All posts by Janet Morrison

The Inclusive Campus: Changes to Documentation Guidelines for Mental Health Disabilities

Group of young people standing together speaking (one black man and three white women)

Consistent with York’s culture, history and values, our University has earned a reputation for providing high-quality support to students with disabilities. This is captured — superbly — in the quote below from a student who offered the following when asked to comment on the support received from Counselling & Disability Services (CDS).

I would like to say that the academic accommodation that I received through CDS . . . was the single greatest aid I had in completing my degree. I truly don’t know if I would have been able to complete my degree or get As in my last few courses if I did not have that accommodation. . . . I don’t know how else to explain my gratitude . . .  thank you, CDS.

This is an affirmation of the great work being done to support students with diagnosed disabilities by our disability services staff in Counselling & Disability Services. This work is further supported by Personal Counselling Services (PCS), which strives to assist all students — regardless of whether or not they have a diagnosed disability — to reach  their full personal potential, maximize their University experience and build resilience. On behalf of the Provost, our faculty colleagues, staff from across the campus, and — most notably — all our students: thank you.

With that as context, Marc Wilchesky, the Executive Director of CDS, and I want to provide an update related to academic accommodations. Specifically, Mental Health Disability Services adopted new documentation guidelines in January 2016. Simply put, students no longer have to disclose their specific mental health diagnosis to register for academic accommodations and supports. These changes align with the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s recent Policy on preventing discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addictions (June 2014).

Some students may voluntarily choose to disclose their specific diagnosis to MHDS because professionals therein have expertise that can inform the accommodations process. It’s important to emphasize, however, that students are not required to do so. Instead, the medical documentation only needs to confirm a diagnosed mental health disability and list the specific functional limitations. Students will be eligible to receive the full range of appropriate academic accommodations based on any functional limitations related to the disability.

This change is in keeping with York’s commitment to promote a healthy, inclusive and supportive learning environment that fosters mental health and well-being. It’s a progressive approach being emulated across the province — and yet another example of York’s leadership. It’s but one of the many reasons I am so proud to lead the Division of Students.

More information about MHDS and the new documentation guidelines can be found at: MHDS Registration Information

The Student Self-Assessment Survey: Supporting and Building Agency for York Students

Shot from above of people walking along a path, their long shadows showing

Under the auspices of the Division of Students’ Strategic Plan, and in pursuit of our vision to be Partners in Student Success, York has adopted a highly strategic approach to enrolment management. Simply put, Strategic Enrolment Management (SEM) engages key constituents to identify, define and organize themselves around clearly articulated enrolment goals. It also mobilizes the campus to pursue those goals purposefully to produce dramatic, sustainable results. Key to SEM is enrolment intelligence, data that helps us understand the student experience to inform how we recruit, retain and communicate with our students. The intelligence is gleaned from a comprehensive review of existing enrolment-related data, as well as through new research. A great example of the latter is the Student Self-Assessment Survey.

Since 2013, incoming students to York have been asked to complete an online survey that is aligned with Alf Lizzio’s work on transition theory. Developed by our brilliant colleague Mark Conrad (Director, Institutional Enrolment & Resource Planning, Office of Institutional Planning & Analysis), the survey uses a combination of published measurement scales to give York baseline data about our students and what supports they require to be successful: (i) reasons for attending university (internal and external motivation); (ii) academic and career-goal clarity; (iii) self-concept as a student (academic self-efficacy); and, (iv) general coping skills (personal/social resourcefulness and grit). Although it’s entirely voluntary, last year almost 50 percent of our new students chose to participate. As a result, we know a lot more than we did previously about how prepared our students are for postsecondary study, about their reasons for attending university and about their capacity to persist. We are using that information to develop and deliver support resources for the students who need them most.

A hand writjng, with a coffee mug in the background

At the beginning of this week, invitations to participate in the survey this fall went out to incoming first-year students. After they complete the survey, each participant will receive a report that includes their score, an explanation about each dimension and some suggestions/tips to help them build their personal capacity. In October, we will follow up with those students and invite them to log into a portal using their Passport York ID to review their results again, see average scores for all respondents and view additional resources for each dimension of the survey. Those resources include some fantastic new videos that feature continuing student role models.

