Sheila Embleton lauded for her contributions to York

The world was a very different place in 2000 when linguistics Professor Sheila Embleton became York’s vice-president academic & provost. Online registration was in its infancy, globalization was emerging as a new area for Canadian universities and the impending double cohort swell in enrolment was dominating the thoughts of Ontario’s academic administrators. Guiding York’s academy through these and many other challenges was Embleton’s new task.

On June 17, nine years later, more than 200 members of the York community and other guests gathered to thank Embleton for her capable and visionary academic leadership during a decade of change.

Left: York community members and guests gather to thank Sheila Embleton for her contributions to the University

During the special reception, Embleton, who stepped down from her post as York’s vice-president academic & provost on June 30, was lauded for her dedication to the University. A phalanx of speakers from York’s administration, the global academic community, government and other Ontario universities paid tribute to the outgoing vice-president.

The reception shone a bright light on Embleton’s many accomplishments and dedicated leadership, such as steering the creation of the Faculty of Health and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, the major expansion of York’s global partnerships and the establishment of many new academic programs. It also highlighted Embleton’s international reputation as a leading thinker, prolific writer and academic in the field of linguistics, something that captured the admiration of York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri.

"I admire Sheila’s ability to serve the University as a senior administrator – someone who guided the academic enterprise and led the way through years of transformation, culminating with the creation of the new Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies," said Shoukri.

Right: York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri spoke of his admiration for Embleton

"And to do this while publishing consistently and prolifically throughout her career, achieving international recognition at the higest level. Most academics choose one path or the other. Sheila has managed to do both, and to excel at both.

"You are a distinguished scholar – called not just an expert but the expert in your field," Shoukri told Embleton.

Following Shoukri, speakers from the University, other Ontario universities and government spoke of Embleton’s many accomplishments. Along with her academic and administrative skills, more than one speaker noted her devotion to e-mail and hand-held communication, and the ability to get an instant electronic answer from her at 1 in the morning. Others marvelled at her fluency in at least half a dozen languages and how she still found time while VP to continue her academic work.  

Above: The crowd listens to Embleton’s comments

Then it was Embleton’s turn. After thanking everyone for their kind words, she took the opportunity to talk about the challenges York faces. She questioned whether York truly knows what its strengths are, and expressed concern that York is at risk of becoming complacent about its front-ranking position and reputation in the humanities and social sciences. She challenged the members of the York academy to put their best forward when they enter the classroom. And as the mother of a daughter who is a York student, she also stressed the importance of continuing to appoint women to senior University positions.

Right: Sheila Embleton (left) chats with Faculty of Environmental Studies Dean Barbara Rahder

"Another thing that always strikes me about the position of women in academia is how often even I am ‘the first woman to X’, and I have to tell you that this still comes to me as a shock, even today, when conventional wisdom thinks that these are issues of the past. Probably it’s as the daughter of a woman who received her PhD in chemistry in 1952, and herself was almost always the ‘first woman to X,’ she said. 

Embleton has been a trendsetter. She was the first female associate dean in the Faculty of Arts to handle budget, the first female to be president of the International Quantitative Linguistics Association, the first female to be vice-president academic at York and the first woman to chair the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents. 

"York’s tradition is to be forward thinking and we essentially deliver, as some have said, tomorrow’s conventional thinking already today. For example, now all universities seem to talk about accessibility, social justice, internationalization and interdisciplinarity – but we were there first, and continue to be at the forefront, in a meaningful way, not mere lip service," said Embleton.

Left: Embleton shares a laugh with York President Emeritus Harry Arthurs

"Yes, we have a radical tradition, but it’s also a proud tradition of social activism and taking theory out of the classroom into practice – it spills out of the classroom," said Embleton. "I’ll even admit that once in a while, it gets out of hand – and tentanda via, the way must be tried, becomes the way must be trying – and there are even times when I wish we would stop trying to redefine the possible. But I’d take York’s liveliness and exuberance over a quiet orderly campus lacking in innovative ideas and engagement any day."

Embleton then talked about what she had learned over the course of her career. First and foremost, she said that academic administrative positions must be about both leadership and management, because one without the other leads to no results or trivial results. She spoke about taking risks, mitigating risks and how on occasions, the two seemed contradictory.

She offered a list of some of the things she had learned over the years, including:

  • The best people are driven by pride in a job well done and an ideal of service and achievement, and not by money or recognition. 
  • People come and go, so it is crucial to have a larger group on board and not just the designated leaders of the day.
  • Consultation and buy-in always takes at least twice as long as estimated, but to proceed without it takes at least 10 times as long. 
  • All memory is often lost over the summer, and within the governance process there can be a massive turnover of committee members, so timing within the academic cycle is crucial;
  • It is much easier to get into a strike than to get out of one.
  • The best leaders listen and respond rather than dictate; 
  • Big change can indeed sometimes be made of a thousand incremental steps.
  • Above all, people count.

While departing the position of vice-president academic & provost, Embleton is not leaving York. During her sabbatical, she has plans to travel, do some research and writing, and continue to serve a variety of organizations. She is a full professor of linguistics at York and was accorded one of the University’s highest honours during Spring Convocation 2009 when she was named Distinguished Research Professor.