York wants more civil Israeli-Palestinian debate

A month after rancorous and polarizing on-campus fights about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, York University announced plans Monday to steer the debate back toward civility, reported The Globe and Mail March 16.

The University is forming a task force to figure out ways to foster constructive arguments while clamping down on the chaos.

"Recent events on campus have raised serious concerns over whether our most cherished values and commitments are being undermined by excessive conflict, intolerance and even intimidation," the task force’s terms of reference states.

The announcement follows complaints that York has not been doing enough to rein in arguments that have led to chaotic rallies and threats against students.

The panel will be led by York’s long-serving Osgoode Hall Law School dean, Patrick Monahan. He was recently promoted to the position of University vice-president academic & provost, meaning he has been placed in charge of shaping the academic curriculum for the entire University.

Six other designated professors and seven student members, who have yet to be chosen, will round out the panel.

Findings are due by Aug. 31.

One key question, according to the terms of reference, is whether York’s policies are "adequate to ensure that the free exchange in ideas can occur in an environment free of discrimination, harassment or intimidation."

The terms of reference also ask whether groups are using community space appropriately.

The document also asks how York should deal with people and groups whose "incidents or behaviours do not meet the community’s expectations with respect to tolerance of, or respect for, diversity."

The task force comes on the heels of a Canada-wide controversy, with flashpoints at York, McGill and other universities that erupted in the wake of this winter’s crisis in Gaza.

Last month at York, duelling protests by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups disrupted campus life, with both factions confronting each other at mass demonstrations.

Also, a group calling itself "Drop YFS" announced it would try to impeach leaders of the allegedly pro-Palestinian York Federation of Students. During its announcement, students who led the Drop YFS movement complained they were chased into a locked room and said that they faced anti-Semitic slurs and threats of violence as reprisals.

The protests and threats have led to fines against student groups and continuing police investigations, but the University has faced widespread criticism it is not doing enough to tone down the rancour.

York has acknowledged the status quo is not tenable. Last month, York President Mamdouh Shoukri said in a speech that it was unfortunate students who had already weathered a lengthy strike this year returned to campus only to face "a barrage of disruption, hostility and even intimidation".

"This state of affairs is unacceptable to me, and it should be unacceptable to you," Shoukri said. "Intimidation, bullying and discrimination will not be tolerated here."

York is calling its new panel the "task force on life, learning and the community".

Prospective student representatives are being asked to apply for the job online.

Candidates will be vetted for being non-partisan. The task force says it is looking for a diverse group of problem solvers, who are independent and open-minded.

Spring’s environmental informant: the songbird

Spring can’t come quickly enough for Bridget Stutchbury, reported the Toronto Star March 14. "I’m anxiously waiting," says the York University biology professor, and the excitement in her voice reveals how much of an understatement that is.

But then, she has a bigger than average stake in what comes with the warm weather.

In April and May, wood thrushes and purple martins will return to their summer nesting grounds after wintering (what typical Canadians) in tropical Central and South America. They don’t go much farther north than here, but they’re part of the massive migration that takes some species far up into the boreal forest – flying by the tens of millions in clouds that show up on radar but are invisible to humans because the birds travel only when it’s dark.

Like happy wanderers, some will arrive with the equivalent of a knapsack on their back – miniature light-sensing devices that track where they’ve been by recording sunrise and sunset each day. Although these "geolocators" are only accurate to within 100 kilometres or so, they promise a wealth of new information about the birds’ habits and well-being.

In 2007, Stutchbury and her students attached the gadgets – about 1.5 grams each – to 14 wood thrushes and 20 purple martins just before the birds began their long southward migration.

The geolocators don’t transmit: The smallest gadgets that could provide real-time information through satellites weigh as much as a typical songbird, "so we’re not in the ballpark," Stutchbury says. "Maybe in 10 years."

For now, the only way to obtain the data is to catch the bird. That’s one reason the York group was able to download data from just seven birds last year. Another is the fact that an increasing proportion of migratory songbirds do not survive.

Even so, there was enough data for the team to report that the tiny creatures covered great distances at remarkable speeds. At least one purple martin averaged 577 kilometres a day on its 7,500-kilometre flight from Brazil.

Late last summer, the group attached geolocators to another 35 wood thrushes and 20 purple martins. The major aim is to learn where they go and, in particular, whether their wintering area is widespread or confined. That would allow researchers to determine whether the habitat is threatened by deforestation, development or pollution.

The research includes sub-studies, too. For example, about half of wood thrushes raise two sets of young during a summer breeding season. Before they fly south, each bird must replace all of its thousands of feathers – a process that consumes a huge amount of energy. This and migration are delayed for the birds with a second brood. York graduate student Elizabeth Gow is leading the work to figure out whether the later start imperils the thrushes. Another York grad student, Tyler Done, is measuring effects of stress from problems such as lack of food.

All of this matters if, like most people, you love to see and hear songbirds. The research will help to establish the importance of preserving and creating places that offer them food and shelter, here and up north.