The Student Self-Assessment Survey serves multiple purposes. For one, it is helping us learn a lot more about our students and what they need to be successful. It also, however, helps develop agency (or resourcefulness) in our students, making them more self-aware and better equipped to seek out campus resources. Consistent with the Division’s commitment to evidence-based decision making and assessment, the survey and its outcomes remain a work in progress continually informed by student feedback. To date, it’s been very positive, with 78 per cent of respondents in 2015 agreeing or strongly agreeing that the site provided helpful resources, while 69 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that the videos provided useful tips. Among the qualitative comments was the following:

The videos and links were very helpful and stirred up motivation in me to do a better job in University. Sometimes stress can cause the motivation to drop drastically, but seeing all the resources available on campus spurs a new fire at the core.

A hearty thanks to Mark Conrad and Michelle Miller for their tremendous leadership on this project. What a great, real-life example of our commitment to being Partners in Student Success.

Let’s Talk Divisional Values: Collaboration

A sign with the word "Collaboration" laid across a green, lined index card.

Embedded in the Division of Students’ strategic plan are seven values: respect, excellence, innovation, collaboration, accountability, care and inclusion. Individually and collectively, these values — nested deeply within those of York University as a whole — reflect who we are and who we aspire to be. Collaboration is particularly important because it describes how the Division will achieve its priorities.

Collaboration and cooperation reject competition as the best way to secure resources and achieve success. There’s a simple quote I like by the comedienne and actress Amy Poehler: “As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” That has certainly been my experience.

In the context of the Division’s work at York, I think about collaboration as a strategy for transcending silos and driving innovation (more on that value later!). Ample examples indicate how collaboration guides the Division of Students’ vision to be Partners in Student Success. One that comes immediately to mind is YU START, our flagship transition program that we profiled on this blog recently. Quite simply, YU START would not be possible without the engagement of key partners including associate deans, College masters, College Council presidents, Orientation chairs and a variety of student leaders. Working collaboratively and cooperatively, these women and men are challenging our amazing colleagues in the Student Success Centre to continually improve their programming for incoming students. All the while, they are supporting and fueling a student experience at York that stands out for its fresh ideas and supportive character.

Another great example is the York Orientation Directors Association (YODA), the group of student leaders who organize and deliver Orientation Week at York each fall. With representation from every College and several Faculties, YODA is accountable for pan-University decisions that have a significant impact on students and York as a whole. They take their responsibilities very seriously, particularly, for example, in the context of organizing large-scale evening events for thousands of students new to the independence of a university environment. They also live the adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We’re going to continue learning from their example, because, further to Amy’s quote, collaboration changes people and processes for the better.

Exploring Pathways to Career Success for Students with Disabilities

White glass indoor bridge leading up to a doorway opening in a white wall

Earlier this month, I finished my term as the Chair of the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital (H-B) Board of Trustees. Volunteering at this outstanding organization has taught me so much about care for kids with disabilities, their goals and aspirations for the future and — perhaps most importantly — the resilience of the families who rely on H-B for a wide array of services and supports. During my years of service, I have been humbled by their endless courage and strength.

When I met recently with members of the Family Advisory Council to seek their input on the hospital’s 2016–2017 priorities, “transitions” emerged as a dominant theme. Specifically, clients and families expressed concerns about how kids with disabilities transition out of the pediatric health-care system into adult services, and out of secondary school to postsecondary education and/or into the workforce. This last issue was particularly important to parents: individuals with disabilities are significantly underrepresented in the workforce and can face challenges with the job-search process.

At York, equipping young people with the tools they need to lead fulfilling professional and personal lives is one of our priorities. Through a multitude of means, we are working to provide particular support to students who might face special challenges. One specific example is the Disability & Career Committee, which was established in 2010 and includes representatives from Counselling & Disability Services (CDS) and the Career Centre (CC).

