March 19, 2018
Honourable Mitzie Hunter
Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development
Government of Ontario
Dear Minister Hunter,
The Ministry should be aware that the present Board of Governors of York University is operating outside its By-laws and the York University Act. To all intents and purposes, a small group of people exclusively from the banking and big business sector have taken over control of the Board, usurped powers granted to the Senate under the York University Act, and are seeking to impose their own views and agenda at the expense of York University’s legitimate educational goals and responsibilities as a publicly-funded institution.
It is clear that the current Board of Governors does not have the legitimacy and credibility to carry out its functions of oversight with respect to York University. Dominated by big business and big finance to the exclusion of vast segments of our society, it has adopted a brutal corporate-driven managerialism that is impervious to the educational needs of York’s students, including the fundamental right to safety on campus, and dismissive of the vital role of a university to contribute to the conservation, communication and creation of knowledge.
Rather than nurture students, staff and faculty in a dynamic, forward-looking educational process, this Board has demonstrated a persistent underlying anti-intellectualism and hostility to women and other equity-seeking groups that is preventing York University from realizing its full potential in program development and innovation. Quite literally, by its outmoded macho authoritarianism, it is choking the creative forces of York University.
I have been a professor at York University for almost 28 years. I came to York University in 1990, after teaching 10 years at Queen’s University. During the academic year 1993-1994 I served as Chair of the Selection Committee for a New Principal of Glendon College. I also chaired the Glendon Policy and Planning Committee from 1993 to 1995, as well as the School of Translation. 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.
I have also had the great privilege of holding the Seagram Chair in Canadian Studies at McGill University, and the bilingual Joint Chair in Women’s Studies at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, and being a visiting professor at the University of Bologna and the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. I have served as President for two mandates of the Canadian Association for Translation Studies. I founded and direct a respected international peer-reviewed publication series, Vita Traductiva.
York University is the second largest university in Ontario and the third largest university in Canada. According to the statistics given on its website, York University has 46,400 undergraduate students and 5,900 graduate students, and 7,000 faculty and staff (http://about.yorku.ca/). It is an important institution of higher education, funded in large part by the government of Ontario.
It is extremely distressing for me to witness York University being hijacked by private interests to the detriment of its students, staff and faculty, and its amazing potential to make a dynamic and productive contribution to the future of our society.
- The Board’s composition does not respect the broad community representation set out in its By-laws
Ontario universities have a moral and legal obligation to be accountable to the public and to work for the collective good. Boards of Governors fulfil an essential function in ensuring the public accountability of a university but to do so, they must represent a broad cross-section of citizens who can bring to the University a rich and diverse range of perspectives.
This is far from the case at York University. The York University Board is comprised of 29 members, including three ex officio members (the President, Chancellor and University Secretary), six members from York University (two students, two staff and two faculty members) and 20 external members.
External members clearly dominate the Board, but these external members are exclusively from big business and big banking. There are no external representatives from the non-profit sector, 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, in other words, no representation from the community at large.
Yet this very principle of community diversity is enshrined in the By-laws governing the composition of the external members 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. (Article VII, 1(c) ii at http://secretariat.info.yorku.ca/board-of-governors/board-by-laws/)
Already in November 2016 during the Presidential Search I advised the York University Board of Governors that the Board’s composition was far from complying with its By-laws.
At that time, based on the biographies of Board members presented on the York University website (http://secretariat.info.yorku.ca/board-of-governors/), all 21 external Board members came from the world of big finance (57%) and big business (43%).
In fact, 18 (86%) members of the Board were at the time or previously, Presidents or CEOs, and of the remaining three (14%), one was a senior partner in a corporate law firm, one a senior Vice-President of a financial institution, and one the spouse of a CEO in a pharmaceutical company.
This appalling situation is not representative of Canadian university Boards. While under-funding has led universities to search for financing in the private sector and generally increased big business representation on their Boards disproportionately, a 2016 study by Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) found that the ‘business world make up 49.1% of the membership of the boards of governors at Canada’s 15 research universities.’ (http://www.caut.ca/bulletin/articles/2016/09/do-you-know-who-sits-on-your-board). At York University, it is 100%.
Furthermore, the gender gap on the Board boggles the mind. Of the 21 external Board positions filled at that time, incomprehensively only 6 (28%) were held by women and 15 (72%) or almost three-quarters by men. In the 21st century, such an imbalance is highly suggestive of gender bias within the Board. The Board is responsible for safety policy on campus. Certainly, this male-dominated Board has repeatedly failed to engage fully to prevent the frequent and persistent incidents of violence against women (including rapes and armed assaults) on campus, for many of which the aggressor has never been identified or punished.
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 (http://cudo.info.yorku.ca/report/2015-a-general-information-2/).
