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Rechartering of York sustainability institute not recommended to Senate

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May 21, 2014 0 Comments293 views

Members and supporters of the Institute for Research in Sustainability at York were surprised to learn in April that the institute would not be considered for recharter.

On its website, IRIS describes itself as a “university-wide interdisciplinary research centre dedicated to pursuing multifaceted approaches to the contemporary challenges of sustainability.”

Robert Haché, vice-president research & innovation, says of the 12 organized research units that submitted charter applications, IRIS was the only one not recommended to Senate, which is responsible for approving these applications.

He says, based on an external review report in 2014, comments from the board for ORUs, and comments from the strategic projects and opportunities review team, it was clear there were challenges with the application.

He notes in order to be considered for recharter, ORUs must each submit a strategic vision document. This document is designed to provide a vision for the ORU.

He says the external reviewers essentially noted that it wasn’t clear to them what additional value IRIS was adding, because the institute hadn’t articulated a clear plan. He says this was the biggest challenge.

He further says the amount of research being conducted at IRIS had declined over the last charter period, and research funding had also declined.

Annette Dubreuil, IRIS coordinator, says this may be true, but points to several research grants that would not have been possible without IRIS.

Dubreuil says, “To see that research was not recognized by the VPRI is embarrassing and insulting.”

Members of IRIS have expressed concerns that the rechartering process was “untransparent,” leading to Haché’s decision to not recommend the recharter of IRIS.

Dubreuil says over 100 supporters had signed on to the 2013 rechartering application to “save the centre.”

She mentions there seemed to be hostility towards IRIS, and refers to “conversations” held between the VPRI and various faculty members that IRIS was not part of.

She alleges IRIS was not given proper notice for the submission of the application, but Haché notes the information was sent out in April 2013.

Haché says had the committee known of the questions IRIS had, every effort would have been made to provide more information.

Dawn Bazely, former director of IRIS, states the institute had been asking questions since April 2013 and insists the VPRI provided vague responses to these questions and confused the process with “flip-flops.”

Haché says, “the reviewers recognize [IRIS has] done a lot of good things over the 10 years, and that’s terrific, but the focus really is on proposing what they plan to do over the next five.”

Bazely, however, says, “I have never been asked in any detail about the proposed five-year research plan we submitted.”

Haché believes every effort was made to communicate with the ORUs, and says these efforts succeeded with the 11 applicants that were recommended for chartering.

Haché notes that he realizes IRIS is not pleased with this, as “they would very much like to continue,” but he does say this is not necessarily the end of the road for IRIS.

He notes IRIS will lose its status as an ORU July 1, 2014 and the support that comes with it.

The institute, however, will be able to keep its name and space for a year, with the current charter expiring June 30, 2014, and will be eligible to submit another application this fall.

Ashley Glovasky
News Editor


Image source: Kinga Szymczyk


Khushpal Brar: Letter to President Shoukri


My name is Khushpal, I worked at the Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability at York U. as an Events Coordinator from September 2012 to April 2013.

I understand that you are currently discussing closing IRIS and I wanted to present a few points in favor of rechartering the pan-university research centre in sustainability.

As one of Canada’s largest universities, York U has a large community and is a voice for the future development of our country. York has the opportunity to use that influence and create a space where everyone can learn about and have a say on the state of our environment. Our environmental challenges are connected to our social, political and economic problems; through the trans-disciplinary platform at IRIS, where both academics and non-academics are welcome, York can give everyone the chance to understand their own unique role in the shift towards sustainable living. IRIS also represents a network where we can connect to the global community through our common need, our environment.

Canadian universities needs more groups like IRIS to continue their work in education and research. We are lagging behind in our federal and provincial policies in recognizing how the degradation of our environment and lack of investment into renewable/sustainable technologies is harming us as a society.

Please support IRIS, it is the embodiment of York University’s mission for the pursuit, preservation and dissemination of knowledge.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my opinion,
Khushpal Brar

Standard Form Response from VP Hache to letters written to the President

Numerous people who sent letters to the President have received the following standard form response from the Vice-President Research & Innovation on Friday, May 2nd, 2014.

Dear X,

Thank you for your message and your concern about IRIS.  The President has requested that I respond to your message on his behalf.

Research in the area of sustainability is one of the pillars of research at York.  Our strategic research plan identifies Forging a Just and Sustainable World as one of six major research themes at York and further identifies Public Engagement for a Just and Sustainable World as one of five compelling areas of opportunity for the development of research at York over the next five years.

IRIS has enjoyed 10 years of support as an organized research unit at York.  During that time IRIS has enjoyed a number of successes and has supported a number of impactful research projects and many important ancillary activities.

As part of a competitive chartering process, organized research Units at York undergo regular external peer review to provide advice and critical appraisal of their research activities and forward plans, to promote research excellence and ensure that scarce institutional resources are invested where they will make the biggest difference in promoting the development of research.