The goals of the committee are twofold:

  1. to create an event that would provide York students with disabilities (e.g. physical, learning, mental health) with an opportunity to connect with employers, community service providers and employees to learn more about employment supports, workplace disclosure and accommodations in the workplace;
  2. to build partnerships with community agencies and employers that support students with disabilities, not only to nurture these relationships for future career opportunities but also to build York’s reputation as a professional and supportive environment in which ALL students have equitable access to a range of campus services that assist in facilitating their success.

Smiling woman sitting behind a sign saying "Devices 4 Disabilities" and in front of a CDS banner

To further both aims, we started small in 2011 — with a panel discussion that attracted nine students with disabilities and four community partners/employers. Five years later, that event has evolved into a full-day symposium, the Career Success Symposium for Students with Disabilities, with a keynote speaker, breakout sessions and increased participation from both students and community partners. In 2016, the event featured as its keynote speaker Michael Landsberg, a Bell Let’s Talk spokesperson and the host of Off the Record on TSN; 101 students participated and 14 employers/community partners attended. This marks fabulous progress on our strategic plan to be Partners in Student Success.

This event evolved from a strong partnership between two units within the Division of Students in which we shared our areas of expertise to help meet students’ needs and to encourage their success. We have also created lasting partnerships with community agencies and employers, further strengthening York’s reputation and building future opportunities for York students.  While the symposium takes place once annually, it has created awareness about and “opened doors” to the many workshops and services offered at the Career Centre throughout the year.

The event has also fostered professional development. While the Career Centre has one staff member with expertise in serving students with disabilities, the symposium provides more exposure to these students. As a direct consequence, the whole CC team has gained tools to better support this cohort in their career exploration and job search.

Two young men standing in front of a projected image thanking participants for joining attending the symposium of career opportunities for students with disabilities

Student participants found great value in the event, as these select testimonials from the 2016 event make clear:

Thank you so much. . . . The event was really awesome, and it was a pleasure meeting all the other attendees and hearing about the different services that work to help create an accessible environment for job-seekers with disabilities. I really appreciate all the planning that went into this event; everything was so well coordinated as well. Thank you.

—Tyler Cenac

 I left the event feeling empowered about my future. The event introduced me to resources I didn’t even know existed. Michael Landsberg was such an inspiring speaker. Meeting him has allowed me to meet someone in my area of interest. The workshops were beneficial, as we got to explore areas of interest or weakness in a smaller group.

Ian Wilgus

The career symposium was a great experience for students with disabilities, as it was very uplifting and a morale booster, because you were around like-minded people coming from different walks of life. They were all battling different obstacles to make a mark for themselves, and this gave an opportunity for everyone’s true potential to come out. . . . I felt like employers, organizations and fellow colleagues were looking past these visible and invisible disabilities to be able to give individuals advice on the basis of their merits.

Alamgir Khandwala

Attending the career success symposium at York University for students with disabilities really impacted the way I see myself achieving my career goals and being successful in the workplace. Getting information from various employers about work accommodations and when to disclose to a potential employer was truly empowering. These tips helped me consider the contributions I can make within an organization by knowing how my disability affects me, using my skills and working to my strengths. Most importantly, the takeaway message for me was that as a person with a disability, I can move forward and achieve my career goals successfully and feel confident in applying to a number of opportunities available in the workplace.

—Esther Lawrence

Please join me in congratulating those members of the VPS team who have contributed to making this event happen, and the students who made the time to participate. My hat goes off to all of them!




For further reading:


Let’s Talk Divisional Values: Care

Scrabble pieces spelling "Care"

Embedded in the Division of Students’ strategic plan are seven values: respect, excellence, innovation, collaboration, accountability, care and inclusion.  Individually and collectively, these values — nested deeply within those of York University as a whole — reflect who we are and who we aspire to be.

In this context, care is both a noun (serious attention applied to doing something correctly) and a verb (to feel concern; to look after and provide for the needs of). Both uses are central to fulfilling our vision to be “Partners in Student Success.” Demonstrating care — by being thoughtful and considered in what we do and how we do it — is fundamental to engagement and success. In a nutshell, students excel when they believe that people are attending to their needs and are invested in their well-being.

In recent years, campus colleagues have been testing a number of hypotheses about how to support students who are at risk of failing a course or becoming academically ineligible to continue. Faculty leaders in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science and in the Department of Biology, for example, have twinned early alert systems with a suite of academic-recovery interventions. A number of Colleges — including Bethune, Calumet and Stong — have implemented an array of retention initiatives, including peer mentoring and supplemental instruction. These efforts reflect York’s commitment to fostering student success. At the end of the day, however, here is what ongoing assessment has revealed: academic performance is positively impacted by even the smallest expression of interest and concern.

We show that concern by making available to students invaluable services through departments such as Counselling & Disability Services, the Office of Student Community Relations, York’s RED Zone and Registrarial Services, and in partnership with other important on-campus partners (i.e. Learning Commons, Community Safety, dean’s offices). We can and must, however, also demonstrate that interest in our everyday interactions by listening to students, showing empathy, coaching them toward solutions or simply greeting them with a smile.

Caring matters and must continue to guide our work.



Things to Remember in the Face of Orlando

York University Sign 2 (for Just Janet blog post)

I hugged my children and cried last night as I watched the London Gay Men’s Chorus sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at a vigil for Orlando in the United Kingdom. In the face of hate and unfathomable violence, the strength and compassion of the LGBTQ2S community shone like a beacon of light. Like President Shoukri, Provost Lenton and Vice-President Brewer last night, I want to extend my condolences to the families of those killed on Sunday, as well as my unwavering support to LGBTQ2S students at York, in Toronto and around the world.

York University is a large, richly diverse learning environment; collectively we hold sacred the values of respect and inclusion. Students, faculty and staff on our campuses pride ourselves on working hard to create safe spaces for everyone. Particularly in this time of shock, sadness and profound grief, however, please take the time to be there for your peers and colleagues — at York, let’s make sure that community remains the fulcrum of support and engagement. Also remember that if you would like to talk to someone, you should contact Personal Counselling Services, the Office of Student Community Relations or Good2Talk.

If you’d like to talk to me personally, email me at or call me at 416-736-5955.

Please take care of yourself and each other.


Clear Pathways Help Guide and Facilitate Student Success


Last spring at this time, final preparations were underway to ready the campus for hosting the PanAm/Parapan Am Games. The primary focus was our new stadium: temporary seating was duly installed, fencing went up and the entire site and much of the broader campus were brightened with PanAm banners to celebrate the Games. Something else really fabulous happened at the same time: pedestrian pathways! Combined with new signage, these were installed to help people – most notably newcomers and visitors — find their way to and from the event. It seems simple, but, given the size of our campus, and in the absence of a clear and accessible path, people get lost. The pathways were a significant advance, one that is showing long-term impact.

Tw students walking toward baloon-decorated bookstore on Keele campus

Providing a clear pathway to people new to a postsecondary learning environment is equally crucial. Research tells us that students who are effectively onboarded to university are more successful: they persist at higher rates, they have higher grade point averages (GPAs) and they’re more satisfied. The positive response from our students is one reason why we’ve invested so much time and energy in our flagship new student transition program, YU START.


It was like a checklist for me. If you follow all the steps you can independently prepare yourself for school. I just felt lucky to have it, because my parents didn’t understand how to help me with things like enrolment, course selection and, most importantly, financial aid. YU START provides links to OSAP and requires you create a student financial profile to apply for bursaries and scholarships, which was key.

Jesse Amankwaa, Health & Society, member of the York Lions Football Team


There are three components to YU START: online enrolment, a virtual learning environment and York Orientation Day. When experienced together, these elements intend to help students transition successfully to York University by focusing on the five senses that Alf Lizzio argues are key: a sense of purpose; a sense of connectedness; a sense of resourcefulness; a sense of academic culture; and a sense of capability. To help new students navigate unfamiliar terrain, YU START is a tool for distributing information about learning-skills programs, disability services, financial literacy, career development, the libraries and how the Colleges contribute to student success. It includes modules that teach new community members about what will be expected of them in a first-year course, the importance of providing feedback and making their voices heard, and about York’s intolerance for sexual violence. Fundamentally, YU START was designed to make newcomers feel welcome and valued. This is particularly important given the size, scale and diversity of our learning community.


