Media Release – Amidst Anti-Black Racism Scandal, York University’s Board of Governors Re-appoints Rhonda Lenton

The following media release was issued by the York University Graduate Students’ Association to inform the York community about the anti-democratic reinstatement of Rhonda Lenton. What is the legitimacy of the Board of Governors? We will need to hold this obsolete institution, an atrophied relic of British imperial rule, to account.

Amidst anti-Black racism scandal, York U Board of Governors re-appoints President Lenton

TORONTO (May 5, 2021) – York University’s Board of Governors voted on May 4 to re-appoint President Rhonda Lenton for another five-year term, despite a growing scandal involving systemic anti-Black racism at the highest levels of the institution.

Weeks before the vote, Board members received hundreds of email messages and phone calls regarding President Lenton’s handling of a long-standing complaint by Dr. Aimé Avolonto, a Black professor of French Studies at York’s Glendon College, whose allegations of anti-Black racism were profiled in The Fifth Estate documentary “Black on campus” on February 25 and during a press conference on April 8. Prof. Avolonto has detailed his allegations in a public document, “Letter from a Black colleague.”

At the time of the renewal vote, over 36,000 people had signed an online petition addressed to the Board, condemning Lenton’s response to the complaint. The Board also received an open letter from over 100 prominent Black professors and academics from across Canada and the US, including three sitting Ontario MPPs, in protest of York’s treatment of Prof. Avolonto.

“The Board’s decision to renew President Lenton is a slap in the face to the Black community at York,” said Fardosa Warsame, past president of the York University Graduate Students’ Association (YUGSA) and a PhD candidate in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies. “As a Black student leader, I can attest to the numerous complaints of racism coming from Black students at York. How could the Board ignore this?”

YUGSA and the York Federation of Students (YFS), which represents almost 46,000 undergraduates at York, each submitted letters to the Board in opposition to Lenton’s renewal (see here and here). Board Chair Paul Tsaparis declined to share the letters with Board members, however. In response, Warsame and past YFS President Azinwi Kien Saningong made a direct appeal to Board members: “Instead of drawing on our own insights and knowledge about the student experience at York, especially those students who are Black and racialized, the administration consistently excludes us” (see full text here).

Faculty who attended the public portion of the meeting echoed the students’ concerns. York University Associate Professor and York Senator Ricardo Grinspun stated: “The claim by Chair Tsaparis that there was a wide consultation on the renewal of President Lenton is factually not true. Senate never discussed the matter, and certainly not any other council on campus…. As consultations go, it was a performative one, with a pre-determined outcome.”

In a statement issued immediately after the vote, York media relations described Lenton’s renewal as “a rigorous and consultative process.” Chair Tsaparis was quoted in the statement: “[Lenton] has led the University with empathy, clarity of purpose, and courage, and I was pleased to see such strong support for her renewal from many colleagues.”

Of the Board’s 28 members and officers, only one is Black; the vast majority is white. Regardless of their decision, Lenton and other senior administrators will continue to face allegations of systemic anti-Black racism in the weeks ahead. In early June, York University must submit its response to the fourth of four complaints filed by Prof. Avolonto at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. Lenton and Provost Lisa Philipps are named as “personal respondents” in Prof. Avolonto’s application.

“The community’s concerns about anti-Black racism are not going to disappear, even if the Board ignores them,” said Dhouha Triki, incoming YUGSA President. “We will continue our campaign for justice for Prof. Avolonto and to hold the senior administration to account for the systemic anti-Black racism that we all know exists at York. No vote can cover that up.”