Taking Office

photography by Sofie Kirk – Cover photography by Mike Ford

Rhonda Lenton became York University’s eighth president and vice-chancellor on July 1. Like many at York, Lenton was a first-generation university student. A highly respected sociologist, she has taught, researched and published broadly in the areas of family violence, feminist movements in academia, Internet dating and, more recently, higher education. Previously, she served as dean of York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, vice-provost academic, and vice-president academic and provost. The York University Magazine spoke with President Lenton recently about her background, her mentors and her vision for the University.

THE MAGAZINE: Please tell our readers a little about yourself. What are your core values and how do you think they help shape how you lead?

LENTON: First of all, let me say how much I appreciate this opportunity to speak to The York University Magazine’s alumni readers about the tremendous opportunities that await York University. From attracting the best students, faculty and staff, to building a new Markham Centre campus and improved transit with the opening of the new subway later this year, there is no question that York is definitely on a trajectory for significant growth and success.

I think my primary motivation for letting my name stand for president was how much I believe in the vision of York University. York has an exciting story to tell, and it is precisely the kind of university that is needed in a global knowledge economy for the 21st century. I am humbled and honoured to have been appointed president, and excited to be taking on this important role and for the opportunity to continue to advance the University and ­support our undergraduate and graduate students, our faculty, staff, alumni, and external partners and communities.

I was born in Winnipeg, one of five siblings – just one boy, all the rest are girls and I am a twin. I grew up in a hard-working family with a deep, first-hand understanding of the importance of strong social values. The one value that is probably the most important to me is integrity. I would also say that my personal values are very much aligned with York’s values as laid out in the University’s Academic Plan: a commitment to excellence, social justice, inclusivity and diversity, as well as being bold and progressive in our thinking.

My own background is in sociology. I left Winnipeg to do my PhD at University of Toronto. I love Toronto and I truly appreciate the opportunities I enjoyed because I went to university. My own research is in the areas of gender, family conflict, sexual harassment, research methods and more recently, higher education – and I have a profound appreciation for how university research contributes to city building, public policy development and the betterment of society.

THE MAGAZINE: As a first-generation student, like many of York’s students, how do you think that experience helps you now as York’s president?

LENTON: Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to university. From very early on we heard about the importance of higher education from our parents. I think they really appreciated and understood what they missed. As a first-generation university student, I came to understand the value of higher education and the opportunities it created for me. That’s why I have always been attracted to York’s strong commitment to access, to equity and social justice, and why I am passionate about increasing access to postsecondary education.

The fact that I was a first-generation university student and that all three of my daughters were able to go to university have, together, shaped how I think about higher education, how I interact with students, and my understanding of the importance of always thinking about what we are doing from the student perspective. It has also impacted how I think about the twin contributions of not only preparing the next generation of graduates who will assume responsibility for society, but also amplifying the societal impact of our research. I’ve seen first-hand what education can do, not only in changing one’s own circumstances, but, more broadly, the fundamental importance of higher education for the well-being of society.

THE MAGAZINE: Who were your mentors or the leaders who inspired your academic and administrative journey? What, in particular, did you admire most about them?

LENTON: I try to learn from everyone with whom I interact. But if I were to focus on who helped to shape my approach to higher education, I would have to say that it was the feminist leaders of the day.

My first job was in 1986, when women’s study programs were being formed in universities and were starting to take off. There was a whole cadre of feminists, almost too many to name, whom I truly admired: Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, bell hooks, my own PhD thesis supervisor Margrit Eichler and others. I would also add to that list my own mother. Although she didn’t go to university, at her core, she is a feminist.

All of these women influenced the kind of research I do, my thinking about how questions get defined by society, the intersection between class, race and gender. So, they were all very influential, not just for my own research, but how I approach my administrative role as well – always determining whether or not you are dealing with a problem as an outsider or insider; always examining the power dynamics that are functioning in society, in a university. They have really been relevant for everything I do.

 THE MAGAZINE: York is widely recognized as a progressive university. What does that mean to you? What is your vision for York University?

LENTON: York’s progressiveness is one of the most compelling features about the University. York is committed to bridging and linking the accessibility agenda with excellence and impact. That, in turn, has helped to shape the four ­pillars that I believe are fundamental to successfully realizing my vision for York. For a university to have maximum ­influence in society, and to fully realize the potential that higher education offers society, it must be able to bring together access, connectedness, excellence and impact.