I found YU START to be a wonderful and well-designed introduction to the various resources available to students. It definitely helped me to have a smoother transition to life at York U.

Mark Subekti, Finance & Business Economics


The numbers of learners impacted by aspects of YU START last year were impressive: more than 6,000 new students participated in online enrolment; nearly 4,000 participated in our online learning communities; 1,300+ completed the summer certificate program; 1,200 registered for campus tours; and there were more than 9,000 visits to York’s RED Zone last summer. Combined with a re-visioned approach to Orientation (that has been orchestrated in partnership with our amazing student leaders!), it is undeniable that we are positively impacting transitions to York. This speaks directly to our second strategic goal: By 2018, “all first-year students have access to programs that support their personal transition to York and foster their continuing success and engagement.”

Two women sitting in Life Sciences Building with a laptop and textbooks

So what is happening with YU START in 2016? On Monday, May 2, the YU START platform went live, and we began the process of enrolling and supporting thousands of new students who will make up our incoming class.

In the spirit of continuous improvement, Ross McMillan (Director, Student Engagement & First-Year Experience) wants you to know about a number of highlights and improvements to this latest version of YU START:

  • We have expanded our Faculty partnerships; Lassonde, Education and Science are now using parts of the platform (in addition to previous partners AMPD, FES, Health, LA&PS and Schulich).
  • There has been a major redevelopment of the Online Enrolment Tutorial to include video screencasts that explain how to enrol in classes, as well as clearer course-enrolment guides telling students which courses they are eligible to take (this was our #1 question from last year).
  • New and enhanced processes and content are included, including an ESL component, a designated Residence module and robust sections on Aboriginal Student Services and sexual violence.
  • Based in part on the success of the SCLD Accepted to 2019 Facebook Group, our online student community will be hosted on closed Facebook groups that are supported by trained YU START student leaders. There are 33 Facebook groups (determined by our Faculty partners). For those who do not wish to use Facebook, we still have a discussion board in the YU START platform.
  • Instead of giving students multiple links/sites to register for different Orientation programs, there will now be a single point of registration for Orientation programming housed in the platform. This will include registration for York Orientation Day, International Orientation, Mature Student Orientation and select College Council–sponsored social orientation programs.

If you are interested in experiencing the YU START platform, check out our demo site. Please note that you will need to complete at least one section of the “enrol here” portion to unlock the rest of the platform. The site is accessible to the York University community via Passport York. For external readers, contact Ross McMillan at if you’re interested in learning more about YU START.

(YORKU STUDENTS: if you’re reading this please use

Close-up of YU poster in glitter

Two final points:

  • Please save the date: York Orientation Day is happening on Wednesday, September 7. This is the largest, centrally coordinated one-day event at York — more than 8,000 entering students and hundreds of staff and faculty are expected to attend.
  • Ongoing improvements to YU START would not be possible without the vision and engagement of our valued partners in the Division of Students, University Information Technology, Learning Technology Services, the Centre for Human Rights, York’s Faculties and Colleges. We would like to specifically recognize Brendan Schulz, Lara Ubaldi, Greg Langstaff and Pri Saini for their leadership and unwavering commitment to this project, as well as our YU START Student Coordinators Grace Olenja and Shikala Beare who are working with more than 50 YU START student leaders across campus.

YU START is a great example of how innovation, partnerships and planning discipline are driving the Division of Students toward the achievement of our strategic priorities. Go team! If you would like a presentation to your team about Orientation and YU START, please contact Ross McMillan at

Warm regards,

Janet & Ross

International Women’s Day: A Personal Perspective

International Women's Day


For more than 30 years, I have been proud to learn and lead within college and university communities committed to social justice, equity and respect. This is particularly true today: International Women’s Day. Canadian campuses are home to thousands of impressive female students who now comprise a significant majority of post-secondary enrolments in this country, a stark change from 1971, when 68 per cent of graduates were male. The percentage of female faculty members has also markedly increased since the 1970s. Many of these are eminent feminist scholars who lead projects on wage parity, political engagement, gender identity, body autonomy and sexual violence. Women are learning, teaching, doing groundbreaking research and engaging in community service activities on post-secondary campuses across this country. Their social, economic, cultural and political contributions matter; individually and collectively, they are fueling the charge toward gender parity on and off campus.

