates. Growden played hockey at the AAA level as he grew up and was drafted and played five seasons of OHL major junior A hockey with Windsor Spitfires, Belleville Bulls and Owen Sound Attack. Growden attended three NHL training camps with Buffalo, Florida and St. Louis and played part of a season in the East Coast Hockey League with the Johnston Chiefs where he suffered a career-ending shoulder injury. Last year while attending York University, Growden decided he would join a friend for a “recreational skate” at the Toronto Speed Skating Club. Within a couple of practices, the club’s coaches recognized some tremendous potential and Growden realized he had found himself another sport.

Mathieu wins Northern junior title

York student Chad Mathieu captured the Skate Canada Northern Ontario junior men’s championship as seven North Bay Figure Skating Club members competed at the BMO Financial Group Skate Canada Northern Ontario Sectional Championships on the weekend, the North Bay Nugget Oct. 31. Mathieu’s gold medal earned him a berth in the Skate Canada Western Challenge Nov. 30 to Dec. 3 in Moncton, NB, the next event on the road to the Canadian championships in Halifax in January. Mathieu was also the recipient of the Skate Canada Northern Ontario Award of Merit for his performance and he had a personal best score of 40.36 in the short program. It was the second time he received the award.

Miller talks transit, trash, taxes and more

Mayor David Miller stopped by to talk with Toronto Community News’ editorial board and make his pitch for a second term in the city’s top political job – with promises to keep working to make the city livable, economically viable and one that offers opportunities to all its residents, wrote the Bloor West Villager Oct. 27. Miller spoke at length about transit. “I think what Toronto should be doing is advancing our own strategy within the context of the GTA,” he said. “So that when transit develops, it hooks into our network properly. That’s why the York University subway is so important.”