In 2015, women constituted 58% and men 42% of full-time undergraduate students at York University (http://cudo.info.yorku.ca/report/2015-a-general-information-2/).
How can the Board of a university predominantly frequented by women justify that almost three-quarters of its Board members are men?
- The Board stubbornly refuses to bring its composition into compliance with its By-laws and Ontario legislation on gender equity
To my knowledge, the Board has not taken any action since 2016 to change its composition to comply with its By-laws.
An analysis of the current composition of the Board based on information on its website shows appallingly that all of the now 20 external members of the Board continue to come from the big finance (40%) and big business (60%) sectors.
In terms of professional rank, 17 (85%) hold President, CEO or senior executive positions, and the remaining senior partner positions in the corporate law sector. Such a Board can in no way be seen to “broadly represent the public community.”
Moreover, despite current Ontario legislation to improve gender equality on corporate boards, the Board’s gender gap is still unacceptable. Of the 20 external Board members, 14 (65%) are men and only 7 (35%) are women.
In reality, women are even more under-represented on the Board than this already unacceptable statistic would suggest.
The Board has seven committees, only one of which, the External Relations Committee, responsible for fund-raising and out-reach, is chaired by a woman. Seen from this committee perspective, men control 86% of the Board’s activities.
The key committees of Governance and Human Resources, Academic Resources, Finance and Audit, Land and Property, Investment, are all controlled by men. Since the Executive Committee is composed of the Chairs of the other committees, it has only one woman member. Women constitute only 14% of the Executive Committee.
In other words, at the second-largest university in Ontario where your government is working so hard to prevent violence against women and to promote gender equality, York University’s Executive Committee, arguably the most important committee of the Board since it can act for the Board as a whole, is 86% composed of men.
The Board is responsible for appointing its members and is therefore directly responsible for this non-respect of its own By-laws. The closed, internal nature of this process allows an unscrupulous Board, in defiance of its own By-laws, to define and perpetuate itself through controlled co-optation. It is clearly an old boy’s closed shop.
Current Board members must be aware of Board By-laws, but they have chosen nonetheless to co-opt members from a very narrow range of professional networks, and they have done this in defiance of a basic rule of university governance: the need to respect the By-laws set up to ensure that the university be accountable, not just to a small elite, but to the community as a whole.
- The Board’s composition skewed to favour of faculties representing only 5% of undergraduate student enrollments
But this is not all. The Board is out of kilter in other ways that also gravely undermine its legitimacy.
Of the 20 external members of the Board, 10 (8 men and 2 women) hold MBAs (one holds an equivalent business management degree) and 7 (6 men and 1 woman) LLBs. Of these 15 Board members (two hold both an MBA and an LLB), 12 hold one or other of these degrees from York University.
In other words, 75% of Board members are coming from an MBA or LLB background and 60% are graduates of only two of the 11 faculties at York University: Osgoode Hall Law Faculty and the Schulich School of Business.
Indeed, five (25%) Board members sit concurrently on advisory Boards of Schulich, including the Chair of the Board and the chairs of three important committees: the Executive Committee, the Investment Committee and the Land and Property Committee.
These unacceptable incestuous links between the Board and one York faculty mean that one faculty can unduly the influence the Board and unfairly advance its perspective and needs at the expense of the other 10 faculties at the university.
This imbalance aggravates the serious infringement of the By-laws calling for a broad public representation on the Board. Seen in the context of student enrollments at York University, however, it is even more troubling.
Statistics on enrollments by faculty at York University are not easy to obtain. The most recent statistics I found on the university website come from a White Paper produced by then Vice-President Academic Patrick Monaghan. That paper shows that for the year 2009-2010, and there is no reason to think that the general situation has varied substantially since then, undergraduate enrollments at Schulich and Osgoode Hall represented only 2.64% and 2.22% of all undergraduate student enrolments at York.
In other words, while 75% of external Board members come from law and business degrees, these two faculties account for less than 5% of the 46,400 undergraduate student enrollments at the University.
Nor is this disproportion attenuated by York alumni representation on the Board.
The Board’s website does not indicate clearly which members are serving as representatives of York alumni. Nonetheless the biographies of Board members show that two hold executive positions in the York Alumni Association. Not surprisingly one is a graduate of Schulich and the other of Osgoode.
While the Board website provides guidelines for the election of student, staff and faculty members to the Board (together these categories only represent 6 internal Board members), there is no indication that the Alumni Association provides for an election.
Finally, the narrow composition of the Board is exacerbated by other examples of undue professional concentrations. One can ask:
Why on such as small Board there should be two members who were senior executives at the same financial institution (Scotia Bank);
Why three out of 20 (15%) Board members have connections to the Ontario energy sector;
Why of the four members of the Board with a science background, three were trained as engineers (In 2015, engineering accounted for 499 or 1% of overall full-time undergraduate enrolments at York University and of these 499 engineering students only 79 or 15%, were women; http://cudo.info.yorku.ca/report/2015-a-general-information-2/); and
Why one of these engineer Board members should serve concurrently on the Board and on the family Foundation whose donation led to the creation of the School of Engineering at York University, allowing a university donor to exert undue influence over the university.
