York’s think fest promises to deliver fireworks

Seth Feldman cares deeply about how and what people are thinking. So when the University was seeking ideas for events to mark its 50th anniversary, Feldman, a professor of film and director of York’s Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies, proposed a think fest of sorts – an event that would match some of York’s brightest minds with thinkers from areas in which York has a deep and demonstrated commitment. The result is the 50+50 Symposium, on this weekend at York’s Keele campus.

Right: Seth Feldman

The 50+50 Symposium pairs eight global thinkers with eight leading academics from York University. They will engage in an open dialogue – with no prefabricated texts – on issues such as the environment, evolution, social justice and quality of life. Feldman says the event harkens to the mandate of universities and is true to York’s heart. “This is the way a university celebrates a big event. We put our heads together to try to understand the world’s problems and what to do about those problems,” says Feldman. “And that’s certainly what has been York’s mission for 50 years. This symposium in some ways will try, over two days, to recreate that mission in a very condensed and high-level form."

Feldman has asked each of the speakers to address the question: "What has your discipline learned in the last 50 years and how will it help us in the next 50 years?" The result is “An Interdisciplinary Discussion of Pretty Much Everything”, a symposium befitting of York’s 50 years in postsecondary education.

Participating in the symposium are Inuit environmentalist Sheila Watt-Cloutier; digital thinker Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop per child; Arjun Appadurai, global cultures scholar and Goddard Professor of Media, Culture & Communication at New York University; Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella; Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University; Lloyd Axworthy, Canadian statesman and president & vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg; journalist Jeffrey Simpson, political affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail; and Margaret Atwood, Canadian author, thinker and philosopher. They will meet at York and engage in dialogue with some of York’s brightest minds.

Left: From left, academics Nicholas Negroponte and Arjun Appadurai, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella and author-thinker-philosopher Margaret Atwood

Participating in the symposium from York are Jennifer Foster, professor and coordinator of the Urban Ecologies Certificate Program in the Faculty of Environmental Studies and chair of the President’s Sustainability Council at York; Faculty of Fine Arts Dean Barbara Sellers-Young; Professor John Tsotsos, Canada Research Chair in Computational Vision in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering; Patricia Bradshaw, a professor in the Schulich School of Business and former chair of the York University Senate; Osgoode Hall Law School Dean Patrick Monahan, recently appointed as York’s vice-president academic & provost; psychology Professor Suzanne MacDonald of York’s Faculty of Health; David Dewitt, associate vice-president research & innovation and former director of the University’s Centre for International & Security Studies; and Caitlin Fisher, Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture in the Department of Film, Faculty of Fine Arts. Moderating the panel discussions are Lorna R. Marsden, York president emerita, and Allan C. Hutchinson, Distinguished Research Professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School. Feldman will serve as the symposium’s emcee.

Right: From left, University of Winnipeg president & vice-chancellor Lloyd Axworthy, Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, columnist Jeffrey Simpson and Harvard Professor Emeritus Edward O. Wilson

Feldman fully expects some fireworks and some unexpected twists and turns in the dialogue. "Rule one is that nobody is allowed to give their set piece or speech. In fact, the speakers have taken that as a challenge. In at least one case, that challenge is the reason the speaker agreed to attend the 50+50 Symposium," he says. 

According to Feldman, it is not only the 50th anniversary that makes the symposium so timely. "I think this is a momentous occasion because there has been such a huge change in the world with the economic crisis," says Feldman. "The world is experiencing some interesting times and a lot of people will have to rethink a lot of things. This is York’s moment to contribute to that process.

Left: From left: Professors Patricia Bradshaw and John Tsotsos, Dean Barbara Sellers-Young and Professor Jennifer Foster

"Why should anyone attend? Well this is a conference in which very smart people will be thinking out loud," he says "They will be hosted by some of York’s best and brightest. It will be an enormously engaging program that will be very welcoming to input from the audience. At the end of each day, the four speakers of that day will interact with each other and with the audience [during the panel discussions]."

Right: From left, Dean Patrick Monahan, Professor Caitlin Fisher, Associate VP Researh & Innovation David DeWitt and Professor Suzanne MacDonald

Another goal of the conference is to allow time for discussion. Many academic conferences are so full of papers and presenters, says Feldman, and there is never enough time to talk. The 50+50 Symposium offers just the opposite, great dialogue with some great minds. "I’ve tried in this symposium to keep it to eight people over two days to allow plenty of dialogue around the central topic – how smart have we been in understanding what has happened and how can we use this knowledge." 

And Feldman has an ultimate goal as well. "Over the course of two days, one – or all – of our guests and moderators will say something that will be life changing for those who attend. That too is what a university is all about," he says.

Tickets are available by half-day session or for two full days (which includes all four half-day sessions). For more information on pricing and to purchase tickets, visit the 50+50 Symposium Web site. Tickets are also available online through the York University Box Office Web site or by calling 416-736-5888.

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor