York president talks about the University’s annus horribilis

Rebuilding York’s reputation is going to take much more than a new tower and a fresh coat of paint, wrote The Globe and Mail June 20. President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri is the lucky guy who has to come up with a plan. “There is absolutely no question, it has been a difficult year,” says Shoukri, seated at a makeshift table in his soon-to-be-office. “The strike was a huge setback.”

Shoukri, who sees himself as a consensus builder, says he regrets not speaking directly to students and their parents more during the strike. His other regret is a personal one – the labour dispute caused him to cancel his annual December trip to Egypt for the birthday of his father, who died suddenly in March, said the Globe.

Asked to chart his progress, Shoukri offers up examples of subtle change, such as more involvement by leading researchers in the workings of the University and a new generation of faculty who are helping to shape the campus. “Unfortunately, it has taken a little longer,” he says of his larger plan. The 12-week dispute with teaching assistants and contract faculty also has set the powerful union local back on its heels: It wound up settling for a three-year deal similar to the offer it had rejected three months earlier. “It was a crushing defeat,” says Tyler Shipley, a graduate student who was a union spokesman during the strike and disagreed with the leadership’s decision to accept the deal this spring, said the Globe.

With labour peace – at least for the next three years – Shoukri argues York is positioned to make advances. He’s just finished a reorganization of the University and put his own team in place, appointing Osgoode Hall Law School Dean Patrick Monahan to the new position of provost and vice-president. One of Monahan’s first duties is to head a task force with a mandate to help restore civil debate. York also won big in recent federal and provincial stimulus spending, receiving $95 million for a new life sciences building and a law school expansion.

Shoukri also promises to devote more time to being visible on and off campus. During the strike, he refused media interviews and was widely criticized for his low profile, an approach that led students to camp outside his office, demanding a meeting. Many believe York needs its president to fill a more public role, especially in the debate over academic freedom that is gripping the campus, said the Globe. On this matter, Shoukri says his position is clear. “I see my role in this to be the advocate for academic freedom,” he says. As long as no laws are violated and there are not calls for violence or hatred, he says there is no reason for him to become involved.

Shoukri denies he is under pressure from donors to intervene in next week’s [Israel/Palestine] conference or in matters of campus discipline. “We appreciate donations and the support of the private sector and individuals,” he says, “but this is an academic institution and not an organization that is driven by who pays what.”

Other organizations are taking a more conciliatory tack, arguing that the Jewish community can only advocate for change if it remains involved. “You can’t influence a university by leaving,” says Howard English, a spokesman for the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto, which has presented the University with a long list of recommendations to fix what English sees as a “lousy situation” on campus. On the issue of peace among groups on campus, Shoukri says the University has taken action, especially in connection with the February incident that gained wide publicity after a group of Jewish students were penned in a room and contacted police to escort them out.

In spite of this confrontation and a raucous rally in the school’s central hall – both captured on YouTube – Shoukri argues conditions on campus have improved and makes no apologies for York’s social-activism traditions. “I really think that is part of what makes this university special. My concern is always how civil is the debate.”

One of the central figures in this issue is Krisna Saravanamuttu, the newly elected head of the York Federation of Students. He was recently fined and faces sanctions for his conduct during the February protest at the Student Centre where he shouted “Racists off campus", said th eGlobe. The incident, which began as a press conference to announce support for a recall of student leaders, including Saravanamuttu, turned into a confrontation between Jewish students and pro-Palestinian groups.

Saravanamuttu, whose Tamil parents fled Sri Lanka in 1983, says he believes in respectful dialogue. Nonetheless, he keeps a megaphone under his desk in his federation office. “You never know what is going to happen,” he says.

A slight man with a wide smile, Saravanamuttu points out that, despite the recall campaign, he won a clear victory in student elections. York is “a campus like no other,” he says. “We are famous for challenging issues within and outside the classroom. I don’t think these kinds of issues are going away any time soon.”

Shoukri agrees it is unrealistic to think his arrival on campus would bring a “magic answer” to tensions that have simmered for years. To answer his critics, Shoukri will need not only a plan, but action, said the Globe.

