April 10, 2018
The Honourable Mitzie Hunter
Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development
Government of Ontario
Dear Minister Hunter,
I am writing to you again, as a woman with a government led by a woman Premier, to urge you to restore legitimate governance at York University.
The Board of Governors is operating outside its By-laws. It has imposed a President whom only 11% of faculty approved, and has now usurped the powers of the university Senate.
I have held tenured appointments at two Ontario universities since 1980 and been a visiting professor at two other Ontario universities (University of Ottawa and Carleton) as well as at McGill University in Quebec. I have never ever seen a situation like this.
Students offered grades ‘on the cheap’ but pay full fees
Over 75% of courses at York University have not been given since the beginning of March, over five weeks ago! My students do not know where to turn.
For so many of them, obtaining advanced education is already a challenge. They have to work part-time or full-time to pay their fees. They have young families or family care-giving responsibilities. For many it is a daily struggle to pay for housing and food. Under these conditions, meeting assignment deadlines is already challenging and they do not have the time to do their best work. I know, because I encourage my students to communicate their situation to me so that I can provide whatever assistance I can to help them complete their courses successfully.
But what are York students to do now? They have plans for graduating, for applications to other programs, for summer employment. Everything is on hold. They have paid full fees for their courses with their hard-earned money. Why should they have to pay all their fees when they don’t have timely access to all their courses?
The University administration is suggesting they take a grade for 60% or 70% of their work, that they accept some kind of grade ‘on the cheap.’ Will future employers look down at their York diploma? Will they still be able to get jobs? Why is the administration degrading its own degrees?
A Board of Governors completely disconnected from students, staff and faculty
This dire situation has arisen because a small group of people from big business and big banking have taken control over the Board of Governors and are usurping powers normally held by the President and the University Senate.
The Board runs the show behind closed doors according to its own hidden agenda, consulting only with union-busting lawyers and corporate public relations firms. There is no discussion, no dialogue, no respect of rules, no sense of community, and no sense of what a university is. This is not how a university should be governed. What kind of example is this for our students?
I received a shameless email yesterday from firstname.lastname@example.org. The email wasn’t signed. I don’t know who wrote it. As a faculty member, I simply receive these anonymous emails from ‘above.’ Often the messages, addressed to us by our first names, are intimidating or contain misleading information.
I have never ever in 38 years of university teaching in Ontario seen such a radical disregard and disrespect on the part of a university Board and administration for its university’s students, staff and faculty. I have never seen such havoc and injustice wrought on a university because of a Board so completely disconnected from the people and principles of the university it is supposed to foster.
A Board of Governors in breach of its By-laws: No representation for vast sectors of the public
I wrote to you on March 19, 2018 to draw your attention to these grave governance issues at York University. I pointed out the Board of Governors’ disrespect by of its own By-laws requiring broad community representation on the Board, the Board’s failure to ensure gender equity on the Board, and the Board’s lack of representation of approximately 95% of York students and their programs. My email was copied to the Secretary of the Cabinet.
I received no response from you or your Ministry. I can understand that this is a busy time for you, since elections will be held on June 7. But I don’t see how your government can sit by and allow such hardship to continue at Ontario’s second-largest university, with46,400 undergraduate students and 5,900 graduate students, and 7,000 faculty and staff (http://about.yorku.ca/).
A Board of Governors opposed to equity for women
Your government is to be commended for having taken important steps to ensure gender equality and to prevent violence against women. Your program ‘GET ON BOARD – Ontario’s Implementation Plan to Promote Women in Corporate Leadership’ has set targets for the number of women on corporate boards.
Many Provincial Boards and Agencies have surpassed the 40% Target, achieving over 50% representation of women (https://www.ontario.ca/…/get-board-ontarios-implementation-…).
How then can your government accept that at York University, where 59% of undergraduate students are women, women constitute only 35% of external members on the Board and only 15% of the members of the Board’s central Executive Committee?
