Eight portraits showcase an important part of York’s history

The eight portraits are set in elegant black and silver frames against a crimson wall in a new portrait gallery of vice-presidents academic in the York Research Tower. They offer a compelling glimpse into the people who helped build York from its beginnings to its current status as Canada’s third-largest university.

The unveiling took place at a reception on Wednesday, Oct. 27. A group of professors, administrators and staff applauded enthusiastically as three previous holders of the office –Professor Emeritus James Gillies, Distinguished Research Professor Sheila Embleton and Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus Ken Davey – revealed the gallery containing their portraits.

Above: From left, James Gillies, Sheila Embleton, Ken Davey and Patrick Monahan in front of the Vice-Presidents Academic portrait gallery. On the floor is Monahan’s unofficial portrait.

Patrick Monahan, York’s current vice-president academic & provost, was the motivating force behind establishing the portrait gallery. The unveiling, he said, offered a way to acknowledge the important contributions made by previous holders of the office.

“At York University, we often talk about the need to celebrate our successes, our traditions and our accomplishments,” said Monahan in his remarks, “and part of that is recognizing the history and tradition that we have at this University. York is 50 years old but if you walk around the campus, there isn’t enough evidence of our history.”

Right: Former vice-president academic and current York Professor Sheila Embleton with her portrait

To accomplish his goal of assembling the portrait gallery, Monahan enlisted the help of Suzanne Dubeau, assistant head of archives & special collections, to work with three staff members from his office: Lynn Horwood, Valerie Baddon and Richard Ooi. President Emeritus Harry Arthurs was also brought in to help the team in its quest. “We started by asking the question, ‘Who has held the office of vice-president academic?’” said Monahan. “You might think that was a straightforward question, but it wasn’t.”

Left: Professor Emeritus Ken Davey with his portrait

The team consulted University Historian Michiel Horn and trolled through decades of board minutes and other archival documents to compile a list of previous holders of the title of vice-president academic. Along the way, they uncovered a wealth of interesting history about how the role has changed through the years.

“Suzanne Dubeau went all the way back to the board minutes from 1965 and discovered that when this university was established, there was no vice-president academic for the first six years,” said Monahan.

In the December 13, 1965 board minutes, Dubeau found a mention of the first vice-president academic. The University’s president at that time was Murray Ross. He went to the meeting to inform the board that he had found “a candidate who appears to have a rare combination of academic standing, administrative experience and personal qualities which suggests he might be a very satisfactory appointee [for the role of vice-president academic]”.

Right: York’s inaugural vice-president academic, Professor Emeritus James Gillies with his portrait

That candidate was York Professor Emeritus James Gillies, who was the inaugural dean of the Faculty of Administrative Studies. He continued to serve as dean while he was vice-president academic until 1968.

The post was then filled by Dennis Healy, who was followed by Canadian legal scholar Walter Tarnopolsky, who held the office in 1972.

The team discovered that the role remained vacant for seven years until William Found, a University professor in the Department of Geography and the Faculty of Environmental Studies, was appointed to the office in 1979. Found was succeeded in 1985 by York biology Professor Ken Davey, a former chair of the Department of Biology and the dean of science. Following Davey’s term, Carnegie Mellon statistics Professor Stephen Fienberg held the office from 1991 to 1993.

“He was followed by H. Michael Stevenson, who was a member of the Faculty of Arts and had served as dean of the Faculty,” said Monahan. “Professor Stevenson was later appointed as president of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.”

Sheila Embleton held the office from 2000 to 2009, becoming the longest serving vice-president academic over the University’s first 50 years. “This is a difficult job that requires a lot of effort and dedication,” said Monahan. “Professor Embleton served with great distinction, not just as an academic leader but also maintaining her research. Sheila was appointed a distinguished research professor in 2009 and will be inducted to the Royal Society of Canada later this month.

“I believe that those of us who are involved in the administration owe a debt of thanks to those who came before us,” Monahan said. “Everything that we do relies on the foundation that they have built. In honouring these individuals we also salute the efforts of all those who served with them and who contributed to their success.”

By Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor