Ontario report urges undergrads-only university

A new university focusing on undergraduate education should be created in the GTA, according to a report from Ontario’s advisory board on higher education. The report calls on the province to consider the creation of a Toronto-area free of the research intensity of a full-service institution.

The study comes on the heels of what education leaders say is an excess demand for spaces in undergraduate studies. With growing interest in post-secondary education fuelling an expected increase of 25,000 students to the GTA over the next 15 years, the document urges the province to consider opening a new university to quell the demand.

Since the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario released the 30-page report on Feb. 13, it has met with criticism from the president of Humber College, who views it as a “very university-centered view of the world.” Officials from Toronto’s three major universities, however, praised the idea of a new undergraduate university, saying they cannot handle the increased demand for higher education.

The new campus-based institution would focus mainly on arts and science with more emphasis on teaching then research. Those seeking the quality and reputation of a “full-service” university need not worry, said co-author Glen Jones, an OISE professor. “There are quite a number of very highly respected liberal arts colleges in the United States that provide an excellent undergraduate education,” Jones said.

An open online university without academic requirements for applicants is another option the province could take. Jones said an online university provides accessibility to those who work full time, have credit-transfer issues, or are returning to their education. The report cites Athabaska University in Alberta, which provides a virtual campus for students to attend online from any location. “The fact that almost a third of the students enrolled at Athabaska University are from Ontario says something about demand,” said Jones.

He acknowledged only a limited number of students seek online education: “I would not imagine that the open university would attract many traditional students who are interested in a traditional on-campus student experience.”

The possibility of online schooling has its supporters. “We go to school to learn, not to party,” said George Bolduc, a former online student of Ryerson University. He said that open online universities offer something to students who want post-secondary education without the traditional campus experience or costs. The report doesn’t mention fees, but for some universities that already follow the online model, the annual tuition costs are usually lower, because they forgo campus commodities like residence or extra-curricular activities.

The report suggests expanding existing universities by upping satellite campus enrolment. U of T’s president David Naylor, however, said he supported the suggestion for a new undergraduate university over expansion. “We welcome the proposal for a new undergraduate institution with laser-like focus on the liberal arts,” he told the Toronto Star. Naylor said that both of U of T’s satellite campuses are already stretched to the limit.

Urban moods and urban myths

While the Gladstone Hotel seems an unlikely setting for a symposium on mental health and neighbourhoods, the Queen West staple recently served just that purpose. With pitchers circulating amongst the sardine-packed crowd and a panel of distinguished experts at the head of the room, this Tuesday night dubbed “Science On Tap” was far from the average auditorium talk.

“We have a social epidemiologist, a human geographer, a psychiatrist—and I’m a philosopher,” said discussion moderator and U of T professor Mark Kingwell. “With the four of us together, we can solve any problem.”

Bold words, considering the issue at hand: an attempt to answer how the neighbourhoods we live in shape the way we feel and think.

In this year’s first instalment of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health’s (CRICH) Café Scientifique series, the discussion addressed the issue of why neighbourhoods matter for our mental well-being. Panellists Patricia O’Campo, a social epidemiologist, Jim Dunn, a human geographer, and psychiatrist Kwame McKenzie discussed the current research concerning the topic. Drawing from multiple disciplines, the dialogue encompassed issues of affordable housing, health equity, social justice, and the question of how to measure the links between mental health and neighbourhoods.

But what do we mean by the term neighbourhood? According to Dunn, neighbourhoods are, in the practical sense, defined by physical boundaries used in statistical population sampling. They also include a social dimension, the primary focus of current research. Social definitions of neighbourhood include elements of community, cohesiveness, and proximity to services.

“It’s a state of mind,” said McKenzie, whose research explores the effects of diversity on mental well being. “Things that cause you stress in your neighbourhood are bad for your mental health.”

According to O’Campo, who specializes in urban ecosystems and the societal causes of disease, additional factors between neighbourhoods and mental health include noise level, crime, traffic, green space, and neighbour interaction.

On top of these factors, Dunn emphasized that the way your neighbourhood aligns with your identity is crucial for your mental health. Positive mental health is associated with a certain level of stability in the sense of who you are.

This is important to consider when analysing the effects of immigration and cultural diversity on neighbourhoods. According to McKenzie, if you’re a member of a visible minority in a neighbourhood with little diversity, you’re at a higher risk of developing a mental illness.

With factors ranging from cultural diversity to traffic volume, it comes as no surprise that studying neighbourhoods and mental health has proven difficult. Research in the past decade has focused on the rediscovery of geographical space as a key factor in psychological well-being.

Looking back at some of the housing disasters that plagued mid-century modern architecture, researchers recognize the important connections between the space we live in and our degree of mental health. The concept of vertical slum pathologies has emphasized the link between the poor design of physical space and detrimental social and mental states. In fact, statistics show that residents on higher floors in apartment buildings are at a greater risk of mental illness. In contrast, greater contact with nature has proven to be beneficial. Studies in environmental psychology have shown that even nature videos of can produce positive physiological response.

These findings are at the forefront of efforts to introduce better planning, design, and green space into cities like Toronto. What’s more, studies regarding ethnic diversity and its impact on community cohesion are proving to be very significant to large cities with multicultural markets. According to Dunn, “the lessons we learn in Toronto are lessons we can export to other world capitals.” With any luck, these lessons will be coming soon to a neighbourhood near you.

CKLN sues Ryerson, student union

The protracted conflict at CKLN, Ryerson’s radio station, has born a slew of lawsuits with plaintiffs and defendants in not only former and current staff, but the Ryerson Students’ Union and the university itself. CKLN has had two boards of directors since February, when 90 per cent of staff, students, volunteers, and donors who voted opted to oust the board. A brand-new board was elected, but the first board refused to acknowledge the election.

More than 50 volunteers and employees have been dismissed since, many protesting their dismissal and criticizing the station’s actions as undemocratic. The RSU is withholding funds from the station until the two boards come to an agreement. Now, the board in possession of the station is demanding the funds. CKLN normally receives $50,000 annually, from a student levy where every undergraduate pays $2.75.

“We’ll fight it all the way. That, or move to another school,” CKLN staffer Daibhid James told Ryerson newspaper the Eyeopener. “Bottom line is it’s our money, they have no right to do this.”

RSU president Muhammad Ali Jabbar said he simply doesn’t know who to give the money to. “Right now, there are two people who are coming to me and saying, ‘I’m the right CKLN,’ well, no ‘I’m the legal CKLN.’” Jabbar rejected the idea that CKLN is in great need of more money and said the board in charge have enough to run the station.

Don Weitz, former host of Antipsychiatry Radio, is suing former station director Mike Phillips and program director Tony Barnes for wrongful dismissal and unjust treatment.

“I put in hundreds of hours,” said Weitz. “And this is what I get for it? I’m not going to take this lying down.” According to Weitz, Phillips, Barnes, and their lawyer failed to show up on Feb. 2 for their mediation in small claims court. Weitz is determined to continue the lawsuit, though he awaits Phillips and Barnes’ next move.

Tony Barnes declined to comment on the case.

U of T fencing makes mincemeat of the competition

This past weekend, the clang of steel resonated throughout the field house. Dressed in dark blue suits, referees prompted, “Allez.” Fencers in crisp, white nylon jackets and breeches zipped back and forth across pistes. But where, pray tell, were the bleachers full of fans cheering on the Varsity team at the 2009 OUA Fencing Championships?

Fencing has a reputation as a stuffy, snooty sport that’s mistakenly grouped with limp pastimes like croquet. But there’s nothing limp about fencing. “It wouldn’t be a fencing tournament if you didn’t lose your voice,” called out Hilary Graydon to a combative Sam Goddard as he cheered on his épée teammates.

