Education à la carte and other tastes of York

The Globe and Mail published its annual report on Canadian universities Oct. 23 and featured York in several of its articles.

In a complex world where career paths are just as likely to zigzag as follow a straight line, there is something to be said for an undergraduate education that exposes students to a range of subjects, either through specially designed programs and courses or by allowing them to craft their own combinations, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 23.

Encouraging students to expand their horizons before specializing was a founding principle at Toronto’s York University. For close to 50 years it has required arts and science students to take courses outside their main disciplines and describes itself as the country’s “interdisciplinary university“.

Sheila Embleton, the school’s vice-president academic & provost, says special humanities courses that are a requirement for all arts and science students draw on a range of disciplines. It’s a practice that she believes creates a more open-minded undergraduate population. These students must also take a social science course, and a natural science course is mandatory for arts students.

“We have to know how to talk each other’s language in order to solve a problem,” says Embleton, who as an undergrad majored in math and linguistics, an unconventional combination at the time. “When you look at many of the issues or topics in society, seldom is there a linear answer.”

A number of universities offer programs, degrees and courses that are designed to expose students to a range of disciplines. Some examples:

Some universities do their best to help students who want to combine majors that traditionally do not go together. York University, for example, allows students to combine any majors. Administrators caution that this route can take longer and often requires planning of timetables and courses – not to mention some sprints across campus.

A popular way to introduce incoming students to a range of subjects. Often these courses take a look at one topic from a variety of perspectives, such as the humanities courses at York University or first-year seminars offered at other schools.

  • At smaller schools, the student-prof relationship often extends beyond the classroom, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 23 in a story about the advantages of smaller universities. Jennifer Bleakney (MA ‘07), who did her undergraduate degree in history at Acadia University and her master’s at York University, says she would have been lost without her thesis supervisor’s help in getting into graduate school. Her supervisor not only recommended schools with strong history programs across Canada, but also edited her application essays and put her in touch with connected colleagues at five Ontario schools.

"He told me all the universities in Canada I should apply to for what I wanted to do," recalls the Moncton native. "He told me if I got accepted to York, that was where I should go." Bleakney says her undergrad education was a success thanks to the small classes and personal attention from professors, but when she got to York she realized her small-school degree may have put her at a disadvantage. "There’s a lot of discussion in the York master’s program – I got some of that in fourth year but not before that; I might have had that if I had a TA or a tutorial in some courses."

Bleakney also found that her York classmates had enjoyed wider course selections in their undergrad programs and were better prepared. "At the time [at Acadia], I didn’t think there was anything lacking. But when I got there, some of them had been able to take more in-depth classes in fourth year," she says. Still, she says that moving from a small undergrad school to a larger school for her master’s was the right path for her.

  • Given our obsession with weather, it is fitting that the first Canadian instrument ever to land on another planet is a weather station, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 23. On May 26, 2008, a suite of highly sophisticated meteorological tools aboard the Phoenix spacecraft started keeping tabs on the atmosphere of Mars. The design and construction of this station was led by a team of scientists and engineers from York University who collaborated with the Canadian Space Agency, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, a Canadian laser-based surveying company called Optech, and the Finnish Meteorological Institute, to name a few.

It is perhaps the single most dramatic example of what can be achieved when the barriers between universities, the private sector, and government agencies are broken down. The creeping influence of the private sector on campus, however, has a number of critics.

At York, however, Stan Shapson, vice-president research and innovation, does not see any conflict. "The word ‘commercialization’ gets certain peoples’ backs up, and there’s really no reason," he says. "Universities do a lot of basic research. In most cases these are things that are years or decades away from having an impact on society but when faculty members are working on things that can have an impact today, then why not develop closer relationships with industry and the private sector? Researchers might have a great idea, but they don’t necessarily know where to take that idea, or how to prototype it. Working with industry should be part of the natural cycle of doing research."

For Shapson though, the most exciting thing about the Phoenix project wasn’t the millions of dollars in research funds that came to York because of it but the experience gained by the students and researchers. "The most important type of technology transfer that occurs," he says, "is the experience we provide to our students, most of whom are also going to wind up in private industry. We don’t look at this as a money-maker. In fact, if you look carefully at the business case you’ll see that it’s very difficult to make money this way, unless you’re the University of Florida and you hit on Gatorade."

  • "The Greater Toronto Area is running up against a demographics crunch with thousands more undergrad spaces needed than can be filled," said Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University and former vice-president institutional affairs at York, in a Q&A with The Globe and Mail Oct. 23. "We are not able to handle the level of demand, so we’re working with York University and U of T and the provincial government to find solutions, involving other institutions coming into the GTA or other Ontario-based institutions having satellite campuses in the GTA."
  • Canadian universities are looking to green architecture and its accompanying technology to help them save energy and water, wrote The Globe and Mail Oct. 23. A growing number qualify for so-called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) status, a rating system developed by the US Green Building Council and adapted by the Canada Green Building Council. Others have won environmental, architectural or design awards. Here are examples of how some universities are greening their campuses:

York University, Computer Science & Engineering Building. 
2002 Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Governor-General’s Medal
Architect: Busby, Perkins and Will Architects, architects Alliance

Built in 2001, the first green-designated building in Ontario has passive ventilation, recyclable energy materials, sun shading and other attributes that reduce energy consumption by 50 per cent compared with conventional equivalents.

