There are many untold stories of excellence at York, Shoukri tells the Globe

York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri was interviewed for The Globe and Mail’s annual survery of students, University Report Card 2007, published Oct. 16. Below are excerpts from the interview.

What are your first impressions of York?

Well it’s an absolutely wonderful university. It’s a university that has been committed, since its incipience, to excellence in education and in research. It’s been particularly committed to interdisciplinary education and research, which is a very important feature. It has also committed itself from day one to accessibility and social justice, and in some sense that is what attracted me to the university, as these are core values I believe in on a personal level.

What’s your first priority?

Our immediate priority is to develop a plan that quantifies the needs in all areas of sciences and applied sciences, with relation to what exists in the province and with relation to the expected growth of our demographics.

You’ve been quoted as saying you’d like to see a medical school at York.

When you look around, you see significant population growth in the area around York University. For a city of our size, there is a potential for another medical school, and I can’t think of a better place than York. In some sense it is part of our aspirations to be more involved in the sciences and applied sciences, but it’s also something I believe the society and local community needs.

In this year’s survey, students gave York a C+ or lower in areas such as its reputation among employers, its school spirit, scholarships and employment opportunities. What are you going to do to address those concerns?

What we need to do is inform people. There are so many untold stories about the excellence at York and the impact that York is having on society. We also need to encourage our students to be active participants in student life. I intend to put significant emphasis on creating a campus where students have more opportunities to get involved.

What do you see as the main issues Canadian universities are struggling with today?

Funding is a major one. If you…do comparisons with similar jurisdictions in the US, you’ll find our overall funding is not at par. Canadian postsecondary education has a fantastic reputation all over the world, but the cumulative effect of insufficient funding can erode that reputation over a number of years.

A challenge facing universities worldwide is that institutions…have to link what they do to societal needs and needs of people in a more immediate and direct way. This is happening, and it’s evolving, but there’s always discussion about making the university a beacon for social and economic development in a way that is more direct than what we were used to in the past.

Do you feel you’re in the shadow of the University of Toronto?

U of T is the largest Canadian university and has been around for a long time. York is a big university and will continue to be different from U of T with an emphasis on multidisciplinary education and research. There’s always a little competition, but I don’t see an aspiration at York to be another copy of the University of Toronto. We are very proud of the incredible excellence that exists at York University. Just have a close look at our [Schulich] School of Business, our Osgoode Hall Law School and our Faculty of Fine Arts. The list goes on and on. We don’t need to be a copy of anybody else.

  • This year’s University Report Card reflects the opinion of more than 43,200 current undergraduate students, wrote the Globe. The results are derived from answers to more than 100 questions. The number of universities for which enough responses were received for inclusion has grown this year to 53. The University Report Card issue contained numerous stories mentioning York. Below is a sampling of them.
  • In the category of Large University (enrolment over 22,000) York received a letter grade of B+ for quality of teaching and quality of technology and B for overall student satisfaction, most satisfied students, libraries, ease of course registration and recreation & athletics. York’s worst grade was a C- for food services, still outdone by the University of Toronto’s D in the same category.
    The complete list of survey results is available on The Globe and Mail‘s Web site.
  • Even the iPod is being explored as an educational tool, said a story about classroom technology. At York University, philosophy Professor Diane Zorn of the School of Arts & Letters in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, who recently won one of the school’s top teaching awards, is one of the few professors in Canada who makes her lectures available as an audio or video podcast. This allows students-on-the-go to consume the material wherever and whenever it suits their needs. Handheld technology, Zorn explains, is particularly valuable to the growing number of students who are "kinesthetic learners," those who tend to be labelled as hyperactive.

Along with podcasting her lectures, Zorn also has set up an interactive Web site for her class, which includes forums for students to discuss the lectures and assignments, and an area where she makes herself available for instant messaging during "virtual office hours." Her goal is to create a learning environment that is "reciprocally adaptive," with the ability to constantly evolve to meet students’ needs.

  • For the most part, teaching assistants say their foreign colleagues are being unfairly criticized for their language skills, said a story about foreign TAs. 