Even if Errol Flynn and Zorro didn’t figure heavily into your formative years, there’s a certain cerebral allure in fencing. “I was attracted to the fact that [fencing] requires a pretty unique combination of physical prowess and mental strategy, which is why it is sometimes referred to, quite accurately, as physical chess,” notes foil coach Jed Blackburn.

Varsity fencers successfully straddled this combination of prowess and strategy to win big at the championships.

U of T loomed large over the competition coming out of the OUA qualifiers, where all six teams qualified, building the momentum and confidence necessary to take the double banner at the championships.

The women’s team checked in their weapons at 7:45 a.m. on Valentine’s Day, prepared to prove that all is fair in love and war. The morning started with a round robin of individual bouts in which U of T dominated the ranks.

Épée and foil matches saw U of T fencers rise to the top rankings and square off against another in the finals. Épée captain Hilary Peden took the gold medal and épéeist Joanna Ko garnered silver, but not without first succumbing to an attack from a preceding bout that left her vomiting. Foil captain Claire Midgley took silver, while Mandy Lau won gold. On a piste at the other end of the field house, sabreuse Allison Doyle boldly lunged at her opponents, taking gold in her weapon class.

Coach Jed Blackburn boasts that “by winning gold in both individual and team events in all three weapons, combined with several silver medals and strong individual performances by all team members, they were probably the most successful women’s fencing team in U of T’s history.”

After lunch, the Varsity women’s team led a sweep and secured gold medals in all three weapons and the OUA banner. Coach Ken Wood attributes their success to this being “one of those exceptional years when all team members were peaking at the same time.”

The day ended with some due ribaldry as the girls hoisted head coach and OUA coach of the year Tom Nguyen and doused him with a cooler full of water.

The next morning, the men’s team gathered to take on the competition. There was a marked contrast in how the men played—while the women played patient and cunning matches, the men’s style was showier and more forceful.

Foil finals were especially suspenseful. Dressed in red track suits, the Royal Military College Paladins formed a daunting crowd behind foilist Sinatrio Raharjo as he stepped on the piste to compete with U of T’s Hans Wolfgramm for the gold medal. RMC had proved to be a formidable opponent throughout that morning. Fencers huddled on the benches beside the piste to cheer on Wolfgramm, who sported a d’Artagnan mustache and won the Charles Walter trophy this year and last. Both players saluted coaches and the referee, Olympic fencer Josh McGwyer, with their swords and lowered their masks. Raharjo bounced lightly back and forth as Wolfgramm made careful, measured steps, testing his opponent. There were deft displays of skill that ended in a frenzied finale—a sudden death tie-breaker. The first player to score a point would win the match. McGwyer tossed a coin. Hans Wolfgramm received priority. He lunged and struck Raharjo, winning the gold medal.

Before lunch, U of T had grabbed a solid number of medals: sabre silver (Alex Edmonds), épée silver (Andriy Mnih), foil gold (Hans Wolfgramm) and bronze (Kamil Karbonowski).

“Winning the men’s banner was much harder to predict and turned out to be a very close race between the top three teams,” admitted Blackburn.

In team events, U of T won the sabre silver and épée bronze. U of T and RMC faced off again in the tournament’s last game that afternoon, the foil team finals. Wolfgramm, Karbonowski, and teammate David Schacter took turns on the piste. Karbonowski was slated to play the final three minutes. A large crowd gathered on either side of the piste. Points built steadily on either side to much nail-biting, as the bout again came down to a sudden death match. Heart pounding, Karbonowski scored the final touch to win the gold, securing another OUA banner for Toronto.

The double banner is no small feat, considering the obstacles. Ken Wood, who’s been coaching the fencing team for 45 years, laments the small basement salle the team practices in, with congested pistes that leave little elbow room. The stereotype of fencing as an archaic sport doesn’t help to bring out crowds either. However, a strong coaching team, solid individual skills, and team camaraderie contributed to the victory.

What’s most striking is their poise, grit, and tenacity in gaining these quiet victories. Plus, they all look pretty dashing in those fencing uniforms.