Chair of the Board makes sexist remarks in the Financial Post
How can your government accept that the Chair of the Board of Governors of an Ontario university has publicly expressed in the Financial Post his opposition to government legislation on gender equality and his sexist belief that if there are not more women on boards it’s because there are not enough qualified women? (http://business.financialpost.com/…/managing-in-the-grey-sc…)
The Board appoints its own external members. How can your government support a Board that has stubbornly refused to appoint an equal number of men and women?
A Board working against your government’s legislation on wage equity and women’s safety
Your government has put in place measures to ensure wage equity. How can it support a university Board who is actively widening the wage gap by refusing to improve working conditions for contract faculty, the majority of whom are women?
Your government has taken major steps to prevent violence against women. How can a Board that cannot even appoint an equal number of women possibly exercise appropriate oversight on university health and safety policies to prevent violence against women? Indeed, York University has a long history, under former President Shoukri and the same kind of sexist Board, of lack of concern for women’s safety.
A Board who does not represent 95% of York’s Undergraduate Students
The Ontario government funds universities through a complex formula that reflects enrollments. At York University, three faculties, Schulich (business), Osgoode (law) and Lassonde (engineering), represent about 5% of undergraduate students.
Yet, ALL the external members of the Board of Governors have degrees in these three fields. Five external Board members sit concurrently on advisory Boards at Schulich. In other words, NO external Board members represent the programs and disciplines of 95% of York University undergraduate students.
How can a Board skewed towards only three small faculties make informed and responsible decisions about programs in the eight other faculties? How can such a Board ensure that the public funds and student fees the university is receiving for these programs, where 95% of York University’s students are enrolled, are actually going towards these programs? The answer is that it cannot make, and is not making, responsible decisions for all York students.
A Board who pays lip service to experiential learning then cuts 800 graduate assistantships
Graduate assistantships provide valuable professional experience to students. They are proud to put their assistantships on their résumé and their work experience at York University helps them obtain employment after graduation. Through these positions, students receive professional mentoring, participate in dynamic research projects and contribute to research at the university
Your Ministry has made strong efforts to increase Ontario students’ access to experiential learning and on-the-job training and has asked Ontario universities to outline the experiential learning opportunities they offer to students.
How can your Ministry support a Board that has outlined these opportunities to you then, behind your back, cut over 800 experiential learning positions for its own graduate students?
The Ontario government cannot allow a small, illegitimately appointed corporate Board to cause so much suffering and injustice at a public university
I believe that your government has an obligation to redress the enormous disconnection at York University between the Board of Governors and the administration it has put in place, on the one hand, and students, staff and faculty, on the other.
Students, staff and faculty at York University are under great duress. It is an exceedingly stressful situation. York University is a publicly-funded institution. Boards have an obligation to be accountable to the public they serve, but this Board at York is not answering to anyone.
I am deeply disappointed in this Board’s failure to respond to longstanding calls to respect its own By-laws and include members from a broad range of diverse sectors in society.
On the contrary, it has just infringed more regulations and laws in flagrant disregard for the very principles of mutual understanding and respect, on which universities are founded. This is not how a university should be governed.
I am deeply distressed by the inhumane actions of this Board. It has consistently and shamelessly trampled over the interests of students, staff and faculty. It has made every effort to degrade the collective intellectual and creative spirit of York University. It has not shown one iota of regret for the real suffering it is imposing on real people.
Your government has to take responsibility urgently. It must hold the Board accountable for the actions that are putting York University and the education of its students at risk. It cannot allow a handful of individuals who have appointed themselves to the university’s Board and function as a closed shop to sabotage a public institution of higher learning.
I am urging you, because it behooves you as Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development, to 1) place York University temporarily under government supervision, 2) disband the current illegitimate Board of Governors, 3) annul its appointment of Dr. Rhonda Lenton as President, and 4) appoint an interim Chairperson of the Board of Governors tasked with undertaking the renewal of the university’s governance structures.
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
Visiting Professor/Professeure invitee, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, 2017
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