McGill professor challenges York faculty to act against aggressive protesters

Day after day we read about aggressive student protesters and dithering administrators at universities across Canada but particularly at York University, wrote Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, in the Toronto Star March 5. Radical student hooligans there intimidated and even temporarily incarcerated Jewish students last month.

This week, tensions are bound to escalate at York and other campuses as Palestinians try equating Israel with the now-defunct racist South African apartheid regime, wrote Troy. Even the posters advertising the week have sparked tensions. We need to ask: Where are the professors?

During times of political trouble we tend to forget that campuses are primarily educational institutions, Troy continued. They are also the professional homes of professors who need to take a stand when violence and hooliganism invade their academic sanctuary. With all due respect to campus security and police officers, when the call goes out to them for help, we as professors have failed.

Professors underestimate their own moral authority, said Troy. Our power goes far beyond the ability to give out As or Fs, wrote Troy. We are the university’s public face, the basic service providers, the campus role models.

The human dimension in education remains central in our hypertechnological age. Our students are always watching us. They learn from our actions – and our inactions. At York University and any other university where even one student feels physically threatened, professors must mobilize and – as the feminists say – take back the night.

For starters, a broad range of York professors, from different fields and from across the political spectrum, should denounce the violence, wrote Troy. Professors highly critical of Israel should take the lead, teaching that the issue is not about Israel, pro or con, but about student security and campus civility.

Professors should volunteer to escort any students or student groups who feel unsafe, said Troy. And yes, if necessary, professors should stand between rival groups on campus, literally standing for civility, not just endorsing it.

Rather than relying on the monochromatic uniforms of campus security, the professors should don their multicoloured academic gowns. If professors feel comfortable parading around in these robes at commencement to celebrate student achievement, shouldn’t we don them when the core values of our university are threatened?

Finally, professors should turn these traumatic events in the university’s life into what we in the education biz call “teachable moments”. Both regular class time and special teach-ins should be devoted to learning about free speech; about the mutuality of rights so we don’t have “free speech for me and not for thee”; about the centrality of civility to campus life; and about the historic roles of campuses as centres of civility.

Professors at places like Carleton, where the apartheid posters have sparked controversy, should also step in and work to keep the debate civil.

I do not mean to single out my colleagues at York University, said Troy. We at McGill or anywhere else in North America would do no better – and have done no better.

Since the 1960s, we as professors have abdicated responsibility for campus life outside the classroom, ceding it to students and administrators. Most professors have preferred to dodge the politically charged issues that have periodically roiled campuses since those days, and there is often little political consensus among colleagues. Avoidance has been safer than engagement.

Moreover, we live in the age of the academic careerist, where most of us are too overextended as well as too cautious to take bold stands, wrote Troy.

York professors have a responsibility to defend their academic home and a great opportunity to heal it.  No one goes into academics these days because it is the easy path. And most of us who research and teach believe in the redemptive power of learning.

York professors have a responsibility and a privilege to help solve the problem plaguing their university. Teaching is not just a job, it is a calling. It is time for York’s professors to answer the call and redeem their University.

This is your brain on religion

Newly published research by professors at York University and the University of Toronto points to reduced stress and anxiety among test subjects who consider themselves to be religious, compared with non-believers, when completing a task under pressure, wrote The Globe and Mail March 5. As a result, the believers performed better on cognitive tests.

Researchers monitored brain activity using electrodes. The results showed that subjects with more religious zeal experienced less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain that is involved in the experience of anxiety and helps modify behaviour. The more religious zeal individuals showed, the better they did on the test.

In a second test, subjects were simply asked to rate their belief in God, rather than answer detailed questions about their conviction. Even less fervent belief in God resulted in lower levels of anxiety than among non-believers.

  • The brains of religious people are calmer in the face of error and uncertainty than doubters, Canadian university researchers found, wrote the Ottawa Citizen March 5. “This is the first set of studies connecting individual differences in religious conviction to basic (brain) processes,” say authors Michael Inzlicht and Ian McGregor, psychology professors at the University of Toronto and York University, respectively.

Compared to irreligious subjects, the highly religious had 33 per cent less activity in the anterior cingulated cortex, a part of the brain that regulates anxiety. Those certain of God’s existence had 45 per cent less activity in this region compared to those convinced there is no God.

The religious people weren’t just calm, they were more accurate. “The more participants were zealous, the fewer errors they made,” said the paper, “Neural Markers of Religious Conviction”, published in the March edition of the academic journal Psychological Science. “We suggest that religious conviction buffers against anxiety by providing meaning,” the authors said.