Goodyear’s intervention ‘unprecedented’, says CAUT’s Turk

Canada’s minister of state (science & technology), Gary Goodyear, took an unprecedented step when he called on the president of one of Canada’s academic granting councils – the Social Science & Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) – to reconsider its funding for a controversial conference being held at York University next week, wrote James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, in the Edmonton Journal June 20. Some have expressed surprise at our subsequent call for his resignation.

So why are so many Canadian academics so worried about the precedent being set by the minister? For starters, his seemingly innocent action disregards the tradition that allows universities to serve the public interest – that it is the role of universities in a democratic society to provide a space for critical examination of complex and controversial issues, whether they be peace in the Middle East, the best treatment of colon cancer, the effectiveness of crime prevention measures or the causes of climate change. The public must be able to trust that ideas, findings and advice coming from universities are based on scholarly work, not on pressure from outside interests.

Inevitably, some in society are offended when universities carry out their critical inquiries. This has led, over many years, to a tradition of university autonomy so academics don’t have to worry that powerful politicians, or wealthy drug companies or influential religious leaders will dislike what they’re doing and impose political, corporate or religious restrictions on academic inquiry.

To ensure scholarly standards – not political, religious or corporate standards – guide how universities use public money, governments have established arm’s-length funding agencies, like SSHRC, to assess proposals for research and for academic conferences. Applications for financial support are reviewed by experts in the field who determine if the proposal has scholarly merit and should be funded. This system of peer review is how the public can be assured its money is well spent.

The notion that a minister can call the president of one of these granting agencies to prompt reconsideration of a peer-reviewed funding decision undermines the independence and integrity of that system.

This has never happened before and for good reason. Every one of Minister Goodyear’s predecessors has respected the rules and decisions of peer-reviewers, and the need for the funding agencies like SSHRC to be truly “arm’s-length”. That tradition was broken with Goodyear’s intervention. It was broken again when the president of SSHRC agreed to do what Goodyear asked.

That is why we have reacted so strongly to try to ensure this never happens again. That is why we have called for Minister Goodyear’s resignation. We refuse to let Canada move in a direction that compromises the integrity of academic work. The public must be confident that it is independent and peer-reviewed scholarship, not partisan politics, that guides the work of universities.

  • Academic activists are demanding Cambridge MP and Minister of State (Science & Technology) Gary Goodyear resign for “unprecedented and unacceptable interference” in democratic discussion, wrote the Cambridge Times June 19.

About a dozen members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3906 staged a protest outside Goodyear’s Bishop Street office yesterday morning, calling for the MP’s resignation. With placards in hand, protestors charged that the MP abused his political power by asking for a review of funding for an upcoming federally-funded conference on the future of Israel and Palestine.

Goodyear is under fire from academics for asking the head of the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council to revisit a conference titled Israel-Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace, June 22 to 24 at York University.

  • Susan Martinuk got one thing almost right – controversy should be welcomed in universities, wrote James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), in a letter to the Calgary Herald June 21. But her commitment to that vital aspect seems to end when the controversy involves issues dear to her heart. Her attack on the Israel/Palestine conference at York University paints a picture that has little relation to reality. From her account, no one would know that the conference is bringing together some of the leading experts in the world on Israel/Palestine. Nor does she mention that one-fourth of the presenters are professors from Israeli universities, including the dean of social science at the University of Haifa and two of the most distinguished professors of law from Hebrew University.

The rebirth of an Iranian revolutionary

For years, he was the faithful party member, a favoured disciple of Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But something happened to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, this paragon of the Islamic Revolution, that led him to declare this weekend that he was “ready for martyrdom” in his fight against the regime of Iran’s current Supreme Leader, wrote The Globe and Mail June 22.

This is Mousavi’s last hurrah, says Saeed Rahnema, an Iranian-born political scientist in York’s Faculty of Arts. “If he backs down now, he’s finished forever. He says he’s willing to die for the cause,” Rahnema said, “because he has nothing to lose.”

