Monahan sees York moving in a direction ‘that will encourage people to act civilly’

By the admission of York University President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, a “barrage of disruption, hostility and even intimidation” has afflicted his campus since classes resumed in January following a lengthy strike, wrote The Globe and Mail March 21. Following increasingly hostile confrontations between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian factions, including an incident in which a group of student activists was allegedly chased into a locked room and subjected to anti-Semitic slurs and threats of violence, the University has appointed a Task Force on Student Life, Learning & Community to help restore civil debate.

The committee will be made up of seven students and seven faculty members, and will be headed by Patrick Monahan, the Osgoode Hall Law School dean and constitutional expert who was recently named vice-president and University provost. Adam Radwanski caught up with Monahan this week to discuss how it got to this point, and what he proposes to do about it.

Q: You’re stepping onto a bit of a minefield. Did you have any hesitation about taking this on?

A: Actually, no…. A number of people, and I was one of them, think we need a forum for discussion to engage students. So I in fact was one of those advocating for the creation of something like this, and when people said, “Okay, it’s a good idea. Why don’t you head it up?” it was difficult for me to say anything other than "sure".

Q: York has long been something of a hotbed for these sorts of tensions. Has it demonstrably gotten worse?

A: I think this year has been a difficult year. We had one of the longest labour disruptions on a university campus in the history of Canada; following that, there have been a lot of tensions, and I think it may have been a bit of a residue. But these are ongoing issues.

Q: The mandate of your committee references the problems of “intolerance, harassment or intimidation”. Do you have a clear definition in your mind of what you’re trying to end?

A: To be honest, I don’t have a clear idea because I haven’t seen any of these incidents. I’ve only heard or read about them. But I think generally, what we strive to do at a university is to have a civil debate – a discourse based on reason, rather than just shouting, calling people names, making ad hominem arguments. We’re still going to have demonstrations and heated debates. But hopefully, we can do that in an atmosphere where people feel they can take different views and perhaps question their own views.

Q: There are provisions in Canadian law, including hate speech laws, that limit behaviour. When regulating conduct does become necessary, where can the University step in that the law doesn’t already cover?

A: Well, there are codes of conduct. There are certain expectations. And I think we’d like to encourage people to live up to those standards – that’s the direction I’d like to work in, rather than in a negative or punitive way.

I’m also very much of the view that prior restraints on speech generally are suspect. I think you want to allow for speech and dialogue, recognizing that if people do behave in a way that’s inappropriate, obviously that has to be dealt with. We can’t, for example, allow people to be disrupting other people’s classes, or shouting down people.

But part of it is, we have to clearly define why we don’t think that’s right.

Q: How far can a university go? Could we see a significant number of students expelled for violating others’ ability to learn in a civil environment?

A: I don’t think that’s something that’s going to be very successful. I would hope the direction we move in is one that will encourage people to act civilly.

Q: Is one of the problems that not enough York students – those who aren’t already firmly entrenched in heated debates – are actively involved in the campus?

A: We know that a significant number of our students come to campus, they go to their classes, and then they go back to their homes…. One of the things I want to find out is what sorts of things would make them stay on campus.

Q: The University of Toronto is also largely a commuter university, and it doesn’t seem to have experienced the same problems…

A: There’s no doubt we’ve gotten a lot more media attention. They do have their tensions – I mean, Israeli Apartheid Week originated there. They haven’t necessarily come to as much of a flashpoint as they have here, but there are probably significant issues there.

Q: Is Israeli Apartheid Week inherently problematic, or can it be held in a constructive way?

A: It’s part of the mandate of free speech, and we’re not about to prevent people from espousing different views, including pro and con on the state of Israel. This year, in fact, Israeli Apartheid Week on this campus was relatively quiet. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no question that if students want to continue to have that event, it’ll be their right to do so.

Q: According to your mandate, there will be various public discussions and online forums and so on. How do you avoid the committee becoming, as opposed to a solution, an avenue for the kind of conflict that we’ve seen?

A: I don’t see that that’s really going to be a problem for us. One of the first things I want to propose to my colleagues on the committee is to have some serious working sessions, where we have academics both from our campus and elsewhere talk about the values of free speech on campus. Let’s start engaging as a group.