The resounding victory may be enough to capture the attention due not only to the team, but to the art of fencing. Embrace your inner snob and show U of T’s fencing team some love.

A martyr for bigoted loudmouths

“There is no such thing as moderate Islam,” proclaimed Geert Wilders confidently to BBC interviewer Stephen Sackur.

The Dutch MP, who made headlines last year with the release of Fitna, his anti-Islamic short, is in the news again for having been denied entry into the UK following a directive by the Home Office. Wilders, who leads Holland’s far right Party for Freedom, had come to screen the film at Britain’s House of Lords following an invitation from Labour Peer Lord Ahmed.

Fitna (an Arabic word, roughly translated as “strife”) is a poorly made, ten-minute short which likens Islam to fascism. It features a series of grisly, disturbing images of the 9/11 attacks and the Madrid and London bombings, accompanied by passages from the Koran. Unsurprisingly, the film elicited a wave of protest from Muslims and other religious groups across Europe, who charged Wilders with inciting hatred. He is currently due to stand trial in The Netherlands, and most Dutch TV networks have refused to show the film.

Wilders accused the UK government of showing “cowardice” and “anti-democracy” for denying his entry—a decision made likely for public safety reasons, given that Wilders has received numerous threats and now requires round-the-clock police protection in his home country.

The xenophobic, ultra-nationalist rhetoric propounded by Wilders and his Party for Freedom represents a conservative worldview that is increasingly popular in Europe. The party won nine of 150 seats in the 2006 Dutch election—making it the country’s third-largest opposition party—on a platform that pandered to domestic fears about immigration and its effects on the job market. But behind the veils of labour protectionism and economic liberalism is a sinister perception of the global relationship between Islam and the West.

Among other things, the party has espoused banning Islamic headgear from public functions, suppressing Islamic education in the country entirely, and working to prevent the “Islamification of the Dutch Nation.” In a speech before Parliament in 2007, Wilders proclaimed: “Islam is the Trojan horse in Europe. If we do not stop Islamification now, Eurabia and Netherabia will just be a matter of time. One century ago, there were approximately 50 Muslims in the Netherlands. Today, there are about one million Muslims in this country. Where will it end? We are heading for the end of European and Dutch civilization as we know it.”

Since his election and the release of his film, Wilders has become a central figure in Europe’s free speech debate, triggered by the infamous Danish cartoons of Muhammad in 2007. Positioning himself as a martyr for free speech, Wilders proclaims anyone who disagrees with him an opponent of social expression. “The film isn’t offensive unless you are a violent Islamist,” he told the BBC after being turned away by British customs last week. Although they claim to champion free speech, Wilders and his supporters would deny Holland’s one million Muslim residents the liberty to practice and express their faith.

In a recent interview circulating on YouTube, Wilders reiterated his anti-immigration stance and his virulent dislike of Islam: “I don’t believe in a moderate Islam, but I do believe if Muslims try to assimilate into Dutch society and take our values to their values, then they should have the same opportunities as you or me. I believe our culture is much better than a retarded Islamic culture.”

It’s a shame that at a time when the boundaries between states are breaking down, when good relations between the Islamic world and the West are more necessary than ever, cultural extremists like Geert Wilders continue to foist their baseless arguments upon us. They portray themselves as martyrs through carefully planned populist appeals and media stunts. Wilders’ right to free speech is not jeopardized: his film is widely available on the Internet, as are his editorials and speeches, and the Fitna screening scheduled for the House of Lords went ahead in his absence. The real question is, why is anybody listening?

Tough finish to a solid season

The University of Toronto Varsity Blues women’s volleyball team began the playoffs with a promising 3-0 victory over the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees (25-20, 25-19, 25-19) Feb. 14 at the Athletic Centre, securing a spot in the OUA quarter-final match.

