Excerpts From President Shoukri's Address To York University Senate

April 2009

26 February, 2009

Good afternoon. My remarks today will not be the usual variety of university news and topics, because the state of our affairs here at York is not usual, nor is it sustainable. I want to speak to you today about the future of our University.

We are all here today because we believe in York. We believe in what it stands for: accessibility to the very best education, equity, social justice. We believe that this place has great strengths and even greater potential. No other university in Ontario — maybe in Canada — has the potential that York has. But before we can realize that potential, before we can build the York University of the future, we must address the shared challenges we face, as well as the threats to this institution that are holding us back.

There’s a lot of good work happening here, but it’s being overshadowed by recent events. York is at a critical point in its history and we need to change. We need to address the issues that threaten our institution and our academic reputation. As the University’s academic governing body, I call on you to rise to this challenge and to help deliver the change York needs.

We have just endured the longest university strike in the history of English-speaking Canada. Our students have returned to class and to examinations, only to be faced with a barrage of disruption, hostility and even intimidation from their fellow students. This state of affairs is unacceptable to me, and it should be unacceptable to you. Intimidation, bullying, and discrimination will not be tolerated here, and we are taking action to protect the rights and the safety of all students and staff.

If these challenges were not enough, the world is entering the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Tens of thousands of our fellow Canadians are losing their jobs. Parents have told me what a struggle it is to send their children to university; students have told me how difficult it is to juggle part-time jobs with their education and how worried they are about their prospects for summer jobs.

The Government of Ontario has put us on notice that it will be looking for savings in university operating grants. Along with most other universities, our endowment payouts — which benefit students and faculty directly — are dwindling. Our budgets — which were already being cut by two per cent per annum — will have to be cut further. Our pensions are facing a shortfall and will have to be topped up to meet our legal obligations. The strike has cost us many millions of dollars in direct costs. The costs in lost opportunities cannot be measured. Our applications are down 10 per cent, our first-choice applications are down 15 per cent.

But at a time when our community should be pulling together, we turn on each other instead — academic disruption, intimidation, sit-ins, name-calling, shouting people down, banging on the doors and windows of Senate or the Board of Governors or student clubs. Then we run to the media and tell anyone who will listen how bad York is.

Is it any wonder our own students are disconnected? Or that turnout at our student elections is so low? Or that our students and their families are voting with their feet? Our public face is not demonstrating the core values a university shouldstand for:

  • Freedom of speech – especially for those with whom we disagree
  • Mutual Respect
  • Reason
  • Discourse
  • Objectivity
  • Being able to teach — and learn — without disruption
  • Being open to other ideas and other people.
  • And yes, social justice.

But we cannot demand social justice only for ourselves and for those who think like us. Social justice is for everyone, or it is for no one. York has a history of social activism, but the events of the past weeks — intimidation and shouting each other down — have nothing to do with social activism.

That is why I am asking you today, as Senators and key representatives of the academy, to make your voices heard and say, “enough is enough.”

I want to give a couple of examples of how the academy can contribute to open dialogue on tough issues. At other universities in this province, faculty members participate as guest speakers at lecture series organized by student clubs. These events tackle the very same issues we are struggling with:

  • Islamophobia
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Racial profiling
  • Overcoming stereotypes

The goal is not agreement or endorsement of each others’ ideas, it is to create safe spaces where people can come together to articulate their views — without fear and without being shouted down.

I’ll give you another example happening right here at York. Next week, the York Centre for International and Security Studies is hosting an event that will examine the idea of academic boycotts. Speakers will explore the topic in a reasoned way in an academic forum. These two examples share one common element: faculty involvement.

Our faculty needs to become more involved in leading these conversations. Students look up to their professors. They look to you for direction. You are in a position to mentor and guide them and to teach them how to talk with passion about things that anger us, but without anger, without hate, without fear. I am asking you to help us fix our community, because this truly is our problem.

We talk a lot about diversity here at York, but somehow we have allowed that diversity to divide us. We need to focus now on unity, on our common values and on what makes us a community. We must identify the challenges and work as a community to address them.

We talk about educating citizens of the world and about developing critical thinkers, but we must do more. We must teach a sense of responsibility so that our graduates can contribute to the life of their times.