Marnina Norys, a TA at York University, notes that students also complain about the accents of their professors. “There’s generally a lack of tolerance and a lack of willingness of students to work at it [understanding their instructors],” she adds. Besides, she says, Canadian students should scrutinize their own English proficiency skills before attacking others. For all the enthusiastic undergrads she has taught in her six years as a TA, she vividly remembers the ones who could barely string together a sentence.

  • For as long as universities have fed their young, the poor reputation of campus cafeteria food has spread across the nation like a serving of runny instant mashed potatoes, said a piece about food services. Students are clamouring for more affordable and nutritious options, and they say the three corporations that operate most of the food services at the country’s postsecondary institutions – Aramark, Compass and Sodexho – aren’t making them happy.
  • Mount Allison University President Robert Campbell, a native of Montreal who did graduate work overseas in London, says he understands the excitement that going to school in a big city can bring. A story about his university said one of his own daughters just started at York University’s Glendon College in Toronto, while another is a Mount Allison graduate.

Toronto: The living geography lesson

Toronto, once a hodgepodge of islands of commercial activity kilometres apart, has joined other major North American centres in forging a new model for cities, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 16. So far, it is the only urban centre in Canada with the promise of having a large, blended downtown where office towers, retail shops and residential towers extend for kilometres, sitting seamlessly cheek by jowl, real estate experts say.

"What you are seeing here is a new model for a North American city," says James McKellar, professor of real property at York University’s Schulich School of Business. "It is a much more mature model, and Toronto is probably the only city in Canada that qualifies as such.

"Even more interesting, it wasn’t insightful planning or enlightened politicians that are providing overall direction," he adds. "The new Toronto is the result of commercial forces. In fact, I think the politicians still don’t get it, how the city has changed."

Coping with withdrawal pains

What happens when one reaches one’s retirement goal, and accumulation is no longer the objective? At this point, the portfolio needs to deliver an income stream, wrote the National Post Oct. 16. As the population ages, this has become a major issue for investors. The real risk for investors in the withdrawal phase is what Moshe Milevsky, professor of finance at York University’s Schulich School of Business, calls the "age of ruin" – the point at which the portfolio is at zero and can no longer sustain lifestyle goals. It is a concept built on a foundation that pokes holes in the required rate of return assumption so many advisers use with investors.

Like students, universities have debts

University students aren’t the only ones carrying high debt loads. Canadian universities are also mired in debt – to the tune of more than $3 billion, wrote CanWest News Service Oct. 16. Most of the money has gone to fund ambitious renovation and construction projects, and some have been used to refinance existing bank debt – a trend that disturbs some observers. University borrowers include York University ($7,733 per student or $353 million).

Concert filled with soulful music

When former York student Kelita Haverland-Lemon sings, people pay attention, wrote the Lindsay Post Oct. 16. Her rich, warm voice captures the ear immediately; her clear, honest lyrics speak directly to the heart, and local audiences will enjoy both when Kelita performs in Lindsay on Saturday, Oct. 20.

Her performing career started on her parents’ farm outside Claresholm, Alta., when the high-spirited singer longed to be Shirley Temple. "I saw every afternoon matinee. My mother used to dress me in frilly dresses and put ringlets in my hair,” Kelita recalls. "At a very young age, it became obvious I had that spark to show off and perform. I’d entertain myself singing in the barn, up in the hayloft, pretending that was my stage. On summer evenings I’d sit on the fence under the yard light and pretend it was my spotlight." After graduating from high school, Kelita moved to Toronto and studied drama at York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

City getting jazzed up for festival

Saturday, the Fern Resort has a dinner show with the York New Jazz Trio, wrote reviewer John Swartz in the Orillia Packet and Times Oct. 16. That’s not a typo; they’re from the York University music program. I haven’t seen a mediocre band out of there in, well – I don’t think I ever have, so this group will likely be very good.

A small fry strives to create a life-size brand

York alumnus Joseph Iannicelli (BA ‘84, BAS ‘98), president and chief executive officer of Standard Life Assurance Co. of Canada, has a healthy respect for the sheer size, marketing clout and general mass-media presence that his bigger rivals in the Canadian insurance and wealth management business enjoy, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 13. After all, the company he heads – Standard Life Assurance Co. of Canada – is puny compared with the titans: Manulife Financial Corp., Sun Life Financial Inc. and Great-West Life Assurance Co.