So at what point in this revolutionary’s career did he decide to put his life on the line? The seeds were planted 30 years ago, Rahnema said. “He was definitely a significant figure during the revolution and its immediate aftermath,” he said. “But after that, he was a forgotten man.”

Then, after years of being passed over as a presidential candidate, “he finally had a chance to redeem himself,” Rahnema said. “I think he may be hoping that some kind of negotiations will spare him from a deadly showdown,” Rahnema said. “But these days, you never know.”

Video game band was red hot to win $100,000

Brandon Rowe never imagined pretending to be a rock star would prove so lucrative, wrote The Hamilton Spectator June 22. But for the Hamilton native, 20, his brother Ryan, 19, and two other “bandmates” their skills playing the video game Rock Band 2 have won them $100,000.

“It boggles my mind everyday to think we won this amount of money playing a video game,” he said.

The quartet, which also consists of guitarist Malik Diaz,  from Burlington, and Ramsey Aburaneh, from Cambridge, took home the massive top prize at the AMP Energy Rock Off! finale Saturday in Toronto.

The boys – who go by the name GSpot Boyz – were representing York University, where all four attend. They’ll split the prize, $25,000 each. Appearing shirtless and decked out in silver body paint, the Boyz performed a high energy five-minute set to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers song Give it Away.

Mimicking the video for the song, which was their third choice to compete with, is what Ryan credits for making them stand out. “I think it was because we did exactly what the music video did,” he said.

  • Burlington resident Malik Diaz did not know what he was signing up for when he saw advertisements at York University, which he attends, for a Rock Band competition, wrote the Burlington Post June 19. However, when he found out the popular interactive video game competition included a $100,000 grand prize, he stopped playing around.

“I used to play guitar,” said Diaz. “I thought this would be fun so I gathered some friends together and we joined. When I found out how much the prize money was I took it way more seriously.”

  • Saving the world can be easy if you just watch Grade 12 students Michael Stroud and John Zimnicki, wrote the Vaughan Citizen June 21. The Father Bressani Catholic High School students came away the winners of the Rule the World-Save the World Philanthropy Challenge, sponsored by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario.

Their idea, Games to Remember, allows people to raise money for charity by playing video games. Setting up the school gym like a virtual concert, the more than 150 students who registered got a chance to play while a packed gym looked on.

But Games to Remember isn’t just about playing any old video game. The students chose Rock Band as their game of choice.

If their first event is any indication, they are definitely onto something after raising $7,000.

Stroud has been accepted to the Schulich School of Business at York University where he hopes to pursue finance and marketing.

Companies should be prepared for an influenza pandemic, says Schulich prof

The World Economic Forum earlier this year put the adverse economic impact of an influenza pandemic at around $500 billion, wrote Amin Mawani, professor of health industry management at the Schulich School of Business at York University, in The New York Times June 22. That was before the recent outbreak of swine flu sickened more than 28,000 people world-wide, leading the World Health Organization on June 11 to declare its first pandemic in 41 years. While WHO officials emphasized that most of the people infected so far have experienced mild symptoms and recovered quickly, they say the outbreak could become more serious.

There are many benefits associated with pandemic preparedness. The companies that can prevent absenteeism during a pandemic will be well-positioned to take market share from those that can’t – a situation that may be hard to reverse once the panic subsides. They also may enjoy higher stock prices and cheaper credit because financial markets tend to reward firms with steady profits and cash flows.

Senior managers can’t afford to ignore the issue of pandemic preparedness. Considering that employees are the key profit drivers in most companies, managers must take leadership on issues related to disruptions of labour supply.

Award-winning musician heads for York

Teachers Don Buchanan and David Malito both said choosing the first two students to have their names on the West Hill Secondary School Jazz Award was easy, wrote The Owen Sound Sun Times June 20.

Percussionist Levi Dow and sax player Neil Morley are both members of West Hill’s roughly 20-piece jazz band, both are pursuing music beyond high school, and both are keen jazz musicians. “These are two naturals,” Buchanan said yesterday at the school, where he presented the awards informally to the two musicians. Dow begins percussion studies at York University, with broad music programming and an emphasis on jazz studies, along with world rhythms.