Toronto is a crucial resting area after the flight across Lake Ontario: The birds need green spaces with natural trees and shrubs. Pesticide-free vegetable gardens also suit them. Their "real enemy", Stutchbury says, is "uniform, boring lawns."

Something to think about as spring approaches.

But this is about more than birds. By implication, says Stutchbury, they tell us to think about the environment on a global scale.

"Migrating songbirds connect our world with the tropics. Their lives depend on a healthy environment at both ends. Environmental problems far away affect us here."

On this day, number nerds get pi-eyed for the raddest ratio

Each year in March, the third month, on this 14th day, at precisely 1:59:26pm, number nerds gather around the world in celebration of the beloved mathematical constant pi: 3.1415926…, reported The Globe and Mail March 14.

This most celebrated ratio – that of a circle’s circumference to its diameter – figures into countless scientific formulae in engineering, architecture, statistics and astronomy. In physics, it pops up in the cosmological constant, in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and in Albert Einstein’s field equation of general relativity (by the way, Pi Day was Einstein’s birthday in 1879).

Club Infinity at York University honours the date with an annual party at which no mention of mathematics is allowed; last year, the department of mathematics at the University of Alberta held a pie-baking contest; MIT dished out pizza pie (in the past, it has used the day to mail out its acceptance letters); and at Berkeley a man was spotted with pi’s Greek symbol shaved into his beard.

York theatre prof adjudicates at Quonta Festival

This year’s adjudicator of the Quonta Regional Drama Festival in Sault Ste. Marie is Ross Stuart, a theatre professor in York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, reported the Sault Star March 16. A founder of the Canadian Theatre Review, his first festival adjudication was at Quonta in the Sault in the 1970s.

A brush with poetry

In the latest series of drawings by Suzanne Northcott, the artist draws inspiration from people she knew, reports British Columbia-based Indulge Magazine in its Feb. 9 issue.

One long-standing connection is with poet and York English Professor Rishma Dunlop, whom she has known for more than 14 years after Dunlop saw some of her work and contacted her. "We’ve worked really intimately together," Northcott says. "In The Body of My Garden series, I actually wrote her poetry on her body and then photographed her."

The two have published a book, White Album, which incorporates Northcott’s paintings and Dunlop’s poetry.

Libfeld legacy: Helping homebuyers with 0 per cent mortgages

Teddy Libfeld, the hurricane force behind the building giant The Conservatory Group in Markham, who died in 2000 at the age of 72, would be proud of the way his four sons are offering homebuyers a leg up in difficult economic times, reported the Toronto Star March 14. "We’ve taken a page out of Dad’s playbook," Sheldon Libfeld (BBA Spec. Hons. ’81) says, "by offering these no-interest mortgages. Dad did this in the recession of the 1990s, and when mortgage rates went through the roof in the ’80s, he offered low-rate mortgages. It was Dad’s way of helping people move out of rental units and realize the Canadian dream."

Study follows families through difficult times

When a child is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, the uncertainty can overwhelm parents, reported the Waterloo Region Record March 14. They don’t know what to expect as the disease progresses, or the emotional rollercoaster the entire family will be thrust on.

Charting that territory – and giving families and health professionals a better picture of what’s to come – is the goal of a new five-year study being run by a Wilfrid Laurier University professor and a team of Canadian medical experts, including two PhD nurses at York University and the University of California in San Francisco.

Terroni staff are like family at Italian restaurants

In a March 15 story about Cosimo Mammoliti and his growing chain of Terroni restaurants, the Toronto Star reported that the family feel extends to his employees, who now number about 300. Most tend to stay and move up in the organization, and they often socialize together. Giovanna Alonzi (BA Hons. ’02), who emerges from the kitchen in a bandana and pigtails, was a York University literature major when she got part-time work as a cook’s helper. With no experience but a love of Italian food, she was hired on someone’s gut feel, and now, at 28, is the chef at the Osteria. "I have a lot of respect for him," she says of Mammoliti. "He gives a lot of opportunity to the young generation."

Libraries are bestsellers these days

Library users are checking out more. The average number of items being borrowed is up dramatically as well, reported the Hamilton Spectator March 16. None of this comes as any surprise to Nadine Wettlaufer (BFA Hons. ’96, MA ’00), who was enjoying a library outing with her three-year-old daughter Robyn on Saturday. "If people decide that they have to watch their budget it’s a great way to do it by coming to the library. They have so many resources," she said, adding she loves the convenience the library offers through its online catalogue.

Wettlaufer, a part-time instructor in York’s Fine Arts Cultural Studies Program, whose income was recently affected by the four-month strike at York University, said the library is a godsend. "I don’t know what we would have done without the library, especially with a young child.”

On air

  • Ellen Bialystok, a Distinguished Research Professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Health, talked about bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia, at a Toronto conference on our brains and aging, reported CBC Radio’s “Morning North” in Sudbury, March 13.
  • York University promotes Chinese language and culture on China Day, reported “Omni News: Cantonese Edition” in Toronto March 13.
  • Alison Macpherson, a professor at York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, discussed her new research that shows bodychecking is a danger to young players, on “Global News At 6” March 12.