U of T falls through the ranks

U of T’s prestige endured a withering assault last week from the international ranking of the Times Higher Education Supplement, which knocked the university to 45th overall in the world, down from 27th in 2006. The THES, based in the U.K. issues an annual report of the top 200 universities worldwide. One of the most watched publications on higher education, the annual survey is heavily reported on throughout the world.

It uses the following weight distributions to assign scores: peer review score (40 per cent), number of citations earned in research papers (20 per cent), review of graduates by employers (10 per cent), proportion of international faculty members and students (5 per cent each), and faculty/ student ratio (20 per cent),.

As are many school ranking schemes, this system has been critized heavily for aggregating dissimilar data (combining research citations with international complements, for instance), and boiling down each university’s performance to a single number. For this very reason, U of T’s administration has refused for the past two years to participate in Maclean’s magazine’s Canadian university survey (which nonetheless recently rated U of T fourth overall in its category).

Professor George Luste of the University of Toronto Faculty Association commented on the large fluctuations in rank seen by some of the schools on the list, and how it is difficult to derive any significant meaning from the report. U of T’s 18-spot drop was not the only precipitous decline: UC Berkeley also fell drastically from last year. It went from eighth place in 2006 down to 22nd. Luste, like many university members, views the survey with a critical eye.

“To me it says there’s something screwy about their measurement process, university reputations and quality do not just change on that time scale from year to year that much,” Luste said.

Ontario Under Siege: European frog-bit

The story of European frog-bit’s introduction and spread in North America follows a pattern common to many invasive species: intended for cultivation in a controlled setting, they escape and spread rapidly at the expense of native species.

European frog-bit is an invasive aquatic plant that grows in stagnant or slowmoving bodies of water, infesting lakes, marshes, swamps, and streams. It has become a dominant species in many wetland ecosystems in eastern North America.

Found widely in Europe and certain parts of Asia, European frog-bit was first imported into Canada from Switzerland in 1932. It was cultivated at the Arboretum of the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. By 1939, the plant escaped the Arboretum and wild populations were spotted on the Rideau Canal. By 1952, it had reached the Montreal area, and was observed on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie by the 1980s.

Invasive species are successful because they possess traits that give them a competitive advantage in a new environment. European frog-bit has submerged roots and horizontal stems called “stolons.” Rather than embed in the sediment at the lake bottom, the roots intertwine underwater, allowing the plants to aggregate in dense, free-floating colonies. This ability for dense growth is the plant’s main advantage. Unfortunately, the thick layer of foliage formed on the water’s surface reduces the amount of light, nutrients, and dissolved gases available to native plants growing under the surface.

Besides monopolizing vital resources, European frog-bit is also able to spread rapidly due to its reproductive strategies. Typically, the species reproduces asexually as new plants grow out of the tips of the stolons. This mechanism allows entire colonies to establish when pieces of stolon— which naturally break off—are carried to new locations by water currents. This kind of reproduction, also known as “vegetative reproduction,” is a characteristic of many invasive species. It offers a competitive advantage, allowing new individuals to produce at a much faster rate compared to sexually reproductive plants.

In the autumn, European frog-bit also uses a variation of asexual reproduction specific to aquatic plants, in which specialized buds known as “turions” are formed. The turions fall off the plant and sink to the sediment below, where they spend the winter in dormancy. Once spring arrives, the buds float back towards the surface and start developing into new plants. Since up to 100 turions can be released from a single adult individual, turion production contributes to the species’ high reproductive rate, helping it quickly take over a particular area.

Currently, there are no known control measures to combat the European frog-bit invasion, and it is extremely difficult to destroy an established colony. The most effective way to stem the spread of the species is to prevent the extent of new populations. Like zebra mussels, European frog-bit can reach new locations by attaching itself to boats and other watercraft. Cleaning watercraft before moving between bodies of water is an important tactic used to control outbreaks. Waterways and wetlands should also be monitored regularly for new population outbreaks, and any frog-bit that appears should be quickly removed and correctly disposed of, ideally before autumn, so that turions do not have the chance to form and disperse.

Now screening at York: Noam Chomsky

The famous intellectual Noam Chomsky enjoyed a warm welcome at York University on Friday, even though he was there as a disembodied torso. Unable to attend in person, the linguist and sometime political theorist spoke to a packed auditorium for over an hour via video conference.