The recent review of IRIS activities, comprised of both external and broad-based internal consultations identified a number challenges to the continued development of IRIS as an organized research unit.  These include a declining trend in externally awarded research funding over IRIS’s current term paired with a lack of expressed plans to develop new research proposals and additional external funding, and a lack of focus and identity paired with the expression of a strategic vision that was not viewed as providing a strong pathway to developing national and international recognition for IRIS’s work.

After consideration of all of the inputs, we have come to the conclusion that IRIS should not be proposed for a new charter at this time

This outcome does not detract from the past success of IRIS or the strong individual research that continues to be engaged in by researchers participating in IRIS.  Further, York will work hard to ensure the research of IRIS’s members, the community and student engagement activities of IRIS and external partnerships continue to flourish during and following the transition period.

I want to assure you, that sustainability research continues to be immensely important and is an area truly differentiates York as a research intensive institution.  It is an area whose development we will continue to actively promote as across the institution

I hope that I have been able to communicate the strength of York’s commitment to sustainability research across the institution and the excitement that exists for the future development of research in this area.

Yours Sincerely

Robert Haché
Vice-President Research & Innovation
York University

Jacqueline Medalye: Letter to President Shoukri

Dear President Shoukri,

I am writing with respect to York University’s decision regarding IRIS. IRIS has been one of the most important aspects of my studies at York University. Without IRIS I would have never pursued an MA or PhD at York.

I have been part of IRIS since its beginnings.I was an assistant to Dr. David Wheeler at the Schulich School of Business in the year that discussions about starting IRIS were conducted. I was an undergraduate student at the time, and in its infancy IRIS provided incredible moral support as I made a major decision about leaving business to pursue intellectual interest in sustainability. As we built IRIS and a core groups of academics across the university with expertise in sustainability, I changed my undergraduate focus at the Schulich School of Business away from accounting and towards sustainability. Because of IRIS, I met many admirable professors who inspired me to pursue a MA at York.

I entered the Department of Political Science in 2003 for my Masters. Throughout this time I was an RA through IRIS. All the publication opportunities and funding opportunities that supported my Masters studies came through IRIS or were facilitated by IRIS. I formed my committee through connections at IRIS, and was able to have an interdisciplinary committee, which was unusual for my department, but was necessary for my research interest in climate change. Without this intellectual and financial support, I would not have completed my MA. I published several pieces from my MA, all with the support of IRIS and the faculty members that I met through IRIS.

In 2006 I decided to continue my studies, and pursue a PhD, also at York. I was accepted to many programs, but chose York, only because of IRIS. During my PhD IRIS was exceptionally important. Through IRIS I found a professor to co-supervise a specialized minor for my PhD core courses. IRIS provided RA opportunities, they helped send me to the UNFCCC Convention of the Parties twice (which was indispensable for my doctoral research). I was given the opportunity to publish and apply for scholarships with the assistance of faculty that I had met at IRIS. I won a $20k IDRC for my doctoral fieldwork because of IRIS. Furthermore, I was given the opportunity to present my work to community members at York and in the broader academic community because of IRIS. All of the publications that have come out of my PhD research were because of IRIS. Finally, my committee for my doctoral research is interdisciplinary (unusual for my department), because I met faculty members through IRIS that had interest in supporting my doctoral work.

Please save IRIS. It is a fantastic institution that does so much for its students. It was a saving grace in times of need for my own studies, and its work is critical for those who wish to pursue studies in sustainability, which is a cross-cutting issue that not all departments have the ability to offer without the support of IRIS. In my case, I wanted to pursue the study of climate change politics through the department of Political Science, but my department did not have the faculty or network to support my studies fully. Without IRIS my research would not have been possible.

