Skip to main content
Dr. Sheila Embleton
Reception Honouring Dr. Embleton's Contributions to York University

Reception, June 17, 2009

I'd like to thank all of the speakers and especially Ross for the kind words, as well as of course thank all the many people, both here today and who weren't able to be here today, who wrote to me with equally kind words and good wishes. I thank all of you have donated to student awards in honor of this occasion. I would especially like to thank those who have come from further away and other institutions (Western, Waterloo, Queens, and OCAD) as well as government to be here today. By my calculations, the people who have come the furthest to be here today are two: my good friend, long-time co-author, and fellow linguist, Raimo Anttila, who is a professor of linguistics at UCLA, and in a very figurative sense of the distance travelled, our own Varpu Lindström, who is here on her first major public outing after serious brain surgery not even two weeks ago. Thank you all for coming. In reference to Adrian's comment about margaritas and Doug's about Finnish long drinks, let me point out that Raimo was the one to introduce me to both.

When this reception was in the initial planning stages, we thought that it might end up being rather large, so that in constructing the guest list, we should all operate with some strict instructions to try to limit it – in fact, to limit it to just the people I worked with fairly closely and directly over my 9 years as VP Academic of this wonderful university. And even with that strict instruction, the invitation list came to almost 1000 people and had to be cut down considerably from there. I think that number gives you, right there, a sense of the scope and size of this position, and the range of its interactions. And it also means that right now, at the outset, I should state that I can't possibly thank all the people who deserve to be thanked, so I'm going to try to refrain from naming any names, or this will become a speech of Castro-esque proportions, and we'll be here all night, or as the conventional saying goes, I am quite conscious of the fact that I am the only person standing between all of you and another drink and some more good conversation with friends and colleagues. York is, after all, about the strength of its people, and the networks and relationships among them.

I can't even begin to describe the range of activities undertaken and accomplishments achieved by all of us here at York over these years. They have ranged from small-scale to large-scale restructurings and consolidations of multiple largely duplicative departments, the creation of two new faculties, our first in 35 years, the planning, construction, and inhabiting of more new buildings than I think I can count, survival of the double-cohort and demographic growth, one of the best results in the province on the subsequent graduate growth while maintaining quality, the hiring of well over half, almost two-thirds, of our current complement of faculty, the successful introduction of an unparalleled number of innovative, new, often interdisciplinary or first of their kind new programs especially at the graduate level, the introduction of engineering and nursing, a significant growth in science, York's rise from simply "in the pack" on internationalization to a widely recognized front ranking and leadership position with innovations leading the system and being emulated by others, the return from precarious even "near death" experiences for both Glendon and Environmental Studies into two of our most successful faculties with among the best results in enrolment and student experience, the emergence of the Schulich School of Business to a front ranking institution in the world, Osgoode regaining its reputation as Canada's leading law school, the Faculty of Fine Arts finally getting the buildings to match the talents of its faculty and students, the introduction throughout our sector of far more accountability, measurement, so-called quality assurance and transparency, and targeted funding, York's continued leadership in collaborative relationships with Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology which themselves have evolved massively during this time including into degree-granting institutions, thus fundamentally altering our relationship… and the list goes on.

The wonderful thing about being a Vice-President Academic and/or Provost at any institution is that you get to see all corners of the University. After all, if something doesn't in some way intersect with the academic, you would have to wonder what it's even doing at the University in the first place. And you get to see well beyond your own University, to other universities near and far, to government, to NGOs, and to the world of business.

During my time in administration at York, I've worked with a immense range of people, many of whom have become friends – this is of course the huge pleasure of the position. I have worked with 2 presidents, both here today, and less closely with former presidents, including Susan Mann, who sent me a wonderful note, Ian Macdonald, who sent his regrets, and Harry Arthurs, here today. I have worked with many fellow vice-presidents, many of whom are here today. I'd also like to acknowledge the presence here today of a former VP Academic, Ken Davey. My two earliest, strongest, and continuous mentors in academic administration from long ago have been Deborah Hobson and especially Michael Stevenson, who both ended their lengthy York careers as vice-presidents here – and both of them sent their very best wishes for today. I note that both now live in Vancouver, and I wonder if maybe there isn't a message in that fact. I have of course also worked with many dedicated deans over this time, and even more associate deans. To all of these people, presidents, vice-presidents, associate and assistant vice-presidents, deans, associate deans, Senate chairs, college masters, and more… and also the senior staff on what we awkwardly refer to as the "non-academic" side, and as I said earlier, far too numerous to mention by name, let me just say that I have learned something from each and every one of you, and I thank you most sincerely for that.