He spoke without notes, hunched in front of a nondescript wall somewhere at MIT. Students, though, were enthused: so many wanted to come that the event had had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the demand.

Event organizer Jennifer Rego was effervescent. “It was completely a success to have a packed house of approximately 600 people,” she said. Rego had reason to be happy—it took her and two other York students several months of emails and a trip to Boston to convince Chomsky to speak. “Persistence was our friend,” she explained. “He was enamoured by our initiative and he agreed.”

“I thought it was really interesting,” first-year U of T law student Brendan McCutchen said. “He’s just a really important voice in our society.”

Second-year students Isabel Medel and Tania Lukacsovies made the trek from St. George campus for the event.

“I know he’s an anarchist—I wonder how that will filter into his talk,” Medel said beforehand.

Sadly for Medel, anarchy lost out to the energy crisis in Chosky’s speech. The lecture stuck to three topics the organizers had asked Chomsky to discuss: nuclear weapons, DNA and biomass.

Chomsky listed the virtues of biomass, or organic byproducts, as a viable alternative energy source. He supported the idea in theory, but was quick to condemn the current U.S. pursuit of corn-produced ethanol, which he called “unfeasible economically” and likely to bring high tariffs against cheaper corn from other countries. According to Chomsky, this would ultimately drive up the cost of agricultural products and harm poor countries, with major agricultural companies as the only beneficiaries.

Energy policy provided a segue into Chomsky’s discussion of the socalled “DNA revolution” that brings the possibility to design energy-creating organisms. Modified organisms could have benefits, but the consequences could be dire, leading to, for example, bioweapons used by subnational entities.

The bulk of Chomsky’s talk concerned nuclear proliferation. He repeatedly stressed the “enormous gulf between public opinion and public policy.”

The treaties in place now are so widely violated that even today the “threat of something close to terminal destruction by nuclear war is very high,” said Chomsky.

He ran through a list of examples of how U.S. policy undermines global nuclear stability, such as a hardline approach to the newly-nuclear Iran and North Korea from the Bush administration.

Chomsky ended on a hopeful note, preaching public action on environmental degradation, corporate tyrannies, and government bullying.

“Students have played a leading role in protest and activism, and movements to progressive social change,” he said.

Manifest destiny: Kudzu and cheatgrass slowly creep north

We’ve undoubtedly transformed the earth through the extensive use of fossil fuels, but uncertain are the longterm effects that climate change will bring with it. An important—and most certainly overlooked—side effect of warmer climates is the advance of invasive species.

These species take advantage of warmer temperatures to spread beyond their natural habitats—opportunists in every sense of the word. Dr. Rowan Sage, a professor at the University of Toronto, works with invasive plants. He is currently researching the spread of kudzu and cheatgrass, two species that were intentionally introduced to the United States.

Kudzu, native to eastern Asia, was introduced in 1876 as a forage crop and ornamental plant. Farmers in the 1930s were encouraged to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion, but under ideal climate conditions in the southwestern United States, the plant grew out of control and was officially named a pest weed in 1953. Normally, this pest weed would not be able to grow for long in Canada’s harsh climate. However, due to warmer winters and longer summers, kudzu is quickly becoming a potential threat.

Sage studies plant physiology and mechanisms of plant response to global climate change. More specifically, he looks at the mechanisms affecting productivity, competition, and species distribution.

“We’ve been studying kudzu to identify the physiological controls on its distribution and to ask a question: will it be a serious pest in Canada in the very near future? Will the climate warming that we’ve experienced and we will experience allow the kudzu to establish here?” he said.

After monitoring kudzu on a rooftop greenhouse at U of T’s Earth Science Centre, Sage found the plants did not die until late December. Due to increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, as well as increasing nutrient deposition from agricultural fertilizers, the kudzu plant has responded well to human activities across urban landscapes.

Kudzu is becoming more aggressive as it rapidly responds to changes in the global climate. In North America, kudzu is not subject to its native land’s usual biological controls, such as the predatory insects that prevent uncontrolled proliferation. It can overtake trees and fields, eroding entire forests and conquering established ecosystems by outcompeting native plant species.