New ratings for Indian degrees is designed to attract foreign students

Certain universities in Canada such as York offer an added advantage for Indian students, wrote India’s The Economic Times in a story about the new Canadian experience class of visas.

“With the new five-star rating that York is giving to Indian students, master’s applicants won’t have to repeat an honours year (fourth year) here first, and PhD applicants won’t have to repeat a second master’s degree," says Sheila Embleton, York vice-president academic & provost. “This therefore saves them both time and the considerable money of an extra year (sometimes even two) of study in Canada. It’s not only the cost of studying, it’s also the lost income from not getting out into the workforce sooner.” Embleton adds that with the experience class visa, which will benefit all foreign students, and the changes specific to York University, there should be an increase in the number of Indian students at her university.

“Now that we’ve shown the academically sound arguments for the five-star rating, and have a ‘model’ Senate legislation for it, which we are now widely circulating, I expect others to follow York’s lead,” adds Embleton.

Child psychologist notes secret of The Wiggles’ success

Over the past 17 years, The Wiggles have gone from playing birthday parties for 10 children to sellout crowds at hundreds of major venues around the world every year, wrote the Toronto Star Oct. 23.

"The Wiggles in particular, they have early childhood development backgrounds and…they use simple language. The shows are short and just for young children," says Rebecca Pillai Riddell, a child psychologist in York University’s Faculty of Health. "They are catchy, catchy tunes and they write new material every year; that’s part of the longevity factor. They seem to get along, they’re friends and not just people thrown together, and their interest is in kids. Fame wasn’t their initial intent. They wanted to be preschool teachers and they happened to have musical talents."

Focusing on art as investments

Are photographs or photo-based work by contemporary Canadian artists considered a sound investment?, asked the Toronto Star Oct. 23. While diversifying is useful, investing in art tends to yield returns lower than stocks and at most comparable to bonds, says Pauline Shum, an investment professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University. Changing trends in collectors’ tastes can also effect the resale value of works you purchase.

Rebranding a community

Come visit University Heights – a diverse neighbourhood and historic site in the northwest part of Toronto where a well-known postsecondary institution is situated, wrote the North York Mirror Oct. 22. It’s more commonly known as the Jane and Finch community but local city councillor Anthony Peruzza (Ward 8, York West) is hoping to change that with about 90 new banners re-branding the community as University Heights, which are currently hanging on hydro poles around the neighbourhood.

Peruzza suggested the name University Heights – an old North York planning designation – to put an emphasis on the more positive developments in the community such as York University, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2009. The banners, costing $50,000 and paid for by York, consist of silhouettes of a graduating student representing the University and a pioneer farmer in reference to the community’s rural roots as preserved by the Black Creek Pioneer Village.

Osgoode prof supports tenured arbitrators for investment disputes

Arbitrators who also engage in advocacy are open to the criticism that they are in a position to make legal rulings (as arbitrators) which could help (or hurt) clients they represent in other matters, wrote the Financial Times Oct. 7 in a story about the crisis in the international investment arbitration system.

One academic, Gus Van Harten, who teaches at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Canada, told a Harvard law conference that a permanent court of tenured full-time judges would be preferable to the current system of arbitration. “It’s a positive step for states to resort to international adjudication to resolve sensitive disputes,” he said. “But to do that properly they should ensure that the system is free from perceptions of bias.”

Van Harten added: “The lack of tenure of arbitrators raises a serious concern because only the investors bring claims and so arbitrators are perceived to interpret the law in ways that often favour investors in order to advance their own careers and the arbitration industry.

“Having a proper judicial body would be good for states and their taxpayers but it would also be good for investors because most investors will never bring a claim,” said Van Harten, whose PhD thesis at the London School of Economics focused on the case for such a court. “So the benefit they get from the system comes from its legitimacy and the capacity of the system to deter abusive treatment by states. If the system is structured in a way that favours the investor interests quite patently, then that legitimacy is lost. The only real loser from a judicial body is the arbitration industry.”

Students petition Ontario on tuition fees

Gilary Massa said her family was so proud of her when she became their first child to go to university, wrote The London Free Press and The Toronto Sun Oct. 23. Now, she has 15 years of debt to look forward to from her $28,000 Ontario Student Assistance Program loan. "I’m left with this debt that my parents can’t help me with and I wonder what kinds of sacrifices I’m going to have to make because I finished university," said Massa, a 23-year-old York University political science grad. Massa’s signature is among the 65,000 inked on over 50,000 pages of a petition delivered to Queen’s Park yesterday morning to address rising tuition fees.

York grad runs for council on BC’s Cortes Island

Stephen Moyse was born in Ottawa in 1950 and educated at York University’s Faculty of Arts, graduating with a BA in 1975, wrote BC’s Campbell River Mirror Oct. 21 in a profile of municipal election candidates. He has volunteered on the Central Saanich Transportation Study Group and provided citizen input into the Capital Regional District Official Community Plan (OCP). He was active in Central Saanich on environmental conservation and is now a self-employed writer on the environment. The issues for Cortes Island, Moyse says, are logging; affordable housing, including seniors housing; and re-writing of the original official community plan.