Q: To ensure your town hall meetings are civil forums, where there aren’t aggressive demonstrations outside and people being shouted down inside, strikes me as a big challenge….

A: It may be. I’m not so sure. I’d like the town halls to be organized around different themes, and perhaps have a speaker – not a member of the task force, but a speaker – to come and engage with some issues, or perhaps two or three speakers from different perspectives, and then open it up for a broader discussion. Rather than just say, “Here we are, and everyone start complaining,” we’d like to give people something to think about.

Q: Do you have a model that you’re going to try to follow?

A: We did look at a variety of other bodies that have been set up at different universities over the last decade or so. We tried to kind of blend these different elements together. For me, the key element was the representation of students. Nothing’s going to be approved by this committee unless the students agree. In other words, it’s not going to be the administration’s report.

Q: How will you judge whether the committee succeeds?

A: A year from now, we’ll be winding up the next academic year. I’d like to be able to look back and say – not that there weren’t any problems, because there will continue to be problems – but that overall there’s a sense on campus that in the level of discussion, tolerance and civility, we’ve started to move back up the curve to a place where we want to be. It’s somewhat intangible – it’s not a science, it’s more of an art.

‘Google mistrials’ derail courts

The modern addiction to instant communication appears to have given rise to the “Google mistrial” – the use of new technology to inadvertently skew the scales of justice, wrote the National Post March 23 in a story about several recent court cases that were disrupted by jury members leaking details on Facebook and Twitter.

Canadian experts say while they are not aware of any such trial disruptions in this country, it is likely jurors here are doing similar things.

Alan Young, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, notes that Canada’s laws and legal processes are generations behind contemporary science and technology. “No one has considered the ultimate impact of instantaneous communication on…the day in court.”

He believes jurors go against judges’ instructions more often than the legal community would like to think, at least partly due to modern society’s addiction to constant communication and information consumption. “We are so hooked on this instantaneous communication, we can’t seem to drop it even for a short period of time in order to discharge a civic duty.”

Technically, jurors are allowed to ask questions if they’re curious about a missing detail or don’t understand something, but the feedback isn’t nearly as instant as a Google search. They must submit a question in writing to the sheriff who then presents it to the judge. “Because of the formality of the process and because the jurors are not allowed to stand up and say, ‘One second, I don’t understand – explain it to me this way,’ it rarely happens,” Young said.

University endowment funds have taken a big hit in the markets

If starting the winter term nearly two months behind schedule due to a campus strike wasn’t bad enough for students at Toronto’s York University, beginning in May, the financial support won’t be what they’re accustomed to – at least in the short term, wrote the National Post March 21.

With the collapse of the markets, the University has lost 19 per cent of its $300-million endowment fund. This fund, which was 70 per cent invested in equities and 30 per cent in fixed income, makes up a significant portion of York’s income, accounting for 2.9 per cent of total revenues in fiscal 2008 (ended April 30).

As important as endowment funds are to a school, they are critical for students. University endowments are the main source of bursaries, scholarships and other financial aid.

University endowment funds are usually built on donations. But in order to sustain and grow the endowments, funds are invested and a portion of the returns are then used for academic and financial needs-based bursaries.

At York, that money might have helped students who will now see their school year extended until the end of May as a result of the strike delay and could find summer employment difficult. “What makes it doubly difficult for York is that we need our student financial aid budget [even more] from our endowment because we do have additional hardships on our students,” says Gary Brewer, vice-president finance & administration. “Instead of quashing money, we would want to provide more money to be able to support them.”

That will not be the case. While the budget for the new fiscal year starting May 1 has yet to be finalized, it will be a drastic change from the past. York usually receives between $10 and $12 million annually from endowment returns for operations. This will now be closer to $2 million. In the past, 70 per cent of those funds went to areas related to student financial assistance, and the remaining 30 per cent allocated to faculty salaries and benefits. In the next budget, the scales of this formula will tip to the other side.

“It’s likely to be a couple million dollars for those salaries and benefits and very little for students directly from the endowment,” says Brewer.

The situation at York is happening at other academic institutions across Canada as the economic downturn eats away at monies universities invested from endowment funds.