Kudzu continues to climb northwards into the Mohawk River Valley in New York and is predicted to reach southern Canada within 10 to 15 years. A warmer winter in the Niagara region could jeopardize the state of its wineries, the area’s biggest agricultural enterprise.

As it turns out, geography has a lot to do with the problem of invasive plants.

“In Eastern Canada, we’re lucky because we have some significant geographical barriers—the great lakes and the St. Lawrence River,” said Sage. But, “because of the high level of commerce we have, there is an excellent probability it will come over the border, so you have to take more stringent measures.”

Cheatgrass is another invasive plant, spreading in western parts of North America, including British Columbia. It is interfering with winter wheat and other crops.

Fine, feathery, and brown, cheatgrass competes for moisture with other plant species by maturing quickly in the spring. In turn, this plant dries up quickly and becomes a fuel source for wildfires. Left uncontrolled, these fires can wipe out other vegetation and also pose a threat to rural communities.

The potency of pests increases in foreign environments where they become “super-invaders,” suppressing all native vegetation and resulting in an ecosystem collapse. Water and atmospheric quality decrease, dust and particulates are suspended in the air, and soil terrain becomes more susceptible to erosion.

Benefits of preventional measures easily outweigh the cost of dealing with invasive species once they arrive. With frequent commercial trading between the U.S. and Canada, monitoring the cross-border movement of invasive species becomes crucial.

“California has a very strict quarantine system in place,” Sage said. “At all the entry points on the highways, there are quarantine stations where you have to stop and declare anything you might have that’s a problem, mostly fruits and vegetable—so everybody there knows you can’t take certain things in.”

Canada has a program addressing this issue, but its aim is elsewhere:

“It’s more focused on keeping stuff out from Europe and Asia than it is dealing with what might be lurking out in the U.S.,” said Sage.

Critics say areas with problematic plant species should enforce more rigid quarantine measures. Border controls should also have stricter policies for importing soils and checking construction equipment, which can bring in unwanted plant seeds. The public should be made aware of the appearance of the invasive species and how to avoid their spread.

“Our hope, with this work, is that the Canadian government will institute more severe controls on kudzu and many other invasive species that are potentially moving up from the south,” said Sage.

But the professor appeared grim about the odds against plants such as kudzu and cheatgrass.

“Once you can actually see global warming, it’s probably too late— same with bio-invasives.”

Queen’s gives OUSA three more years

Seventy per cent of undergraduate students at Queen’s University have voted to remain members of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance for another three years, after the student union organization fee came up for mandatory renewal in last week’s fall referendum, held by Queen’s Alma Mater Society. One of OUSA’s founding members in 1992, Queen’s AMS parted ways with the alliance in 1995 but rejoined in 2004, when students passed over the larger, better-known, Canadian Federation of Students.

According to Joey Coleman, a Macleans.ca blogger on education, OUSA suits the structure of Queen’s large and policy-focused student union, whereas those of CFS schools are smaller and more political.

OUSA has a strong research and policy implementation record, calling itself member-driven, as members make their own lobbying decisions. OUSA also has a history of forming relationships with government officials and bureaucrats.

However, CFS represents over 250,000 students in Ontario, 80 student unions across the country, and has a strong track record in attracting media attention for lobbying campaigns.

Last week, the university-produced Queen’s Journal published an article by Queen’s official representative to OUSA, Julia Mitchell, attacking CFS’s operational tactics and lobbying strategies. Mitchell wrote that the CFS’s messages are about “flashy taglines, not implementable ideas,” and that their tactics “have lost them a great deal of credibility in the eyes of both voters and decision-makers.”

The allegations in the piece left CFS’s Ontario chairperson, Jen Hassum, fuming and in shock. “It’s laughable to think that the Canadian Federation of Students doesn’t have credibility, and it’s essentially not the reality of what students are working on across the country.” she said.

Coleman said he believes CFS and OUSA are two halves of a whole, and both are necessary for effective student lobbying. According to Mitchell,suggestions that Queen’s AMS join both OUSA and CFS have never been seriously considered.

Using tough toads for biological control— and failing

The Bufo marinus is perhaps the most well-known invasive organism. It is seen either as a successful colonizer, or as an extreme nuisance with the potential to devastate an ecosystem. This species, more commonly known as the cane toad, has invaded many countries, most famously Australia.

