Letter from Prof. Agnes Whitfield to the Presidential Search Committee Reply

Dear Members of the Presidential Search Committee,

I am writing as a concerned faculty member following information that the Selection Committee is seriously considering recommending Vice-President Academic and Provost Rhonda Lenton for the position of President.

I came to York University from Queen’s University in 1990. I served as Chair of the Selection Committee for a New Principal, Glendon College during the academic year 1993-1994, and I also chaired the Glendon Policy and Planning Committee from 1993 to 1995. I am a full professor with an excellent record of external research grants, an active international research profile, and an exemplary teaching record. My student evaluations are routinely above 4.7 on a scale of 5, and last year, students in a fourth-year course even gave me a perfect score of 5.

Vice-President Academic and Provost Lenton is perceived to be the executive arm of a presidency gone wrong, one that has led to damaging labour strife, shameful public safety records, sub-par research performance, and uneven academic reputation. To appoint Vice-President Academic and Provost Lenton as President would be harmful to the future development of York University at any time, but in the increasingly complex financial and educational environment York University faces at present, it would be disastrous.

President Shoukri’s two mandates as President have left the York University community deeply divided and demoralized. Administrative decisions are taken with little consultation with stakeholders, without any apparent rationale. They are poorly coordinated, contradictory and often to the detriment of common sense. Attention is focused almost exclusively on creating a patina of structured planning activity, where preference is given to complex but unwieldy budget models, but there is no real consideration of what is needed to develop innovative contents. Yet, the ability of a university to attract students, and this is what ensures its funding, depends fundamentally on the quality of its teaching and research. For faculty working in the trenches, there is almost no sign of any meaningful engagement with the academic goals and function of the university as an institution of higher learning in the 21st century.

While faculty members understand that the University operates in a changing financial context, the decisions made by the current administration including Vice-President Academic and Provost Lenton to prioritize complex and costly accounting models over creative thinking about reinforcing curricula and research in the interests of our students cannot stand up in the short, medium or long term.

The issues we faced when I chaired the Glendon Policy and Planning Committee were not unlike those the University faces now, a need to do more with fewer resources, and the administrative response at the time was also to instigate more rigorous equations between resource allocations and resource demand. There were good reasons for doing this, to even up workload across academic units and to free up resources for needed new initiatives. But there were also important downsides to the way this kind of academic planning was carried out along budget model, rather than academic, lines. Ultimately, rather than encourage cross-departmental collaboration, new intellectual synergies, and a healthy, creative, institutional culture, a defensive culture was created whereby departments hunkered down and fiercely guarded their territory. This was not conducive to enhancing York University’s ability to adapt to a changing educational landscape, and did not address systemic issues of internal coordination and accountability.

I do not believe that the functioning of a public institution of higher learning such as a university should be run like a profit-making business, all the more so in the present context where businesses too often put short-term profit goals ahead of responsible citizenship. A university has broad responsibilities to society to support a vibrant democracy and to ensure the development of a lively and diverse range of knowledge, responsibilities that cannot be contained in a profit-based perspective. Universities offer students an environment for personal and professional growth, beyond the contents of specific courses. University professors fulfill, on a voluntary basis, important social functions through informed comments in the public space on topics of public interest and concern, through key contributions to professional associations that regulate professional accreditation in the interest of the public, and through the public dissemination of scientific knowledge.

None of this is captured in the narrow frame of reference of the budget models of the present administration of York University. In her four years as Academic Vice-President and Provost, Professor Lenton has shown no signs of being open to engaging with or leading a reinvigorating academic renewal of the University.

Under President Marsden and under President Shoukri, expansion in buildings and now towards a new campus, has been seen as the strategy to offset the entrenched systemic issues in the workplace culture at York University that prevent it from developing to its full potential as a place of higher learning. York University is the third-largest university in Canada, but it is far from living up to this rank in academic and research terms. This is a serious problem and we cannot continue in this same managerial style if we want to advance our position. Even from a strictly business perspective, using expansion as a solution to deep structural problems within the primary production section, is a very risky undertaking. It so often ends in a downward spiral, with a loss of competitivity in its primary sector leading to dismemberment or a sell-out.

If, hypothetically, we are looking at the university as a business, then the product of the university is knowledge, its creation through research and its transmission through teaching. Faculty members and contract instructors are crucial to the successful creation and dissemination of knowledge. In a dynamic and creative institution, their skills and talents would be nurtured and opportunities for creative synergies would be facilitated, not undermined. A company’s situation cannot be improved simply by better advertising, if the product continues to deteriorate, yet this is the strategy that Vice-President and Provost Lenton has consistently advocated.

The future of York University is dear to my heart. York University has a powerhouse of intellectual power in its full and part-time faculty. It deeply distressing to me to see such tremendous potential left undeveloped and maligned because of inappropriate administrative decisions. I fear greatly for the future of our university were Vice-President and Provost Lenton be appointed President.

As members of the Selection Committee, you have an opportunity to help York University advance as a dynamic and forward-looking, adaptive institution of which we can all be proud. But to do this, it is imperative that you select someone for President with a strong record of intellectual leadership, someone who cares deeply about the fundamental value of university education, someone who is pragmatic without losing his/her humanist ideals, and above all someone who can mobilize and inspire the rich and diverse community of faculty, support staff and students that make up York University.  I urge you to continue your search.


Agnes Whitfield, Ph.D., c. tran.
Professor/Professeure titulaire,

Department of English/Département d’études anglaises

York University/Université York, Toronto (Canada)


Founding Director/Directrice fondatrice, Vita Traductiva

Bilingual Joint Chair in Women’s Studies, Carleton University, University of Ottawa/Chaire conjointe bilingue en études des femmes, Université Carleton, Université d’Ottawa, 2009-2010

Virtual Scholar, Heritage Canada/Chercheure virtuelle, Patrimoine canadien, 2006-2007

Seagram Visiting Chair in Canadian Studies, McGill University/Chaire d’invité Seagram en études canadiennes, Université McGill, 2003-2004

Présidente, Association canadienne de traductologie /President, Canadian Association for Translation Studies, 1995-1999

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