Warm Regards,

Jacqueline Medalye


Ellie Perkins: Letter to President Shoukri

Dear President Shoukri,

I am writing to express my deep dismay and shock about the Vice President Research and Innovation’s decision to recommend that York’s Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS) not be re-chartered.  This recommendation contradicts York’s professed commitment to interdisciplinarity and sustainability in research, teaching, and administration, and it is a slap in the face to the dozens of faculty members and thousands of students who have developed and worked on IRIS research initiatives over the years.
The VPRI’s decision also goes against the recommendation of the three-member external review panel that the VPRI engaged to assess IRIS’s record and potential.  The panel, which spoke highly of IRIS’s work in many areas, recommended that IRIS be rechartered for two to three years in order to solidify and focus its interdisciplinary research program at York under a new director, and seek additional external funding. IRIS’s Executive, in responding to the external reviewers’ report, underscored its intention to engage in broad consultation across the university and establish a Research Committee in order to set priorities and pursue funding in specific areas.  However, winding up IRIS’s operations, and suspending the search for a new IRIS director at the final stage as the VPRI has done, leaves all this hanging and is a tremendously disrespectful, inefficient and cavalier way to treat the many York faculty and students who have served on the Director search committee and who have worked with IRIS.
I have served on IRIS’s Executive for years and formerly served on the Executive of IRIS’s precursor organization, the York Centre for Applied Sustainability. I have been the Principal Investigator of several IRIS-supported research projects, and I continue to carry out research based at IRIS.   I led the 7-member York University delegation to the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, after IRIS Director Dawn Bazely successfully pursued York’s application for United Nations observer status.  This has in turn assisted other students and faculty members to become involved with global climate change research.  IRIS’s research on participatory engagement in climate change governance, and climate justice networking with dozens of global partners — from academia, governments, and local communities — is something of which I am very proud.  Building on and drawing together the work of many colleagues in the sciences, arts, business, health and FES, we are now able to assemble global partnership grant applications addressing many aspects of climate change awareness and policy using methods that are at the forefront of participatory and collaborative research design.  This has come together through Dawn Bazely’s energetic leadership and deep commitment to interdisciplinarity, which is shared across the IRIS Executive, but I fear that the ill-will and deep disillusionment generated by the VPRI’s actions will destroy what many colleagues have worked so hard to build.
As you know, the current Senate process for rechartering ORUs is new, controversial, untested, and has been developed and explained in a fairly opaque way.  There are questions about the extent to which full information has been provided to decision-making committees.  There will almost certainly be heated debate in Senate when IRIS’s charter is discussed.
I urge you to exert your formal and informal leadership at York to advocate the renewal of IRIS’s charter for two to three years, as the external review panel recommended, so that we can get on with pressing and important sustainability research.
Patricia E. (Ellie) Perkins

Dawn’s 2008 Vision for IRIS

When I took on the IRIS directorship, part of the to-do list was to steer the sustainability research centre through a senate rechartering process.

I already well knew that sustainability research and teaching is a messy space that people argue about in terms of how to do it and teach it. I was asked to develop a personal vision, based on my first 2 years in the job.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m posting this vision here. I took a lot of advice from different people in crafting it, including, my doctorate supervisor, Lord John Krebs. I met with him in Oxford University, in 2006 to discuss my impending directorship of IRIS and my involvement in the arctic human security project that evolved into the International Polar Year research GAPS project, under the leadership of Prof. Gunhild Hoogensen. Our long gestating book, Environmental and Human Security in the Arctic, has just come out!

John gave me two main pieces of advice:

1. Make sure that you get adequate institutional support… well, hmmmm.

2. Use fewer words to make your sustainability case, or you will lose the STEM people. I’ve definitely improved on number 2.

“Dawn Bazely’s PERSONAL vision for IRIS May 2008

The confusion and debate about the role of academia in society never ends.  When I started doing field-work in 1980, my family could not understand why I did not take a nice summer job with Ontario Hydro.  Every spring, friends from outside of the ivory tower wish me well for my summer holiday, just as I am launching into a field season of 16-hour work days, and congratulate me for having landed a job with paid summers off!

The need to explain the research activities that run alongside the more widely known coursework component of universities is a constant.  So is the tension that I have faced inside the academy over my interest in “applied” as opposed to “pure” ecology research.  And then there are those three degrees, in Biogeography & Environmental Studies, Botany and Zoology.  I often encountered fellow graduate students who clearly felt that I somehow lacked depth in their specific field of biology. My training and academic experience have always been about merging the boundaries between teaching and research and seeking inter-disciplinarity for myself.  From this comes my vision.

“The prevailing model of academic scholarship is highly individualistic. Career success, as defined in the context of the standard Tenure and Promotion and peer-reviewed research frameworks, is driven by the goal to write THE first paper on a subject, or to produce THE seminal book. The drive to stake intellectual territory is practically a biological imperative among ALL academics who publish actively, that I know. This is unsurprising – the production of new knowledge and the notion of intellectual property are the de facto widgets of the academy. 

 However, with over 6 billion people on earth  (, like many other applied ecologists, I believe that we face some rather pressing issues that are finally affecting every single human on the planet – even the buffered few who control most of the resources.  The need to forge teams of researchers and research alliances that can address the multiple facets of complex problems is obvious.  But, this research approach is antithetical to the prevailing model for doing business in the academy. 

 I see IRIS as being a place and space where this second kind of research model can gain ground in the area of sustainability.  I see IRIS-based and supported projects as mapping out ways of both honouring the contribution of individual researchers, while allowing them to be part of collaborative, intellectually stimulating, research teams.  Ultimately, Tenure and Promotion files and peer-reviewing would respond to this shift, especially for junior faculty members.  To put it succinctly, it’s time for academics to stop knowing more and more about less and less, and to model more mutualistic (+/+) and less competitive (+/-) behaviour, because we all sink or swim together.” (I wrote the latter before I read an interview with R. K. Pachauri, Chair of IPCC, at the Gstaad Project).

