Making it safe to report wrongdoing

Those who observe a wrongdoing at a university often face two unpalatable options – blow the whistle and suffer the consequences or turn a blind eye and let it continue unchecked, wrote University Affairs Dec. 6. But now, a growing number of universities, following the lead of corporations and other public institutions, are adopting safe-disclosure policies to make the choice a bit easier. So far, just a few Canadian universities have whistleblower policies, but the number is growing. Often, the policies are intended to stamp out fraud and other financial crimes. But some schools have adopted broader policies that cover all types of misbehaviours.

The trend has its roots in the infamous accounting scandals that rocked Enron and WorldCom corporations early in this century. Those events ushered in a new era of regulations to root out corporate fraud and corruption and protect those who expose it.

Universities are catching up. Harriet Lewis, University secretary & general counsel at York, says that colleges and universities are under “tremendous pressure” from governments, auditors and boards to adopt such policies. When it comes to organizations that spend taxpayer dollars, the public’s demand for accountability has never been greater, and universities are not exempted, she notes.

York, for its part, rejected a suggestion by a forensic auditor to implement a fraud hotline because it thought such a move might foster a climate of mistrust on campus, says Lewis. Instead, York is drafting a safe-disclosure policy that would encourage, and in some cases obligate, faculty and staff members who know about financial wrongdoing to report it. The proposed policy would cover financial irregularities such as theft or fraud; York already has regulations to deal with academic misconduct, sexual harassment and other forms of workplace behaviour.

Robot gets four flippers and a clever brain

A team of researchers from York University has helped created a robot with the smarts to think for itself as it swims underwater, wrote Metro (Canada) Dec. 7.

The team, led by Michael Jenkin, a computer science professor in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, is working together with teams from McGill University and Dalhousie University to build the highly advanced AQUA robot, which resembles an otter and uses flippers to propel itself around underwater. Despite its cute, toy-like appearance, AQUA is intelligent enough to understand visual commands and perform complex under water manoeuvres.

Jenkin’s team recently created an underwater control tablet that lets an operator interact with AQUA directly and much more quickly – a crucial feature when investigating dangerous, unknown environments like shipwrecks. “We want to make vehicles that are more intelligent, that understand their world better and can interact with the world better. The underlying goal is to enhance our understanding of how to build intelligent, autonomous systems,” Jenkin said.

Is outsourcing for you?

When it comes to making outsourcing decisions for your business, there are many things to consider, including if outsourcing is right for you, wrote Dec. 1.

According to Markus Biehl, director of the international MBA program at the Schulich School of Business at York University, the type of business matters if it is operating in a high tech, innovative marketplace where outsourcing may be difficult.

“What has happened frequently in the past is that many firms outsourced simply based on the unit price quoted, neglecting all the other substantial costs, or because everyone else also outsourced,” Biehl said.

Biehl cites a project that his students at Schulich conducted for a well-known household goods manufacturer in Ontario. “We showed that simply shifting everything to China or India (which is what this firm had done) was not the best solution,” Biehl said. “Instead, a much more measured approach was needed.”

While outsourcing is commonly attributed to large companies known for contracting out their customer relationship management duties either offshore or to specialty firms, what is not often recognized is that outsourcing is widely used by small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and sometimes serves as a necessary business function.

“Outsourcing – or more correctly, contracting – provides an avenue for SMEs to use capabilities they themselves do not possess, but that are needed for the value adding process, be it a service or a physical product,” said Biehl.

Biehl noted that SMEs are often able to cut costs when they engage in outsourcing. “This is particularly the case if the outsourced activity is something that is widely available in the marketplace and can be sourced at a competitive cost.”

According to Biehl, the most common functions outsourced by SMEs are bookkeeping, accounting, taxation, payroll and information technology.

Uproar over thesis at U of T

The University of Toronto is being criticized by Jewish groups, a prominent York University historian and Holocaust survivors for accepting a master’s thesis that calls two Holocaust education programs “racist”, wrote the Toronto Star Dec. 7.

The thesis, titled “The Victimhood of the Powerful: White Jews, Zionism and the Racism of Hegemonic Holocaust Education”, was written by Jenny Peto, a Jewish activist with the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid. It denounces the March of Remembrance and Hope, for which young adults of diverse backgrounds travel with Holocaust survivors to sites of Nazi atrocities in Poland, and March of the Living Canada, which takes young Jews with survivors to Poland and Israel.

The Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC), the March of the Living and history Professor Irving Abella, J. Richard Shiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, said the thesis should have been rejected. “It’s not scholarship, it’s ideology,” said Abella, a former CJC president. “It’s totally ahistorical; I found it full of untruths and distortions and held together by fatuous and very flabby analysis. It borders on anti-Semitism…. I’m appalled that it would be acceptable to a major university.”

Civil justice group moves to York University

The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice is relocating to York University from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, wrote The Law Times Dec. 6.

The independent non-profit organization, which promotes an accessible and efficient civil justice system, will work with York’s Centre for Public Policy & Law and Osgoode Hall Law School from its location at the University’s new multidisciplinary research facility.

A multi-year mapping project on legal services in Alberta will wrap up in the new year in advance of the move. “The forum looks forward to the exciting opportunities that partnership with the centre and Osgoode will bring to the forum’s capacity to conduct socio-legal research, particularly a proposed new broad-based international collaboration to research the cost of civil justice in Canada,” said forum chair Trevor Farrow.

Longtime choral director is setting down his baton

The Cellar Singers, a renowned mixed-voice choir based in Simcoe County and Muskoka, announced recently that Albert Greer, its longtime artistic director, would be retiring after the 2011-2012 season, wrote The Orillia Packet & Times Dec. 7

During his time with the Cellar Singers, Greer served in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University as vocal instructor, choral director and lecturer in conducting and advanced musicianship.

Greer is only the second artistic director of the group in its more than 40 years of existence. He replaced William Monk, founder, in 1977, and has served as its artistic director, conductor and even occasional tenor soloist ever since.

Osgoode grad, former CBA president dies

Former Canadian Bar Association president Claude Thomson (BARR ‘58) has died at home in Toronto, wrote The Law Times Dec. 6.

Thomson, who also served as president of the International Bar Association, was 77 years old. He was called to the bar in 1958 after graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School and practised for many years as a senior litigation partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP.

On air

  • Ian Roberge, political science professor at York’s Glendon College, spoke about the Ontario auditor general’s latest report on CBC Radio (Ottawa) Dec. 6.
  • Giuseppina D’Agostino, professor of intellectual property law in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, spoke about Bill C-32, which deals with changes to the Copyright Act, on CPAC TV Dec. 5.