The first set started with the Blues down by 3-7, but they quickly caught up to gain a 12-11 lead. Kristina Valjas knocked down balls that came her way and Heather Bansley sent strong serves over the net that the Gee-Gees weren’t able to return. The Blues closed the opening game with a score of 25-20.

The team’s focus and effort truly showed in the second game. At the first technical timeout, the Blues were up 8-4, and they continued to widen the gap, leading by 16-9 by the second technical timeout.

The Blues ended the second game without trouble. Bansley closed the game with a strong kill down the middle, allowing the team to total 25-19 for the second set.

“There was pressure starting the game because we knew that it was a quarter-final match and it obviously determined who went to the Final Four tournament […] but we came out strong, and dominated,” said Blues player Dana Collins.

The final set was closely fought. Untimely Blues errors combined with OUA’s top serving specialist Tess Edwards put the Gee-Gees in the lead by 16-11.

Bansley, the OUA’s second best serving specialist, broke their lead when she stepped up to serve. Bansley tallied 10 straight points, including three aces, putting the Blues back up at 22-16. Diane Burrows ended the rally with a game-winning kill, resulting in a final score of 25-19.

Valjas and Burrows tallied 12 kills each, while Bansley tallied eight kills, a game-high of 19 digs and six service aces. Michelle Wood added 12 digs in the game.

Head Coach Kristine Drakich has never failed to take her team to the Final Four match. This is the 20th straight season in which her team has made the semifinals, having won the championship six times.

“In the beginning, [the game] might have been interrupted a little bit, but we stayed strong and stayed focused for the vast majority,” said Coach Drakich. “It was a real team effort and we stayed on path, even though it was challenging at times with the noise and excitement of Ottawa and their strength.”

“We’ve been building to really playing as a team, and we totally came together here and it culminated in this game. There wasn’t anyone who wasn’t focused, wasn’t ready […] everyone had each other’s back,” said Blues player Caley Venn. “The most exciting thing going forward to the Final Four is knowing that we’re ready, we’re together, it’s time.”

Yet the Final Four ended in heartbreak.

On Feb. 20, the Blues lost to the McMaster Marauders in a five-set game (25-23, 21-25, 25-15, 26-28, 15-8).

With the loss, their season came down to a bronze medal game against the Western Mustangs the following day.

While the Blues fought hard against Western, they were unable to secure the win and the medal, falling 3-2 (21-25, 28-26, 25-18, 23-25, 8-15) for a fourth-place finish in the OUA championships.

Who’s afraid of Ahmadinejad? I am, and you should be too

In the February 12 issue of The Varsity, writer Ahmed Mahmoud asserted that Iran poses no real threat to world peace. If only this were the case. The reality is that President Ahmadinejad is pursuing a dangerous nuclear weapons program with a clear target in mind: Israel.

In 2005, Ahmadinejad gave a speech calling for the destruction of Israel. Instead of retracting his infamous statement that Israel should be “wiped off the map,” he continues to use genocidal language while boasting of his goal to eliminate the Jewish state.

In April 2006, Ahmadinejad renewed his verbal attacks, stating that “the Zionist regime is on the road to being eliminated.” In January 2008, Ahmadinejad claimed that “the occupiers’ days are numbered.” Months later, he stated that Iran would “not give up until the corrupt leadership in the world has been obliterated.”

During a 2007 visit to Columbia University, Ahmadinejad dodged questions about whether or not he sought to annihilate Israel. When pressed to respond “yes” or “no,” Ahmadinejad replied, “You ask the question and then you want the answer the way you want to hear it. I ask you, is the Palestinian issue not a question of international importance? Please tell me yes or no.”

Shortly after his visit to Columbia, an interviewer asked the President the same question. Instead of responding, Ahmadinejad requested a short break “for the interpreter.” After the break, he asserted that “the Zionist regime” had nuclear weapons, and that Iran’s uranium enrichment was for “fuel purposes.” Well, that certainly clears things up.