This is not an original idea.  I have had many great discussions about the challenges at IRIS specifically, and sustainability and interdisciplinarity in general, with colleagues as diverse as Lord John Krebs and Roy Bhaskar, the philosopher and developer of Critical Realism.  Plus, tons of other universities are establishing centres such as IRIS, including Columbia University (Earth Institute).  Just google “sustainability research centre”. “

Justin Podur: Five reasons not to close IRIS

by Justin Podur, April 26/14

2014-02-04 14.46.54A few months ago, I was asked to take a survey by York University’s Institute for   Research and Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS). The last question asked for a brainstorm of ideas about research that I would like to do through IRIS if I could. I came up with an idea to study York’s campus as an ecosystem – what wildlife use the campus, for what purposes, how much biodiversity existed on the campus, and what could we do differently if we saw the campus as wildlife habitat? (Maybe I was unknowingly tuned into the Homegrown National Park idea currently underway by the Suzuki foundation). It was one of the many ideas that come up and don’t end up amounting to much. But then, typical of my interactions with IRIS, a friendly and persistent student working on organizing these into research projects kept following up with me until I agreed to supervise such a project if one or two students were willing and interested to take it on, and the plan was hatched to start the project later in the summer.

But then, a couple of days ago (the day after earth day), I heard that instead, York’s Vice-President of Research plans to not renew IRIS’s charter, closing it down instead. A few reasons arise as to why closing IRIS is a bad idea.

1. It is hard to claim we don’t need sustainability research. Indeed, the VP of Research isn’t trying to claim we don’t need sustainability. In a reply to IRIS director Dawn Bazely (who resigned upon hearing the news), the VPRI wrote that “sustainability research continues to be both a strength and area of opportunity for the University and the VPRI is committed to promoting the strategic development of this area of research across the University. We will shortly be announcing a task force to identify and examine options and develop innovative ideas for highlighting and further building York University’s research strengths in sustainability within the broad area of Public Engagement for a Just and Sustainable World”. The logic is difficult to follow. This affirmation of the values, principles, and work of IRIS, comes simultaneously with an announcement of its closure.

2. Value for money. As Andrew Tanentzap, who held a fellowship at York U before becoming a faculty member at Cambridge in the UK, noted in his letter to the VPRI, “Given that IRIS has been essentially operating on no University funding, I can’t see why you would not recharter it.  IRIS produces a modest number of research outputs, attracts considerable funding and media attention, and certainly promotes the the YU brand very heavily.” Tanentzap reports that Cambridge has created an interdisciplinary institute on sustainability and conservation modeled on IRIS. The idea is needed. It’s working. It’s being adopted by other institutions. How could the logical conclusion be to close it?

3. It is arbitrary. The external reviewers report, like every external review, includes praise, criticisms, and recommendations. Overall, the recommendation is for a re-chartering (read pg. 11 especially). The reviewers recommend a clear commitment, either from the VPRI or a consortium of faculties, to provide core funding for IRIS’s operations. If the external review had not recommended rechartering, it would be understandable for IRIS supporters to challenge that recommendation, to ensure that the reviewers had all the relevant information and context. But given that the reviewers recommended re-chartering, how could their report be used to justify closing IRIS?

4. It is demoralizing. The decision comes as a major exercise in academic prioritization is underway, which IRIS, as an organized research unit (ORU), would have been participating in. That exercise, the AAPR has been subjected to some very well-informed and insightful criticism. In the coming academic year, the university will be changing its budget model to what’s called Activity-Based Budgeting (in other places it’s been called Responsibility Center Management). These changes have left many in the university community feeling anxious and afraid about the future. No one knows what is going to happen with these changes – and the combination of multiple big changes promises some truly unpredictable outcomes – but a natural question that arises is, why not wait for the information that comes out of these major exercises before making a decision to close a unit?

The decision also comes after an extensive search process for a new director for IRIS, into which many people in the community invested – not least the candidates themselves. The reviewers recommended giving the new director a few years to see how things were going. Why close IRIS after all that?

5. Aren’t various levels of government doing enough to kick sustainability? Despite the affirmations of the continuing importance of sustainability to York accompanying the announcement, the message sent by closing the campus’s interdisciplinary research institute on sustainability is the same one being sent by the federal government and all too many other levels of government in North America: that the planet isn’t especially important. This message has done real damage to our society’s capacity to deal with climate change, extinctions, and other crises that need more study, attention, and action. Even if it’s accompanied by a statement that sustainability still matters at York, could anyone looking at this decision see this as anything other than more of the same?