I've given many speeches at many different types of formal events and conference openings over these years – and there are still a few to come in the next two weeks, so this one isn't the last – and many people, including especially those from outside York, have commented on how pleased they are to have speeches with actual content, content relevant to the event or organization or conference at hand, and not just the usual pleasantries expected from yet another administrator. I decided that today should be no exception, so, yes, we will be going beyond just the thanks all round and pleasantries. We all know that York is trying to move in new directions, and there is a phrase that often comes up in formal discussions and presentations around that, even in the UAP, the University Academic Plan, which is "building on our strengths". Is anybody too sure as to exactly what that means? What are our strengths? Is there a precise inventory? And what does it mean to build on them. Do we have to maintain them to build on them? Or perhaps I can ask with a linguist's eye to the detail of words, is that build on them or build from them or even away from them? And especially what does this mean in practical terms in an era of not just limited resources but severe cuts and retrenchment? We are complacent about our front-ranking position and reputation in the humanities and social sciences – but it is a position easily lost. We are equally complacent about the fact that we are in the GTA and students will somehow always be there and always come. We've seen this year that that is not true, due to what has been dubbed the "strike effect", but for those who were observant we had seen challenges to our enrolments in places where we wanted to grow strategically such as Science and Engineering, and even the arts disciplines, in the last few years. If we are too quick to dismiss this as just a strike effect, we will not unmask and correct some of our other issues. There are many things in the teaching of students that we could do better, and without one more cent being spent in the classroom. Not all our problems of this nature relate to being cash-strapped. Perhaps I'm more able to hear some of these things, with a daughter and her friends now in third year, but our acknowledgement and reaction to what we do know and hear from our students isn't always there. And this isn't about this year's devastating strike – many in fact took that relatively in stride – it's about other things that have happened this year as well as in other, dare I say, non-strike years. We are also complacent about the position of women at York. I mentioned Varpu earlier, but it's a pleasure to see so many of York's strong women here today. How is it, with our discipline mix and self-declared progressive attitude, that we have gone from so many women, a clear majority, in senior academic administration (so many that some of you may remember that York was the answer to an Air Canada trivia quiz just a few years ago about "the ovary tower"), to virtually none, within the span of just a few years? And that's before we even start to look at other equity issues.

Another thing that always strikes me about the position of women in academia is how often even I am "the first woman to X", and I have to tell you that this still comes to me as a shock, even today, when conventional wisdom thinks that these are issues of the past. Probably it's as the daughter of a woman who received her PhD in Chemistry in 1952, and herself was almost always the "first woman to X".

I complacently thought that all those firsts for women had already been taken care of. But just a few of the many that come to mind for me at this moment – the first female associate dean in the Faculty of Arts to handle budget, the first female to be President of the International Quantitative Linguistics Association, the first female to be Vice-President Academic at York, the first female to chair the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents – and in all but the first case, still the first and I hope not the last.

It has been a great pleasure and privilege to serve York and to serve all of you, and to represent York provincially and nationally and internationally, and often in the media. York has a tremendous reputation, and I would dare to say that our international reputation is much greater than our domestic reputation, and our national reputation is greater than our provincial reputation, and our provincial reputation is greater than our local reputation, for a number of reasons I won't get into or we really will be here all night. York's tradition is to be forward thinking, and we essentially deliver, as some have said, tomorrow's conventional thinking already today. For example, now all universities seem to talk about accessibility, social justice, internationalization, and interdisciplinarity – but we were there first, and continue to be at the forefront, in a meaningful way, not mere lip service. Yes, we have a radical tradition, but it's also a proud tradition of social activism and taking theory out of the classroom into practice, it spills out of the classroom, and yes, I'll even admit that once in a while, it gets out of hand – and tentanda via, the way must be tried becomes the way must be trying, and there are even times when I wish we would stop trying to redefine the possible – but I'd take York's liveliness and exuberance over a quiet orderly campus lacking in innovative ideas and engagement any day.

What have I learned? That academic administrative positions must be about both leadership and management, because one without the other leads to no results or trivial results – but also that leadership is mostly about taking risks, whereas management is mostly about mitigating risks, and that there are too many times when the two can be contradictory. That it's important to get new innovative ideas in, but that's not enough – it's also important to sometimes get the old ideas out, and not just assume that the new ideas will take over from the old. That the best people are driven by pride in a job well done and an ideal of service and achievement, and not by money or recognition – although an occasional thank-you or smile can make all the difference, and costs absolutely nothing. That people come and go, so it's crucial to have a larger group on board and not just the designated leaders of the day. That consultation and buy-in always takes at least twice as long as you estimate, but to proceed without it takes at least ten times as long and even then isn't secure. That all memory is often lost over the summer, and within the governance process there can be massive turnover of committee members over the summer, so timing within the academic cycle is crucial. That it is better to do as much as possible of one's worrying in advance rather than when an event of low probability actually happens. That it is much easier to get into a strike than to get out of one. That one should never take any comment personally especially when it is meant to be taken personally. That change imposed is change opposed. And that it was a very wise person who said, about working with academics "order me to do something, and there is nothing that I won't do to stop you, but ask my help and advice on something, and there is nothing that I won't do to help you". That the best leaders listen and respond rather than dictate. That big change can indeed sometimes be made of a thousand incremental steps. That vision is great, but if nobody else but you sees it, it is better called hallucination or mirage. That the best leaders facilitate the leadership of others. But above all that people count.

And my last remarks before letting you get back to the party are simply to thank those responsible for today – the staff here at the Schulich Dining Room, all the previous speakers today, and Lynn Horwood, Audrey Yee, and Marla Chodak for the planning and organization. I look forward to continuing to talk with as many of you as possible. Thank you for coming – and now back to the party!