The York University Board of Governors (BOG) is scheduled to appoint Vice President Academic and Provost Rhonda Lenton as President of York University in their meeting next Tuesday, February 28. Since the Board at large has not been involved in the search process and its members have received scant information about it from official channels, it is likely they will effectively rubber-stamp, in a closed session, the recommendation from the Presidential Search Committee.
The university administration has already mounted a public relations exercise to prepare the York community for an announcement known to be unwelcome. Earlier this week, YFile released a video promoting the validity of the search process. The video, headlined New Presidential Search Committee video offers insight into the search for York’s next president, does not mention an impending appointment, but its timing is not accidental. It features the chair of the Presidential Search Committee and two of the committee members – one student and one faculty member – speaking directly to the camera in a persuasive manner. They assure viewers that the search committee has engaged in the widest possible consultation to ascertain the wishes of university faculty and students. The professor and the student drive this point by emphasizing the multicultural, interdisciplinary, innovative, and rebellious nature of York. They imply that these have been decisive factors in the search for our next president. The camera admiringly wanders the campus as though echoing the process of exploration taken by the committee.
The reality of the search process is starkly different than the one portrayed in the video. Indeed, there would be no need for public relations if the process had been consultative and democratic. The video claims that the BOG-run search process has been legitimate, inclusive and open, with the inference that its result must be acceptable to everyone. Its intention is obviously to divert public attention away from the academic community’s almost universal condemnation of the search process as it actually occurred.
Faculty, students and university unions have all expressed serious concerns about the search. The chair of the Presidential Search Committee featured in the video is also the chair of the BOG which appointed the Search Committee, and seven members of the 14-person Search Committee are also members of the BOG, while the professor and student representatives to the committee were appointed by the university Senate rather than by their respective constituencies – Faculties and student groups. The presidential search principles adopted by Senate and the BOG in 2005 structure a highly secretive process that is tightly controlled by the York administration and the chair of the BOG. The BOG membership is now largely comprised of executives representing the business sector, contrary to the BOG’s own bylaws that mandate that its members must “broadly represent the public community.” This increasingly top-down presidential search process represents an unprecedented takeover of collegial decision-making in a Canadian institution of higher learning.
Numerous statements and letters, along with two public communications signed by the York Cross-Campus Alliance representing the major student, staff and faculty organizations at York, have drawn public attention to the undemocratic nature of the presidential search process and its anticipated outcome. While the Globe and Mail reported the controversy last fall, the University Secretary and the chair of the BOG ignored requests to distribute these statements, so some of them were sent directly to members of the search committee and the BOG. Links to a number of these documents are here.
These communications express the deep apprehensions shared across diverse York constituencies regarding the appointment of Rhonda Lenton as president. Provost Lenton is widely perceived as a divisive and top-down manager; academic planning under her helm has dramatically undermined the role of collegial bodies while labour relations have deteriorated with negative effects on the university’s reputation. According to one student organization, during “Provost Lenton’s tenure, York University has experienced growing class sizes, increased pressure on staff receiving non-competitive and inadequate wages, and the emergence of a culture of competition and even animosity between departments that have historically worked collaboratively”. Responses to a YUFA poll from 900 faculty members showed that only 11.2 per cent indicated they “support her appointment as President” while 58.6 per cent said they are opposed.
A successful presidential search celebrates the appointment of an individual who inspires, motivates and brings together a diverse university community. In contrast, appointing the wrong individual can elicit apathy, demoralization, entrenched divisions, greater labour strife, and ensuing reputational loss for the institution. That the BOG appears to be ready to appoint a president who has been publicly rejected by wide sectors of the university constitutes an unprecedented crisis of governance at York. By confirming her appointment, the BOG is creating an unnecessarily negative climate in which the new president enters the role with a cloud already over her head. We have learned from other universities of the institutional harm that arises when they fail to respect due process and collegial input in their presidential search.
We end this statement with a last ditch plea for wise thinking among board members: Please say no to an appointment that defies both due process and the expectations expressed by the York community that you are committed to represent. Instead, re-engage a search process that is open, democratic and truly representative of the university’s values and aspirations.
Ricardo Grinspun (York Senator)