Young artist will study design at York

Richelle Rogers put her own personal spin not only on her creative display area but also a large installation piece, wrote the Dundas Star News June 19 in a story about Highland Secondary School’s annual art exhibit. Challenged to create a project about a social issue, Rogers illustrated her opposition to capital punishment by hanging an electric chair in a noose. Rogers will study design at York University next year.

Why biodiversity matters

In 1992, Canada committed “to achieve a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on Earth” by 2010, wrote Laurence Packer, biology professor in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, and Graham Forbes of the University of New Brunswick, in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal June 20. The United Nations proclaimed 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity and targets were endorsed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and incorporated under the Millennium Development Goals by the United Nations General Assembly. To date, the importance of meeting target seems absent from government priorities – budgets have been re-directed and activity for next year’s review is minimal, at best.

While biodiversity is essential for the productivity of the natural resources that everyone uses, its loss is no longer restricted to organisms living in remote habitats but is becoming so widespread as to impact urban environments where most people live.

This article is a reminder of the importance of biodiversity. It is a call for a reaffirmation by governments and the public for the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a reassessment of the health of biodiversity in Canada, and a more rigorous response to foster the maintenance of native biodiversity upon which, ultimately, all of human life depends.

Packer is one of Canada’s foremost experts on bees, noted the Telegraph-Journal.

Religious groups seek standing at prostitution challenge

Spirituality and morals took centre stage at the opening skirmish in what could be a battle royal over the constitutionality of the country’s prostitution laws, wrote The Globe and Mail June 20. With the court challenge scheduled to begin this fall, two religious groups and a conservative women’s group urged a Toronto judge yesterday to let them participate to ensure that morality is not swept aside by legal rhetoric.

The challenge was launched by three activists connected to the sex trade – Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott. They are seeking to strike down laws that prevent communicating for the purposes of prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution and keeping a common bawdy house.

Their lawyer, Alan Young, a professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, contends that the three laws are incompatible with the fact that prostitution is legal in Canada. The challenge contends that the prostitution laws violate Section 7 of the Charter of Rights guarantee to life, liberty and security of the person, by exposing sex workers to danger.

Young said he intends to argue that the laws compromise the safety of sex workers by making it impossible for them to hire staff, run secure brothels or talk to potential clients to determine which ones are potentially dangerous.

Young said he usually welcomes legal interveners that represent various sectors of society and can bring a distinctive approach to a case. However, he urged Judge Matlow to prevent REAL Women and the two Christian groups from imposing their brand of morality on a legal proceeding.

 “What you really have are three groups that have very strong opinions about the immorality of prostitution," said Young.

“My mother shares that opinion,” he said. “But she would not be able to intervene in this case just because she believes prostitution is immoral.”

Judge Matlow reserved his decision.

  • Alan Young is challenging as unconstitutional sections of the Criminal Code that deal with keeping a bawdy house, living off the avails of prostitution and communicating for the purpose of prostitution, wrote The Canadian Press June 19.

“These provisions prevent sex trade workers from working at home and they can’t hire people to help them with security,” Young told court. “The provisions force women to work outside and in an environment of danger.”

Prison life is a struggle to survive, not a time of reflection

Last week, the Canadian House of Commons passed Bill C-15. As a result, Canadian law will soon dictate mandatory prison sentences for serious drug offenders, particularly drug traffickers and anyone manipulating young Canadians to commit drug crimes. At first glance, this seems perfectly reasonable – and it can be, if we fix our prisons, wrote James Morton, adjunct professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School in the Ottawa Citizen June 20.

Let’s take a closer look. Prisons can only rehabilitate their inmates if they are free from crime and can be places for reflection and retraining. Unfortunately, Canada’s prisons are crime ridden, dirty, degrading and dangerous. They act more as a school for crime than a place of rehabilitation. In fact, the most recent federal government study showed that incarceration was associated with a slight increase in recidivism; in the blunt words of the report: “Prisons and intermediate sanctions should not be used with the expectation of reducing criminal behaviour.”