York is trying to come up with ways to allow as many students as possible to have some level of financial backing. “What we’ve done is actually initiate a targeted fundraising,” says Brewer. “We set a target of $5 million dollars and we’ll be working to close the gap as a result of the endowment downturn. We recently had a $2.5-million gift that will be spent over the next two years. This will go a long way to closing that gap.”

Back to the future on nuclear debate

Saskatchewan residents are being asked to revisit the debates over uranium refining and nuclear power generation that were passionately argued 30 years ago, wrote Mervyn Norton (MES ’82), a former fellow in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, in The Leader-Post (Regina, Sask.) March 21.

One enduring misunderstanding about the failed attempt to develop a uranium refinery near Warman 30 years ago is the belief the project was turned down because of public opposition. In fact, the environmental assessment review panel based its rejection on the failure of the proponent (Eldorado Nuclear) to submit an adequate social impact statement, wrote Norton.

The challenges of evaluating credibility – and ultimately achieving a consensus on “subjective” issues – can generate skepticism. The accepted role of opposition leaders, in the community or in political parties, is to raise questions about factual claims or about the adequacy of the consultation process. Even for those not directly engaged in the renewed debate, the process will certainly be worth watching.

Not-so-free speech

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney wants to return Canada to the days of the Cold War, wrote Reg Whitaker, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus, York University, now adjunct professor of political science at the University of Victoria, in a letter to The Globe and Mail March 21. The last time a British MP was barred from visiting Canada because of their political views was in the 1950s, when “communist sympathies” were cited. Today, George Galloway is accused of sympathizing with the Taliban and offering support to Hamas.

This decision was taken on the same day that US President Barack Obama extended the hand of friendship to Iran via a video message. Should Obama ever seek to revisit Canada in the future, Kenney will no doubt be quick to step in and bar him. After all, the Harper government has denounced Iran for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, so anyone offering friendship to a terrorist-supporting regime must represent a security risk to Canada.

Universities see quality drop

While the Ontario government’s recent announcement of a $51.6-million commitment to add roughly 3,000 graduate spaces to universities in the next few years seems progressive on the surface, some onlookers fear that without plans to recruit highly qualified faculty, these new spaces will only further strain an already overburdened system, wrote the National Post March 23, in a story about a survey by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.

With the University of Toronto set to acquire the greatest allotment of this new funding – enough for it to create 588 spaces – it may likewise suffer the most severe blow to its quality of graduate education. Ryerson University and York University are expected to receive 289 and 97 spaces respectively.

Graduate assistants, teaching assistants, and contract faculty at York recently voiced their own financial gripes, citing lower pay and job insecurity as chief reasons for their headline-grabbing strike that kept 50,000 students out of the classroom for three months.

Dominican trip no day at the beach

Christine Whitney, who is currently in her third year of York’s Post-RN Bachelor of Science in Nursing Program at Georgian College, treats patients during the college’s mission to the Dominican Republic trip last April, wrote The Barrie Examiner March 21 in a photo caption illustrating a story about students at the college preparing for a charity expedition to the Dominican Republic.

Thanking staff without a fistful of dollars

“Creating a forum to celebrate successes, that recognizes or acknowledges employees’ hard work, is awesome,” says Stephen Friedman, who teaches organizational behaviour at the Schulich School of Business at York University, wrote The Globe and Mail March 21 in a story about a company that puts staff compliments about their peers online. “The more public the acknowledgment…the better they’re going to feel.”

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

At least some of the Tamils who rallied in downtown Toronto earlier this week consider the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam a liberation movement, not a terrorist group, and their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, a freedom fighter, wrote the Toronto Star March 21 in a story about a review of laws governing refugees. “The Tigers are my freedom fighters,” rally organizer Aranee Muru, a Canadian-born York University student, told the Star.

On the other hand, Hasaka Ratnamalala, a spokesperson for the Sri Lanka United National Association of Canada, declares that Prabhakaran “is a psycho who has killed thousands of people in Sri Lanka.”

York professor featured as a highlight in history

In 1995, Marshall McCall, an astronomy professor in York University’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, and a US astronomer, announced the discovery of two new galaxies near the Milky Way, wrote The Canadian Press March 22.

