Task force on student life makes wide-ranging recommendations

Above: At the presentation of the task force report, from left, Mamdouh Shoukri, York president & vice-chancellor, stands with members Rob Tiffin, vice-president students; student Aaron Rosen;  graduate student James Murayama; Professor Sandra Whitworth; Professor Saeed Rahnema; Professor Marie-Hélène Budworth; students Asma Fatehi and Elena Prager, Professor Paul Delaney; and Patrick Monahan, vice-president academic & provost

A new committee on campus dialogue that would promote “genuine and respectful debate” around pressing public issues of global, national and local importance is just one of the recommendations in a report by the Presidential Task Force on Student Life, Learning & Community released yesterday.

The task force, chaired by Vice-President Academic & Provost Patrick Monahan, was created on March 16 as a result of a series of events on York’s Keele campus in February involving conflict between students and student groups, primarily over the ongoing tensions in the Middle East. There were also incidents of racist graffiti that raised concerns over the climate on campus.

The 26-page report, titled "Rights and Responsibilities Within the University", contains a proposal for an intergroup-relations program at York, similar to programs at other Canadian and US universities, which would promote dialogue and social engagement between students from different organizations. It also recommends the creation of new student space on campus and a moratorium on converting student social and study space to other uses. In all, there are 42 paragraphs of specific recommendations in the document.

Right: President Shoukri looks over the task force report

“I will review the recommendations contained in this report carefully and without delay, and I have instructed all the administrative units of the University to do likewise. I will formally respond to the report within 30 days,” said York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri in a statement thanking the members of the task force for their work.

“It is my hope that this report will help guide us as we seek to enhance the free and open dialogue that is central to the life of any university, to enrich the quality of the student experience at York, and to ensure that all students feel safe and can learn in an environment free from fear and hostility,” said Shoukri.

Monahan and the task force members formally handed the report to the president yesterday morning. “The members of the task force not only worked very hard over the past four months, they also approached this important responsibility in a positive and constructive fashion,” Monahan said. “The result is a unanimous report that the students, faculty and administrators on the task force all believe will significantly improve the learning environment for students at York." 

While the report notes that there was consensus that the student experience at York is, on the whole, a positive one, it calls for several measures aimed at reducing tensions and preventing open conflicts between rival groups while still allowing for genuine debate. A Standing Committee on Campus Dialogue, composed of students, faculty and administrators, would “regularly sponsor balanced and high-quality discussions, debates, seminars and other academic fora on pressing and timely public issues of global, national and local importance,” the report says. Meanwhile, an intergroup-relations program would “increase cross-group awareness, knowledge and understanding, resulting in collective engagement in lifelong action for progressive social justice,” it says.

The report also recommends more consistent and effective enforcement of existing University policies, including policies around the use of space. York Security Services would take a more proactive role ensuring that, where violations of University policies occur, notices of violation would be provided and followed up in a timely manner.  

In addition, the task force says, “We recommend that the president establish a process that will result in better use of Vari Hall as a student space, both the rotunda as well as the balcony areas. The kinds of possible uses could include a student lounge(s), food service(s), cultural displays, information services, or a forum for debate and dialogue.” The University should also make it a priority to allow Scott Library to remain open 24 hours a day during the fall and winter terms, the report says.

There are further recommendations for more communication between University departments, expanded communications with students online, improved procedures for temporary use of University space bookings, more attention to personal safety for students, and more assertive enforcement of restrictions on non-community members. The report also advocates expanding the Student Code of Conduct to include student rights as well as responsibilities.

The task force was established by the president in March with an initial component of seven faculty members and administrators (see YFile, March 16). Six student members were added from a group of 225 who applied (see YFile, May 5). The task force held its first meeting in April and continued its sessions throughout the summer. Task force representatives also held a series of meetings in June and July with York student organizations, including the York Federation of Students, the Graduate Students’ Association, the Glendon College Student Union, the Muslim Students Association, the York University Black Students’ Alliance, Hillel @ York and Students Against Israeli Apartheid.

A PDF copy of the full report is available from the Task Force Web site.