Notwithstanding the post-secondary sector’s undeniable contributions to feminism, however, colleges and university campuses have been labelled unsafe. Specifically and most recently, leaders like me have been criticized for not doing enough to prevent sexual violence; for not adequately supporting survivors of sexual violence; and for not holding alleged perpetrators of sexual violence accountable for their behavior. Having invested my entire professional life in the work of fostering human development and student success, this is painful to hear. Personal safety, security and overall well-being are foundational to learning. Even one incident of sexual violence on a campus is one too many. The individual and communal impacts can be incalculable. I know because I’ve been a first responder and a primary supporter for too many survivors during my 25-year career as a student services professional. Experience underpins my unwavering commitment to preventing and addressing sexual violence in all its forms: sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism and/or sexual exploitation. Before and since the latest public call for systematic improvements and increased accountability, stakeholders (students, faculty and staff) on campuses across the province have worked collegially to draft sound policy, put survivors more squarely at the center of response protocols and revisit adjudication processes. Perhaps most importantly, we have worked to improve communications, so that survivors can make informed decisions that support personal recovery. Every school I have worked at, for example, facilitates academic accommodations, personal counselling and referrals to community agencies, temporary housing, emergency financial support and safety planning. We need to be explicit about the help that is available and provide road maps for access. We are listening, learning and building on existing strengths.

And yet, I am worried that our momentum will stall or that we will self-sabotage by alienating key partners. I also fear that our haste to respond will inadvertently undermine our commitment to being survivor-centric.

Let me start by saying that we have been talking about this for far too long. In the late 1980s when I was enrolled as an undergraduate at Western University, my sense of self and security was shattered on December 6, 1989, when Marc Lepine shot 28 people and massacred 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. Five months later, an engineering student at Western – Lynda Shaw – was sexually assaulted and murdered at a fast food outlet on Hwy 401. I knew her. I had stopped at that very rest stop dozens of times. Like so many of my privileged peers, I was profoundly and personally impacted by those two atrocities. Our grieving drove us to organize, establish peer networks and lobby campus administrators. We advocated for education and awareness campaigns, orientation programming, accountability for perpetrators and survivor-centric supports.

The caution I am sounding is that we have been here before. And yet, the goal is unrealized: the number of students on Ontario campuses who experience sexual violence is still unfathomable. And if they choose to file a formal report, they are often susceptible to having their character and integrity challenged. In this and other regards, universities are a microcosm of broader society wherein violence is glorified and survivors are too often re-traumatized. Most of our students are products of an Ontario secondary school curriculum that – before the recent changes – largely ignored the issue of consent. The magnitude of this challenge is overwhelming. To drive real, sustainable change, we must collaborate, demonstrate respect and ensure that a diversity of voices and lived experiences are heard and acknowledged.

I was at the Premier’s Summit on Sexual Violence in January when a young leader proudly proclaimed that students had been fighting for 30 years to end sexual violence on campuses. Given that most of the students present were not alive in 1986, I took this to be an affirmation of the work that my colleagues and I have done over decades as students, faculty and staff. This message was quickly followed, however, by venomous references to university administrators being singularly focused on revenue generation and reputation. Hurt and insulted, I contemplated pushing myself away from the table. In the end, I concluded that this would be disadvantageous to the cause because my commitment to the issue goes far beyond my professional role as the Vice-Provost Students at York University.

In the second year of a doctoral program at Bowling Green State University, I started noticing that a man was following me. I would see him outside my classroom, at the gym, and then – over time – outside the window of my apartment. A careful accounting of when and where I saw him provided the impetus for him to plead guilty to Menacing by Stalking, a crime for which he was sentenced to two years in jail.