The cane toad is originally native to Central and South America. Imported to other countries for the toad’s effective control of pests that devastate sugar cane, cane toads now form naturalized populations in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Barbados, and Hawaii.

The cane toad integrated itself smoothly into ecosystems when introduced to Hawaii in 1932. Meanwhile, sugar crops in Australia were under attack by greyback and Frenchi beetles. These insects’ larvae feed on the roots of sugar cane plants, causing the plants to collapse. Because of the successful introduction of the cane toad in Hawaii, optimistic Australian naturalists brought a number of toads into Queensland, Australia as a preliminary experiment. Over 40,000 young toads were released into the wild in August 1935.

This optimism proved naïve when the toads’ introduction severely impacted the Australian ecosystem. Because the toad has no natural enemies on the continent, the population grew unchecked. Though there are few objective reports of the extent of the devastation, the effects on predators are well known. Native snakes have been virtually eliminated from toad-infested areas because of the poison that coats the toads’ skin. One study estimates that 30 per cent of Australia’s snake species will be at risk by 2030. The toads are also blamed for the decrease in waterfowl in Australian swamps.

They might not even have performed their intended task. The seasonal habits of the toads and the beetles they are supposed to consume do not match up properly. The toads usually only emerge when the beetles are old enough to fly and escape the toads. Most Australian sugar cane fields now use chemical pesticides for pest control.

Historically, cane toads in Australia were also used for a practical— if slightly curious—purpose: the detection of human pregnancy. Hormones in the urine of a pregnant woman, when injected under a toad’s skin, stimulate sperm cell release in the toad. Toad pregnancy detection was commonplace in Australia up until 1965.

So what state are the cane toads in now? One research group in Australia found that the most rapidly advancing toads are evolving longer legs. This might be good news for pest control, because the toads are also developing arthritis in their longer limbs. Some species of birds in Australia have also learned to attack the toads’ bellies instead of their heads, where the poisonous glands are. These might be reasons for the toad’s slower-than-expected spread westward across the island continent.

There is an urgent need for methods to control the cane toad population, so scientists and naturalists must be creative. The move to build a cross-national fence was widely criticized because of the cost. Also, if even a few toads crossed the barrier, they would breed easily, making the effort useless and wasteful. Male sterilization was considered, but also found to be too expensive and not effective enough. Right now, the best potential strategy seems to be biological control, such as the introduction of a virus or parasite that would naturally control the toad population. But this solution could cause further problems. After all, the introduction of a new species to control a pest is what started the whole mess in the first place.

Editorial: Black-focused schools a mistake

It should not come as a revelation that Toronto’s black students face challenges that other young people do not. It is estimated that at 16 years old, more than half of this city’s young black males have fallen behind in school, and as a result, they are much more likely to drop out.

In one way or another, our education system is failing these kids. The situation is so dire that the Toronto District School Board is seriously considering creating “black-focused” schools to cater specifically to the needs of the city’s black students. This would be a huge mistake.

Creating “afrocentric” schools will only entrench the cultural barriers that the TDSB is looking to address. A separate school system will divide students into artificial categories that do not reflect the realities of their identities or backgrounds.

The idea that all Toronto’s black people share a common heritage and therefore should share the same education is ludicrous. The term “African- Canadian” is completely inadequate because it ignores the incredibly diverse backgrounds of black people in this city. Are we to believe that people from Jamaica, Zimbabwe, France, or Halifax share the same culture simply because they have the same skin colour? To lump together all black people would be to accept the fundamental basis of all racist ideologies—that culture is essentially biological. That what someone believes, or how someone acts or learns, is basically ingrained in their genetic lineage.

The TDSB has already begun piloting “afrocentric” social studies courses to teach students in grades six, seven, and eight about African culture. Considering Africa is a continent made up of dozens of countries, thousands of language groups, and millions of people, it is difficult to understand what is meant by “African culture.” Students who go to existing black-focused schools in the U.S. are taught Swahili rituals. This seems ridiculous when one considers that most black Americans trace their lineage to West or Central Africa, not East Africa, where Swahili is spoken. In creating an “afrocentric” curriculum, the TDSB seems to imply that the 900 million people of the African continent share a common culture.

The belief that vague, artificial categories like “African” can define an individual are precisely the misconceptions that put black students at a disadvantage. Our school board should not reinforce these ideas.

