Follow-up letter from Prof Agnes Whitfield regarding the presidential search Reply

Dear Members of the York University Community,

Please allow me a follow-up to my letter expressing concerns that Vice-President Academic (VPA) and Provost Rhonda Lenton would be recommended by the Presidential Search Committee to be York’s next President. A Rhonda Lenton presidency would be the continuation of the corporate-driven budget-model managerialism and anti-intellectualism that have been such a disaster for York University under President Shoukri’s administration. It must not be allowed.

The narrow corporate perspectives of the current Board of Governors, 100% dominated by big business and big finance, are precisely what have led York University to the demoralization of its full and part-time faculty, the present enrollment crisis, and general academic disarray. The present Board of Governors does not have the legitimacy to undertake, let alone control, the present Presidential Search process.

I am urging YUFA to oppose the appointment of VPA and Provost Rhonda Lenton as President. As VPA and Provost, Rhonda Lenton has been part and parcel of the managerial policies that have led to the disastrous situation York University now finds itself.

As a professor at York University for 26 years, I am urging YUFA, in co-operation with its sister unions and employee associations at York University, to take this opportunity to put an end to the unprecedented corporate control that has been choking the creative forces at York University, to call for a renewal of the Board of Governors, and a new, open and democratic Search process.

We cannot allow a narrow and sectorial Board of Governors to control the appointment of our next President, and the future of our rich, diverse and multi-talented community.

I am outlining below some of the major concerns about the present Search process.

1.      Undue Board Control over the Search Process

The rules for a Presidential Search are set out in a document entitled Principles to Govern Presidential Search Committees (

In the present Search, the Board has clearly tightened its control above and beyond what these Principles require.  There is not even the semblance of a search process independent of the Board.

The Principles governing the Search allow for it, but the Board has not reached out to the York University Alumni Association or to the non-academic staff associations for some kind of election for the representatives in those categories. Instead, the Board has preferred to appoint people who are already members of the Board. As a result, all 7 Board nominees on the Selection Committee are Board members.

More significantly, the Chair of the Board, Mr. Rick Waugh, is also the Chair of the Selection Committee. This is a not a requirement under the rules. In other words, the Board has created a selection process whereby it closely controls the Search Committee, and therefore the Search process, and ultimately the outcome.

2.      Boards of Governors of Publicly-funded Institutions must be Accountable

As publicly funded institutions, Ontario universities have a moral and legal obligation to be accountable to the public, and to work for the collective good. The Board of Governors plays an essential function in ensuring the public accountability of a university. The Board is responsible for overseeing the financial health of the institution, approves settlements in collective bargaining, and supervises procurement practices. It has an important oversight function for general university policies that affect faculty, students and ultimately programs at the University. At York University, the Board reviews and approves key policies on safety, access to information, commitment to affirmative action, employment equity, student ancillary fees, tenure and promotion of academic staff, sexual assault and workplace violence prevention programs.

This is why it is imperative that a Board of Governors represent a broad cross-section of citizens and can bring to the University a rich and diverse perspective. Indeed, this principle is enshrined in the By-laws governing the composition of the Board of Governors at York University: ‘The Governance and Human Resources Committee will have the responsibility of proposing candidates for election to the Board as external members who will best serve the needs and interests of the University and who broadly represent the public community. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing such candidates shall be reflective of the Arts, Business, Industry, Labour, Professions, Sciences and the community at large.’

3.      York University’s 100% business Board of Governors defies its own By-laws

Despite these By-laws, to all intents and purposes, all 21 external Board members come from the world of big business and big finance. Based on the biographies of Board members presented on the York University website, twelve (57%) of the 21 non-university positions are filled by people from the banking and financial sector. Two (9.5%) members come from the cultural sector, but they represent senior managerial or CEO positions. Two (9.5%) members of the Board come from the health services sector, but they are presidents of private medical companies.

In fact, 18 (86%) members of the Board are, or were, Presidents or CEOs, and of the remaining three, one is a senior partner in a corporate law firm, one is a senior Vice-President of a financial institution, and one is the spouse of a CEO in the pharmaceutical company.

Furthermore, of the 21 external Board positions presently filled, only 6 (28%) are held by women. The 2011 census shows that women outnumber men in Ontario, by a ratio of 95.1 men for every 100 women overall. Statistics available on the Common University Data Ontario (CUDO) website show that from 2006 to 2015, women consistently composed more than 55% of university students, and there is no reason to believe that the situation is different at York University. Overall, including all 29 members of the Board, only 10 (or 34%) are women. There is no justification for such a gender gap.

Clearly the present Board, dominated virtually completely by the world of big business and big finance, does not respect the By-law to ‘broadly represent the public community.’ With the exception of one volunteer connected to a family foundation, there are no representatives from the non-profit sector. There are no representatives from blue and white collar unions across the province, no members from the small business sector, no representatives from the health and social services sector, no social workers, no nurses, no teachers, no fire workers, no representatives from seniors’ associations.