- A Board in defiance of its By-laws does not have the legitimacy and credibility to oversee the well-being of York University as an institution of higher learning
According to the York University Act, the Ontario legislation that created York University, 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.” (http://secretariat.info.yorku.ca/governance-documents/york-university-act-1965/)
It is evident that the present Board is in no position to ensure, and indeed has shown no interest in ensuring that these objects and purposes are not only respected but nurtured.
A Board that represents the professional and educational interests of less than 6% of the York University’s undergraduate students cannot make informed decisions affecting the academic needs of the other over 94% of York’s 46,400 undergraduate students and the programs, research, staff and faculty upon which they depend.
The vision of such an imbalanced Board is inevitably skewed by the interests of two (or three if engineering is counted) faculties accounting for less than 6% of undergraduate student enrollments, and by the attitudes and practices from the business and banking world that are inappropriate in the context of a public institution of higher learning.
York University cannot present itself as a progressive institution respectful of diversity, as it does on its website, when its own Board comes exclusively from big business and big finance and only 35% of its members are women, relegated to secondary roles.
The Board has direct oversight on a number of issues with important gender implications, including questions of safety, the prevention of sexual violence.
Given the gender imbalance in the composition of its Board, it is not surprising that York University has an abysmal record in terms of the prevention of violence against women.
But the gender imbalance of the Board has other far-reaching consequences.
Women still hold only 40% of faculty positions at Canadian universities (https://www.univcan.ca/media-room/media-releases/percentage-female-faculty-canadian-universities-growing-statistics-canada/). If the Board is not even committed to having equal numbers of women and men among its members, how can it contribute to reducing the gender gap among faculty?
Statistics compiled by the Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations (OCUFA) for the Ontario Gender Wage Gap Steering Committee show that there has been an increasing trend to precarious academic jobs and that women far more than men are trapped in such low-paying and insecure academic work:
“59.5% of contract faculty respondents were female, compared with 33.3% men (the remainder chose not to indicate their gender). Moreover, women were more likely to be among the ranks of precarious contract faculty (i.e. contract faculty who earn their main income from sessional instruction and aspire to have a full-time academic career) than
men, whereas men were more likely to find themselves among the ranks of classic contract faculty (i.e. retirees and professionals who engage in sessional instruction as a supplement to a separate career)” (https://ocufa.on.ca/assets/OCUFA-Submission-on-the-Gender-Wage-Gap-FINAL.pdf). Again, how can a Board that is not even to committed to ensuring its own gender balance equity be committed to reducing the gender gap caused by the precarization of academic work?
Finally and of great concern, the exclusively corporate background of Board members has led to sustained pressures to change the administrative culture at York University from the open, transparent and democratic culture required for public accountability to a narrow, opaque and outdated authoritarian culture not even effective anymore in business contexts. The Board is seeking to control the University as though it were the CEO, and the university, its company.
This is approach is leading to other important infringements of the York University Act. In the last Presidential Search, the Board usurped the power granted to the Senate under Article 12 of the York University Act to “make recommendations as to the appointment of the Chancellor and the President.”
Instead, it carried out a closed search, with little input from students, staff and faculty, under a Search Committee inappropriately chaired by the Board Chair, and unilaterally imposed the appointment of a candidate garnishing only 11% support from York’s faculty members (https://www.yufa.ca/yufa-poll-results-on-presidential-search/)
- Should the Ministry consider placing York University under supervision?
I do not believe that 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 fulfil, 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.
The current Board has persisted in its defiance of the By-laws requiring a broad community representation. It has not diminished its ruthless and unscrupulous efforts to impose an authoritarian control over the York University at the expense of recognised general social goals, such as gender equity and women’s safety, and in contravention of the York University Act. It is clearly unwilling and unable to commit to any significant reform.
For that reason, I see no other option than to request that your ministry consider placing York University temporarily under government supervision, disbanding the current illegitimate Board of Governors, annulling its appointment of Dr. Rhonda Lenton as President, and appointing an interim Chairperson of the Board of Governors.
The first tasked of the interim Chair should be to oversee a transparent process for the appointment of a new Board respectful of the rules set out in the York University Act (1965) and the By-laws of the Board of Governors. The first task of the new, duly constituted Board should be the conduct of an open search for a new President.
Your government has undertaken important measures to prevent violence against women, to improve gender equity and to assist Ontario universities to develop their excellence. I hope that the present plea will be well received.For ease of reading, I have also attached a PDF version.
Agnes Whitfield, Ph.D., c. tran.
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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