Canadian astronaut preparing for six-month stint in space

As he nears a mission that will make him the first Canadian on a long-duration space flight, Dr. Robert Thirsk says he hopes to set the stage for even more ambitious journeys for this country’s astronauts, wrote The Globe and Mail March 5.

In an expedition that will stretch from spring to autumn, Thirsk is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station at the end of May for a six-month stint in the orbital laboratory.

Thirsk’s workload will include a York University experiment on how astronauts orient themselves in space, a University of Toronto fluid physics experiment, and a Simon Fraser University study of the behaviour of suspended particles in microgravity.

  • Paul Delaney, professor of physics & astronomy in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about Thirsk’s trip to the International Space Station on CTV Newsnet March 4.

Algonquin teachings, culture date back thousands of years

York grad Aimee Bailey’s work is “reviving our civilization”, wrote the Frontenac Gazette EMC March 5. At the Cultural Workshop hosted by the Shabot Obaadjiwan at St. James Major last Saturday in Sharbot Lake, she gave a presentation on the Anishinabe Clan System, the Teachings of The Seven Grandfathers and emerging Models of Governance, as well as the history of the Algonquin peoples, dating back millennia.

“We are different peoples,” she said. “There are about 152 Anishinabe Nations and Algonquin is part of that. The seven teachings of the moral grandfathers are moral codes passed along with oral traditions.”

Bailey (BA Hons. ’89), who has been “studying traditions most of my life,” studied world religions at York University’s Faculty of Arts and First Nations traditions at The First Nations Technical Institute in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. “Ours (First Nations spiritual beliefs) is just as valid as any other religion,” she said. “We have a creation story, prophecies and ceremonies and belief in a Supreme Being. “There was no validity to making our ceremonies illegal.”

Aspiring teacher to compete in pageant

An outgoing young woman will represent Espanola at the Miss North Ontario Regional Canada Pageant 2009 held next month, wrote The Sault Star March 5. Lacey Budge, 21, a York student and the daughter of Ken and Susan Budge of Espanola, is attending school in Toronto and is well known for her contributions to the community. The pageant runs April 30 to May 2 in Sudbury.

Next month, she will be graduating from York University with an honours degree in Linguistics & Language Studies (French and English). She has also completed the Certificate Program in the Discipline of Teaching English as an International Language.

York guard named OUA rookie of the year

York University guard David Tyndale of Mississauga has been named the Ontario University Athletics East Division basketball rookie of the year, wrote the Toronto Star March 5. He joins teammate John Lafontaine on the East Division all-rookie team.

Tory’s trials won’t be over even if he wins byelection, say experts

Win or lose, the trials and tribulations of Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory won’t be over once the ballots are counted Thursday in a byelection that could end his political exile, wrote The Canadian Press March 4 in a story citing political experts including Bob Drummond, political science professor and dean of York’s Faculty of Arts.

A victory might give Tory some steam, but he’ll still have to endure two more years in Opposition and a far-right faction that doesn’t like the direction the party has taken under his leadership, said Drummond. “The knives may be in the sheath for a while, but I think they’re going to come out at some point,” Drummond said.

Ontario’s tanking economy may also be playing a part in Tory’s sudden reversal of fortune, Drummond said. “There may be some sense that it’s not a time to change horses in midstream, if the stream is slowing hard and fast against you as the economy seems to be,” he said.

US Steel’s idling of plants attacked

The news that US Steel is mothballing its plants in Southern Ontario should serve as a wake-up call for Canadian government leaders who are allowing foreign hands to shape the destiny of this country’s industrial heartland, wrote The Globe and Mail March 5, citing industry critics.

James Laxer, political science professor in York’s School of Social Sciences in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, criticized the federal government for approving US Steel’s takeover of Stelco in October 2007. The steel industry was integral to the Obama administration’s buy-American policies, he said, so the fate of jobs in Ontario’s steel sector could be determined in the Pittsburgh headquarters of US Steel. “There’s got to be a basic debate in this country about the ownership of the key industries in Canada,” Laxer said.

Happy demisemiseptcentennial!

To mark the 175th anniversary of Toronto, two items about York University’s Glendon College made the Toronto Star’s list of 175 Reasons to Love Toronto.

90. Lively literati – from Glendon English Professor Michael Ondaatje to Bryan Lee O’Malley – helped make this a city of the imagination.

153. York’s ravine-shrouded Glendon campus.