And York does that so well. We already have a distinct ­identity, captured in our mission statement, which reflects our longstanding commitment to social justice. York was working in the areas of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research and programs long before they became popular terms elsewhere. Now, it’s accepted in higher education just how important it is to look at complex problems from different, diverse perspectives. But it was York that led the field.

Access to education underpins York’s priorities in our planning documents, and I believe a continued commitment to accessibility is essential in a global knowledge economy where postsecondary education is necessary for an increasing proportion of careers. We must continue to do whatever we can to remove the barriers for all eligible students seeking higher education.

York is the only university of its size that provides a diverse student population broad access to a research-intensive, high-quality learning experience, and we remain committed to ensuring that all students can realize their full potential and contribute to society. And the proof is that York has hundreds of thousands of graduates whose impact is reverberating far beyond our campuses. We are a multicultural university that is committed to working with our local communities, but we also have a strong international presence, as our students and faculty increasingly seek out international experiences and partnerships, and as we continue to attract ever-increasing numbers of students from around the world.

A second central goal of my presidency is to grow and enhance York’s connectedness. I see the next five years as an opportunity to strengthen and improve how we connect with one another as a community, both on and off our campuses, locally and globally. This means improving connectedness with our students and faculty as well as the staff who support our academic mission. It means connecting students with their learning by providing greater opportunities for self­directed and inquiry-based learning, and enhanced academic supports and services. It means continuing to build local, national and international research networks.

I see our connectedness as an emerging – and quite compelling – theme in York’s story, central to our vision as an engaged university. The new Markham Centre campus is an excellent example. We are already better connected to York Region because of it, and this will only be truer when the doors open in 2021. Working with our partners in Markham, York Region, Seneca, and others in the GTA and internationally, we will strengthen experiential education opportunities for our students, advance the comprehensiveness of the programs we offer and further strengthen our research partnerships. The two new subway stations on our Keele campus will enhance the interconnectedness between York and the GTA. With all the new development in this region, York will no longer be considered “uptown,” but will now be “mid-town” – at the centre of the GTA. And the partial French designation of our Glendon College connects that campus even more strongly to the Franco-Ontarian community – another differentiating strength for York and for the province.

My third goal is to continue to increase excellence in ­everything we do. If we can successfully implement broad-ranging program quality initiatives, we can expect an increasing number of our programs across all our Faculties to be ranked in the top 100. This goal necessitates that we invest in our well-e­stablished programs in the arts, humanities and social sciences while we continue to expand science, health and professional programs.

Globalization and technology have had a significant impact on higher education and there are tremendous opportunities for York to leverage emerging opportunities, including thinking through how we combine experiential education and technology-enhanced learning, advance our internationalization strategy and increase research activities for our students. I also want to support the amplification of our scholarly activities. In pursuing these goals, we will have enhanced our impact – locally and around the world, through the graduates we produce and the research and ­creative activities we undertake – making a significant impact on the social, economic, cultural and overall well-being of the communities we serve. Highlighting and intensifying our impact as a leading institution of higher education is my fourth goal.

So, building on York’s foundation as a progressive university, my primary focus going forward will be in these four key areas of access, connectedness, excellence and impact – continuing to enrich York’s reputation and leadership as a postsecondary education institution from which our communities draw strength.

THE MAGAZINE: What do you think are the keys to being able to successfully translate your vision for York’s future into actions?

LENTON: I think it is significant that enabling our plan is one of the core priorities identified in the University ­Academic Plan. Because to be successful you need to think long and hard about how you are actually going to implement the plan.

First and foremost, we need to improve the engagement of our entire community, not just the internal York community, but equally important is the engagement of the broader community with whom we work – community partners and our alumni, who are both hugely important in these endeavours.

I also believe that collegial governance and transparency are very important. It is a goal I have over my term to improve and find new ways to reach out to the entire community so that everyone feels that we are partners in shaping York’s future.

It is important to point out that, generally speaking in Ontario at the moment, there is a great deal of discussion about whether or not universities should be either primarily undergraduate universities or research universities. In my view, York really sits at the front of the pack in terms of understanding that in a global knowledge economy you need to bring both together. Because those students who are going to be successful in the 21st century need access to both scholarship and research so they can get the necessary skills they need. And here, again, this is where I think York is quite distinct.