In his article, Mahmoud cites the National Intelligence Estimate’s (NIE) 2007 report on Iran’s nuclear development, which concluded that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003. Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin, experts in the field of nuclear arms, have warned of the consequences of this misleading report on the Iranian nuclear threat. In a New York Times op-ed, they pointed out that Iran’s gas centrifuges have no real civilian purposes. They note that Iran’s nuclear technology “is ideal for producing plutonium for nuclear bombs, but is of little use in an energy program like Iran’s, which does not use plutonium for reactor fuel.” Iran has the fourth-largest oil reserve in the world. The pursuit of nuclear energy should rank far down on its list of priorities.

The NIE report is a dangerous and misleading document that ignores the serious implications of Iran’s continual nuclear development. British intelligence and the United Nations recognized these implications. Soon after the NIE report came out, a British intelligence report concluded that there was a “strong possibility” that Iran would have “the ability to manufacture a nuclear device within a short period of time.” The chief nuclear inspector for the United Nations came to the same conclusion, along with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). After reviewing evidence of Iran’s nuclear technology, the inspector concluded that it was “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon.” A recent IAEA inspection of Iran’s nuclear program revealed that Iran understated by a third the amount of uranium it has enriched, and now has enough to make an atom bomb.

The threats against Israel did not begin with Ahmadinejad, and they will not end with him. Israelis remember all too well a leader whose anti-Semitic rhetoric was ignored until it amounted to genocide. Today, too many people are willing to diminish the threats posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Maybe these threats will turn out to be nothing more than “heated rhetoric.” I’m not willing to wait around to find out.

Protectionism is a dirty word

The original stimulus bill drawn up by congressional Democrats contained, in addition to many frivolous wastes of taxpayer money, a particularly offensive section entitled “Buy America.” This was a wolf in sheep’s clothing—or more specifically, protectionism dressed up as patriotism, with little attempt at disguise. After facing international criticism for exhibiting the kind of stupidity that caused a recession in 1929 and led to the Great Depression, Obama wisely reassured trading partners that America would not break any of its existing free trade pacts. He was hailed as the second coming by the global media for yanking his party back from the brink of an economic abyss. This may seem like a lower standard of leadership than we usually apply to politicians, but maybe that’s just me.

Observers feared that American protectionism would encourage other countries to follow suit, marking the beginning of a global trade war. The only response offered by protectionist and socialist lawmakers was the lackluster excuse that it would protect American jobs. What these reactionary fools didn’t understand is that until the world economy starts to recover, nothing America does individually will help their economy—not even a $2.7 trillion injection into the private market. Protectionism would harm recovery by reducing gains from trade, making everyone poorer. Some speculated that other nations might respond by putting up their own trade barriers. And lo and behold, within days of the “Buy America” announcement, Jack Layton and his gang in the far left corner of Parliament were trumpeting the need for Canada to introduce similar protectionism in our country.

While erecting trade barriers around America might reap an extremely limited short-term benefit, it’s certainly not in Canada’s interest. Our export sector, a huge driver of our economy, is only now beginning to recover from the decimation it suffered when our dollar climbed over parity last year. A new round of tariffs would doubtlessly lead to reciprocation from other countries and eliminate the profit margins of export-based firms, or force them to raise prices to uncompetitive levels. Canada is not a large enough player in most industries to meaningfully influence global market prices. Only our suppliers, manufacturers, and small businesses will be affected, resulting in massive layoffs and stagnation once again.

In an increasingly connected global economy, no country—not even America—can afford to go it alone. President Obama demonstrated as much when removing the worst parts of a stimulus bill that, despite the spin of bipartisanship, was party-line Democratic. Congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid need to realize that in spite of their congressional majorities, they must resist the urge to slam their pet projects through Congress without even seeking a modicum of bipartisan support.

If there is one thing in short supply right now, it is public tolerance for political gamesmanship. The first effort at pandering to big labour ended with a presidential reversal and widespread global condemnation. This is one case where, if at first you don’t succeed, giving up is the better option—for America, its leaders, and the world.