4.      Board Members Appointed  in Unduly Closed Process of Co-optation

How has this appalling situation arisen? Certainly, under-funding has led universities to search for financing in the private sector. A study by CAUT published in 2016 found that the ‘business world make up 49.1% of the membership of the boards of governors at Canada’s 15 research universities.’ (

This is already very troubling, but at York University, the business world makes up 100% of the external members of the Board.

The main factor at York University appears to be the process for appointing Board members. According to the Board’s By-laws, ‘There shall be up to twenty-four external members of the Board’ including ‘Two members of the York University Alumni Association’ [to be] appointed or elected by the Council of York University Alumni,’ and ‘Twenty-two persons proposed by the Governance and Human Resources Committee of the Board and elected by a majority of the members of the Board.’

In short, the process for appointing Board members is a closed, internal process. The Board is responsible for appointing itself. It oversees the nomination process and makes the decisions about who is appointed. The closed nature of the process allows an unscrupulous Board, in defiance of its own By-laws, to define and perpetuate itself through controlled co-optation.

Since President Shoukri became President in 2007 he has watched this corporate take-over of York University. As an ex officio member of the Board of Governors, he has been aware of Board appointments. Yet, year after year, he has sat by and watched the Board appoint corporate member after corporate member, in direct defiance of the Board’s By-laws. If anything he has facilitated this transformation, taking on the corporate view of the University and he bears responsibility, along with the Board, for York University’s dismal results.

5.      A World of Big Banking and Big Executive Compensation Packages

The current Board Chair, Mr. Rick Waugh, is a former CEO of Scotiabank. He was appointed to the Board in 2014. Is it coincidental that in 2015 and 2016, two other Scotiabank executives became Board members?

Regardless of the individual merits of the individual Board members, as a group they represent a very narrow set of perspectives, a world of big banking and big executive compensation packages, whose legitimacy and integrity has been deeply questioned time and again in the last decade.

Just to give a few examples, in his last year as CEO at Scotiabank, Mr. Waugh was awarded 11.1 million ( Mr. John Hunkin finished his days as CEO of CIBC with $52-million in stock and other securities, despite the huge payouts the CIBC incurred as a result of the Enron dealings under his watch ( ). In 2007, when he left as CEO of Rogers, Mr. Tony Viner cashed in a long-term compensation package worth more than $40-million. ( As Hydro One CEO Laura Formusa earned $1.04 million in 2012 (

Given such a huge gap between their financial situation and the realities of York University’s cash-stressed students, one has to question whether such Governors have the necessary breath of understanding to serve a university. A university is not a profit-making institution. It cannot be run like a business corporation. It must nourish a broad range of knowledge creation and dissemination, not only in business, but in the sciences, the arts, and the humanities.

6.      A Non-representative Board is Responsible for York University’s Decline

According to the York Act, the ‘objects and purposes of York University are (a) the advancement of learning and the dissemination of knowledge; and (b) the intellectual, spiritual, social, moral and physical development of its members and the betterment of society.’ (

It is difficult to see how the present Board, with its disrespect for university By-laws and its very restricted corporate views, has any claim to the wisdom, public-minded spirit, and commitment to the advancement of knowledge, which are necessary to choose the new President of York University. This is why we cannot allow this Board to select a new President, such as AVP and Provost Rhonda Lenton, who will merely continue the negative policies of the current President.

The decisions and pressures of this same Board are precisely what have led York University to the problematic situation in which it now finds itself. A restrictive focus on applying costly budget models, the expansion of administrative personnel at the expense of teaching and research, and the constant undermining of the intellectual resources needed to create dynamic programs and attract students, signal a complete failure of intellectual leadership. As a result, York University, the second largest university in Ontario, situated in the fourth-largest city in North America, according to a recent City of Toronto report, is dragging its feet despite its tremendous potential.

York University has often been in the news over the last decade because of its unenviable track record on public safety and labour strife. What is perhaps less evident to the public is York University’s poor academic standing and low attractiveness to students. Common University Data Ontario statistics show that of all the large universities in Ontario (large meaning more than 15,000 students) York is the only one that has shown virtually no growth in enrollments since 2006. On average, all other large universities in Ontario have grown well over 20% during the same period, and several by more than 30%. In contrast, York University’s enrollments grew from 42,468 to 43,680 students, for an increment of .02% (

7.      Time for Renewal – will YUFA Take the Lead?

It’s time to put York University back on track as a forward-looking and dynamic university.

This is why I am urging YUFA, in co-operation with other unions and employee associations at York University, to oppose the appointment of VPA and Provost Rhonda Lenton as President, and to put an end to the managerial policies to which she has contributed, and that have led to the disastrous situation York University now finds itself.

As a professor at York University for 26 years, I am also urging YUFA, in co-operation with it sister unions and employee associations, to take this opportunity to do all in its power to put an end to the unprecedented corporate control that has been choking the creative forces at York University, and to call for a renewal of the Board of Governors, and a new, open and democratic Search process.

In solidarity,


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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s