How I lost my Bay Street job and found true happiness

Sophie, how did I get here?, wrote York grad Andrea Fitzpatrick (MBA ‘01) in the Toronto Star March 22 in a first-person account of her career change after a corporate downsizing.

I remember thinking: How did I get to be sitting next to this human resources person while the Bell Canada vice-president on the other side of the desk politely informed me that my employment was being terminated? That whole meeting last Aug. 12 took 12 minutes. Twelve minutes to end a seven-year climb.

I didn’t think, at the time, about the possibility of what 12 minutes could begin. It took my border collie, Sophie, to lead me back to myself and what I really wanted in life, which turns out not to be corporate success after all.

Seven years earlier, at the age of 28, I had clutched my still-wet MBA from York University’s Schulich School of Business in one hand and firmly grasped the bottom rung of the corporate ladder in the other. I stared up that ladder and envisioned at the top a VP title, a six-figure income, a big office and an even bigger bonus. I never paused to consider my definition of success versus society’s definition, or that maybe I should have expected something else, something more for myself.

For the first time in my life I don’t have a five-year career plan. But I spend my days talking about dogs, working on products that benefit their health, communicating with pet owners – and I have never been happier at a job in my life.

Somalia’s new leader has a York grad in his cabinet

Omar Abdirashid Sharmarke won’t be the only Canadian citizen in the new government of Somalia, wrote the Toronto Star March 22, as dozens of the appointees once lived here, including York grad Buri Hamza (MES ’05), now Somalia’s environment minister.

Hamza left Somalia on a scholarship to California State University in the mid-1960s and studied and worked abroad for years before joining his family and settling in Canada in 1999. Hoping to one day be a part of rebuilding his country he recently completed a master at York University in environmental governance and peace building.

Like Sharmarke, he believes establishing security and working toward overcoming traditional clan divisions are the priorities. “Once this is attained, the country will be prepared for elections whereby the people in the entire nation will be able to choose their representatives…through democratic processes,” Hamza said.

Wind farm project director speaking on Green Energy Act

York grad Jim Fonger (BA Spec. Hons. ’79) of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA) will speak on March 26 about the Green Energy Act, a provincial reform intended to support green energy projects in Ontario, wrote March 23.

Fonger is co-founder, president and CEO of H2Green Energy Corporation. The director-treasurer for OSEA holds a degree in economics from York University’s Faculty of Arts. Fonger is also a director of Windy Hills Caledon Renewable Energy, a community-based 10-megawatt wind farm project located in northwest Caledon.

Money managers: The time for leadership is now

One of the “teachable moments” arising from the current market crisis is that we all face ever more complex decisions – often about issues in respect of which we are flooded with information but know very little about, wrote Edward Waitzer, Jarislowsky Dimma Mooney Chair in Corporate Governance at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School and Schulich School of Business, in The Globe and Mail March 23. It is certainly striking how often the crisis we end up struggling with isn’t one most were anticipating. To take the recent failures in financial markets as an example, while many have expressed concerns about conflicts of interest (which, once clearly identified, we can try to manage) and complacency (which may be endemic to human nature), it is complexity and connectedness that now pose the greatest challenges for those seeking to reshape governance processes.

The contours of a new (and more inclusive) governance architecture aren’t yet clear. If anything, it is evident that leaders will need to be careful not to hold out too much hope for quick solutions and to expand their horizons in various directions.

Firstly, they will need to look further ahead – well beyond patching things up enough to get incumbent governments through their next election or managements through their next quarterly reporting cycle…. They will also need to look beyond the regulation of markets and address broader policy concerns relating to economic and other imbalances. If not, such issues may well spur a stampede away from the kinds of global co-operation that will be required to meaningfully address incentives and mechanisms to reduce systemic risks.

Finally, they will need to widen the circle beyond what have traditionally been thought of as the dominant global powers, recognizing that political solutions depend on the conditions each government faces at home, while governance solutions will require a platform on which can be built consensus that stretches across sectors and political/geographic boundaries.

On air

  • Kyle Killian, professor in York’s School of Nursing, Faculty of Health, spoke about how the family of Austrian Josef Fritzl can recover from their lifelong ordeal of abuse, on CBC Newsworld March 20.