The path to that outcome – all too rare in instances of sexual violence – was incredibly difficult. For months, I lived in fear and had panic attacks. I am still easily startled and get anxious when my partner travels for work. As is typical, my academic performance, physical health and mental well-being suffered. I spent a lot of time questioning what I had done to elicit the criminal attention, and started doubting my personal choices. I felt particularly guilty that my entire family put their lives on hold so they could support me through protection orders, the university’s judicial processes and a criminal trial. To be clear, I survived being stalked by a man with a violent criminal history because of my parents, my brothers and a few close friends. Key leaders on the campus did their best to help, but there were gaps in policy and support programming that left me vulnerable and undermined my autonomy. Campus Security, for example, decided at some point to move me onto campus so they could better ensure my personal safety. Unfortunately, the only student housing available was a first-year residence dormitory, filled with people 10+ years my junior who partied day and night. I was moved for the right reasons, but the new living environment threatened my already fragile mental health. To allow me to safely return home, my brother and his friend moved to Bowling Green to serve as my bodyguards. Their presence was a constant reminder of how the stalker was undermining my personal power, independence and freedom. It made me mad.

That anger fueled my resolve to fight back. At the beginning, I had no intention of filing charges; I arrived unannounced at security services one day and an officer named John listened to my disclosure and said he believed me. His obvious priority was my safety, well-being and survival. John connected me with campus resources like personal counselling and worked with me on a safety plan. It was several weeks before I decided to pursue the process to have the stalker expelled and charged with a criminal offence.

Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act, will amend various statutes with respect to sexual violence, sexual harassment and domestic violence. It stems from It’s Never OK: an action plan to end sexual violence and harassment, which includes 13 commitments to “establish an Ontario where everyone lives in safety and is free from the threat, fear or experience of sexual violence and harassment”. My colleagues and I applaud the passage of this legislation and are already working to ensure each of our campuses is compliant. Based on my professional and personal experience, however, I am compelled to sound two points of caution. Both relate to the aspirational goals of the government’s plan.

The first speaks to the issue of reporting versus disclosure. Across Ontario, colleges and universities must be empowered to distinguish between a report of sexual violence – which is formal and involves an expectation that action will be taken against an alleged perpetrator – and a disclosure of sexual violence, in confidence, for the express purpose of accessing resources and/or accommodations. A failure to make this distinction may discourage survivors from coming forward because, for example, they are not ready, they do not feel safe or they fear public shaming, judicial processes and/or police involvement. Legislating or regulating that all disclosures must be treated as formal reports takes control and choice away from the survivor. That’s wrong because it will keep people from accessing the supports they need to recover. I needed time to feel safe and empowered. Had I been rushed or forced into filing a formal report with police, the man who stalked me would likely never have served time for his crime. I appreciate that having quantitative data makes the general public feel like public institutions are being held accountable. The priority, however, must be individual survivors and their recovery.

My second concern relates to accommodations and supports, both of which are keys to survival and recovery. Quite simply, the legislation could require that we count the number of times accommodations or supports have been accessed by any student who has been impacted by sexual violence. I do not think this is a good way to measure the efficacy of our services, and I fear that meeting the reporting requirements could threaten personal privacy. Currently, some schools (including York) publicize the number of formal reports filed that relate to sexual violence. If such data was collected and reported using consistent guidelines, it might give prospective and current students a measure by which to judge the relative safety of one campus versus another. That number, however, tells only a fraction of the story because so many instances of sexual violence go unreported. To understand the bigger picture, an expert panel convened by the Council of Ontario Universities is recommending that a customized, consistent, confidential climate survey be sent to post-secondary students in Ontario. Carefully designed and implemented, this tool would provide colleges and universities with detailed demographic and student experience data. It would help us understand the real prevalence of sexual violence on our campuses by gathering input from both survivors and perpetrators. Institution-specific questions related to services could be used to guide quality improvement planning. More broadly, the evidence collected via the survey would empower campus leaders (students, faculty and staff) to more effectively drive cultural change.