Proponents of black-focused schools say it is vital to teach black students that black people in this country can and have been successful, that they can contribute to society and to history just as anyone else can. But isn’t it equally important that students of all backgrounds learn this lesson? Maybe if the history of the world’s numerous black and African societies were better understood by everyone in Canada, our teachers wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss black students as incapable. Our schools need to change. They desperately need to address the high dropout rates of black students, but this should be done through specialized, community-sepcific curricula, not ones based solely on race and a vague idea of “African culture.”

All members of society contribute to the ideas and attitudes that hold these students back, and accordingly changes should come to every school in the city. We all need to learn that “black” or “white” or “African” doesn’t adequately describe the culture, needs, or abilities of anyone.

Paris lights up Laurier

When a team has won their first two games of the season, it’s difficult to argue that they’ve lost more than they have gained. But after starting point guard Mike Degiorgio left Saturday’s game against Laurier with an injury, the Blues were faced with a major loss to their long term objectives. Degiorgio, the remaining starter from last years team is a dynamic point guard and brings everything one could desire: leadership, court awareness, and basketball IQ. Already without 2006 starters Ben Katz, Mike Williams, Mohammad Safarzadeh, and Dwayne Grant, who have maxed out their elgibility. Degiorgio, also currently in his last season with the Blues, was the one player the team could not afford to lose.

“Mike’s a leader at the point, and we had to struggle [during Saturday’s game] to find leadership and guys who could make plays. I’m concerned because we have to find or develop somebody who can play the point guard psoition,” said Blues head coach Mike Katz.

The Blues might get a taste of life without Degiorgio earlier than expected. as the ankle injury he sustained over the weekend may keep him out of games against Lakehead and McMaster this week. The Blues could have a completely new starting lineup from 2006, as they hit the road against some tough opponents. “Every road game is going to be difficult no matter where it is, so this trip should test our mettle,” said Katz following Saturday’s 73-64 win over Laurier. Without Degiorgio, Blues backcourt partner Rob Paris stepped up big time for the Blues. Paris, who won tournament MVP during the Naismith Cup tournament in exhibition play, scored 22 points on an efficient 10-16 shooting. After the game he was quick to shower praise on his teammates “I thought our big guys played exceptionally well. Nick Snow, Ahmed Nazmi and Andrew Wasik can crash the boards with the best of them. Their rebounding is very important for our team , as many of our Guards rely on their rebounding for easy transition baskets,” he said. Paris benefited from quick outlet passes from Toronto forwards as he leaked out on the break for easy baskets. He also hit two key three pointers late in the game to keep Toronto ahead. His defensive zone coverage was just as important, he was a ball hawk on defence and finsihed the game with two blocks and one steal.

Paris will have to shine again this weekend if Mike Degiorgio does not suit up for the Blues. Degiorgio who had a near-triple-double [12 points, eight rebounds, and 12 assists] against Waterloo in the Friday opener is the catalyst for the Blues offence.

Without the fifth-year point guard handling running the offence on Saturday, the Blues seemed out of sync at times. The Golden Hawks, who trailed 19-5 to begin the game, would capitalize trimming Toronto’s early lead to 19-16. Nick Maglas was thrust into Degiorgio’s role as ball distributor and played admirably. With the score 37-21 in the second quarter, he executed an excellent pick-and-roll that forward Drazen Glisic finished with a lay up. He also had a productive game overall with seven points, five rebounds and five assists. But his new role took him away from his strength of scoring and hitting shots from the perimeter, as he shot an uncharacteristic 3-12 from the field. On Saturday Laurier proved to be a young and inexperienced team. With a11 players in their first and second years, they relied mainly on their length and athleticism to keep the game close. They hounded Toronto with full-court pressure, forcing 18 Blues turnovers, and kept pace in rebounds with their more experienced opponent 36-39. In the end Toronto relied on brains over brawn, using smart play and good ball movement on offense to get easy baskets and open shots. The Blues had 21 assists to only 11 for the Golden Hawks, and shot 50 per cent from the field to 35.1 for their opponents. With the win the Blues are now 2-0 to begin the season. It was Laurier’s first trip to Toronto in 2007, but after their loss this weekend dropped them to 0-3 on the year, they will have a hard time forgetting Paris as well.