York University is also one of the most diverse universities in Canada, and our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. But we need to continue to build and nurture it. As such, our responsibility as a publicly funded institution of higher learning is to ensure that all students, staff and faculty who come to work and to learn can do so in a respectful learning and work environment, free from discrimination of any kind.

York represents Toronto – and the GTA more broadly – so well in terms of its multiculturalism and its diversity. While York’s commitment to inclusion is there, I think it’s an area where we still need to do better. It’s challenging because a commitment to inclusion as well as diversity means that you want to be sure that we are protecting academic freedom while also creating an environment where everyone feels empowered to present their views. Universities have an obligation to provide safe spaces for discussions on difficult topics.

THE MAGAZINE: Many are saying that York seems to have turned the corner in terms of changing public ­perception of its reputation. Do you think that’s true? And, if so, why?

LENTON: I do feel that York has turned the corner over the last five to 10 years. I think there are a number of factors that have contributed to that. Our strong planning culture is essential. While difficult in some respects, the willingness of the community to take on a comprehensive review in 2014 provided an opportunity to look at our data in a systematic way and to reflect on York’s challenges and opportunities for strengthening the University going forward.

Coming out of that process, a number of programs have undertaken new initiatives. We have already launched and agreed to an expanded commitment to experiential education opportunities for all of our students, including enhanced learning technology, as well as other initiatives aimed at enhancing student advising, research amplification and the campus experience.

While we are always thinking about how and where we can improve, recent data is providing hard evidence that York is on a positive reputational trajectory, including the positive momentum as future students’ first-choice university. ­Applications and registrations are up overall, including domestic and international students. In fact, York was one of a very few universities that saw an increase in student applications that included 24 per cent of first-generation students and the highest percentage of college transfers in Ontario at 17 per cent.

We have also seen an increase in research scholarship and creative activities. York was one of only 13 universities in the country that received an unprecedented $120 million from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to become a world leader in vision research (VISTA). We have improved student persistence, and student satisfaction has improved, and the number of York programs in the top 100 is increasing. These are just a few of the success measures that indicate York has turned the corner and is now in a position to fully realize the vision we have for ourselves.

THE MAGAZINE: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing students today, York University and Ontario’s postsecondary education?

LENTON: I think a common theme facing students, universities and postsecondary education as a whole, is the pace of change – in communications, transportation and, particularly, technology. Rapid changes in technology impact not just how we function as a university ourselves, but also how we teach. It also has direct implications for students because of rapidly changing and new careers. A common expression now is that the careers that graduates need to be eligible for 10 years from now either don’t exist yet, or certainly will not be the same as what might be popular and of interest to students today.

And that means students and higher education overall both need to be flexible to ensure that students don’t just have specific skills for particular jobs, but rather they are equipped with transferable knowledge skills that will allow them to evolve and be successful once they join the workforce.

This means we need to change what we teach, and how we teach. We need to be sure that our students have both depth and breadth in what they learn, strong transferable skills and a commitment to lifelong learning. I think that is a real advantage for York, due to our early understanding of the importance of interdisciplinarity. Beyond providing students with substantive knowledge on a particular topic, be it English or engineering, we must also provide them with communication and technology skills, so they are able to easily adapt to different career situations.

Today, this kind of integration is key for almost any career you can think of. It doesn’t matter whether you want to be a humanist or a social scientist, a lawyer or a nurse. You need to integrate the social sciences, humanities or sciences into the curriculum. I think it’s this combination that makes York graduates more attractive to employers and helps to ensure their future success.

Pace of change also has fundamental implications for the postsecondary education system. Historically, we understand how universities were built, how classrooms were organized and how faculty members taught. But now we are starting to see a continuing evolution of how universities function, how they are designed and organized. The classroom itself is becoming a much more fluid and flexible concept. We should expect that the classroom of the future will increasingly focus on application and problem-solving with materials rapidly being updated and easily accessible through technology.

All of this presents a tremendous opportunity for universities to get out in front of this change and to think differently about what universities are for, and to link that up with the importance of research and scholarship, and an enhanced student learning experience aimed at graduating globally educated citizens. It is a tall order. There are cost implications for experiential education, technology-enhanced learning, and the facilities and infrastructure to support those changes. However, universities have always adapted to their circumstances. It’s going to be an exciting journey and we are clearly already well down the path.

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