I rarely speak about my lived experience, and this disclosure will come as a surprise to many of my students and colleagues. But today – on International Women’s Day, 2016 – I have decided to use my voice because, quite simply: I do not want to be talking about sexual violence on college and university campuses in five, or 10, or 15 years. I honestly believe that avoiding that reality rests on our capacity to work together and make smart decisions that will drive long-term change.

I am passionate about the transformative power of earning a university degree. This is what fuels my enthusiasm for working at York and supporting the smart, resilient, dynamic students who call our campuses their academic home. Some will wonder how I can advocate so ardently for an environment that exposed me to such emotional trauma. The answer is twofold. First and foremost: I blame the stalker. He had been on campus less than two months when the behaviour started. Surely, Bowling Green State University cannot be held accountable for his criminality. Second, I firmly believe that I thrived in the wake of sexual violence expressly because I have lived my entire adult life embraced by vibrant, progressive learning communities that are committed to ending the kind of violence that didn’t break me.


This article was originally penned for the Toronto Star as part of its coverage on International Women’s Day.

The First-Year Experience: Paths to Success at York

York folder amd pen

This past spring, as students sat writing exams, final preparations were underway to ready the campus for hosting the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. The primary focus was our new stadium: workers duly installed temporary seating; fencing went up; and the entire site, as well as much of the broader campus, was draped with symbolism to celebrate the Games.

Alongside that process, however, something else really fabulous happened. Driving in to York early one morning from Shoreham Drive en route to Tait McKenzie, I saw a mini-bulldozer carving out pedestrian pathways. Combined with new signage, these were being installed to help people — most notably newcomers and visitors — find their way. It seems simple, but in the absence of a clear and accessible pathway, people get lost. Given the size of our campus, these paths and signs are a significant advance that will have long-term impact.

Providing for people who are new to a postsecondary learning environment is equally crucial. Research tells us that students who are effectively on-boarded to university life prove more successful: they persist at higher rates, they have higher Grade Point Averages (GPAs) and they’re more satisfied.

This is precisely why York invested in the development of its flagship transition program, YU START. It has three components: online enrolment; a virtual learning environment; and finally, York Orientation Day. Together, the intent is to help students transition successfully to university by focusing on the five senses that Alf Lizzio argues are key: a sense of purpose; a sense of connectedness; a sense of resourcefulness; a sense of academic culture; and a sense of capability.

Graphic representation of Lizzio's Five-Senses Model

To help new students navigate unfamiliar terrain, YU START distributes information about learning-skills programs, disability services, staying mentally and physically healthy, academic integrity, student rights and responsibilities, career development, academic resources such as libraries and about how the Colleges contribute to student success. It includes modules that teach new community members about what is expected of them in a first-year course, and about York’s community values. Fundamentally, YU START seeks to provide a road map to student success through and beyond year one. This is particularly important given the size, scale and diversity of our learning community.

Last summer, nearly 4,000 new students participated in YU START’s virtual learning environment, and we continue to receive positive feedback about how it’s impacting their transition to York. With Fall Reading Days just behind us, first-year students are beginning to find their groove. But they still have a way to go. Let’s remember that everybody, and every new experience, benefits from having a clear path.

Young man staring out of a window, his back turned

Flip for Change: York Cares

Jeff O'Hagan, Mamdouh Shoukri, Janet Morrison and Christine Silversides in chefs' outfits making pancakes


What a way to start the day! This morning I had the amazing opportunity to flip pancakes for a cause. With President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, Vice-President Advancement Jeff O’Hagan and Christine Silversides, Director of Legal Services, Office of the Counsel, I kicked off the annual York Cares campaign in support of United Way. This year’s goal: to raise $220,000 for the important and hope-giving services provided by United Way and make a tangible difference in people’s lives.


It was an honor to be there, and I encourage each and every member of the York community to step forward to contribute in any way they can. Donations will support local agencies and programs, helping kids realize their potential, families overcome poverty and bolstering the community as a whole. Our strength is in numbers, so let’s pull together as we’ve done in years past and make our goal a reality!


Thank you for your support,