How a former Rheostatic has made it okay for us to like ourselves

Dave Bidini’s mythologizing of the hinterlands of this country and the suburbs of this city bears little resemblance to Leonard Cohen’s charting of the human heart, wrote the Toronto Star June 21 in a story about the former member of the band Rheostatics. But both artists, working in music and print, have helped make Canada relevant to generations of kids whose pop culture compasses were tilted toward LA or London. Like Cohen, Bidini made it okay to like ourselves.

It was on the road [with the band] that Bidini, a kid from the city’s west end, discovered his love of the ol’ sea-to-sea-to-sea. The first pivotal trip was a 1985 journey to Ireland. He went there with a friend, current Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle, who’d been one of his instructors at York University.

Who wrote the stories? The record is silent

Who wrote and edited the dozens of stories that the Manitoba Free Press published on the Winnipeg General Strike in May and June of 1919? asked, the Winnipeg Free Press June 21. No one knows. But historian Michael Dupuis is determined to find out.

Why is it such a big deal? For one thing, it’s a piece of the historical record that’s missing from scholarship of one of the most seminal events in Canadian labour and social history, wrote the Free Press.

University of Calgary professor David Bercuson, who has researched the general strike, and York University Professor Emeritus Michiel Horn, an expert in Canadian labour history, are unaware of anyone who’s ever identified the people who reported daily on the strike and gave most people in Manitoba their main source of information. Or possibly disinformation.

York professors’ classic works to be reprinted

Oxford University Press is re-releasing three classics of Canadian literature, wrote the Winnipeg Free Press June 21.The initiative is part of the Milestones in Canadian Literature series and is dedicated to bringing older Canadian works back into print.

The titles are Saskatchewan native [and former York professor] W.O. Mitchell’s The Devil is a Travelling Man, UK-born Malcolm Lowry’s short story collection Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place and Canadian Poetry from World War I: An Anthology edited by York University sessional Professor Joel Baetz of the Faculty of Arts.

Angry consumers are left holding…the bag

Large grocery stores stand to cash in to the tune of as much as $44 million extra per year from the sales of plastic bags, wrote The Toronto Sun June 22 in a story about consumer complaints about the new City of Toronto bylaw of charging five cents for a plastic shopping bag. Some retailers say the profits will go to charity but they’re free to keep it if they wish. And donating “some” could create more distrust in consumers, who view it as a cynical cash grab, says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“The retailers say they’re doing this in the name of social corporate responsibility but it’s just another fundraising scheme if they don’t make some kind of announcement on the formula of how much goes to the charity or a promised amount,” Middleton said, adding retailers could donate a total of $1 to charity and they’d still be fulfilling their promise of a donation.

Internet policing could violate our civil rights

Be careful how you surf the Web. The police could soon be surfing you, wrote the Windsor Star June 22 in an editorial about an Ontario Superior Court ruling that has paved the way for police to call up your Internet service provider, demand your Internet Protocol address and find out all kinds of information about you.

When Justice Lynne Leitch issued her ruling, she said she found there was “no reasonable expectation of privacy” in regard to the information that is stored with service providers. In fact, she accepted the argument that the information found on the Internet is similar to what’s available in the phone book. She is wrong, said the Star.

“It is not just your name,” insists James Stribopoulos, a professor in Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. “It is your whole Internet surfing history. Up until now, there was privacy. An IP address is not your name, it is a 10-digit number.”

On air

  • Sara Slinn, professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, spoke about the latest developments in the troubled negotiations between the City of Windsor and members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, on CBC Radio (Windsor) June 19.
  • Ben Quine, professor of space engineering in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about a design for a space elevator on CBC Radio’s "The Point" June 19 and “Quirks & Quarks” June 20.
  • Jonathan Rosenthal, of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School Professional Development Centre, spoke about the laws on drunk driving on CTV News Channel June 19.
  • Bernie Wolf, economics professor in York’s Schulich School of Business, spoke about the problems at Nortel on CTV News Channel June 20.