ROBARTS CENTRE FOR CANADIAN STUDIES
Full Six-Year Review / April 2010
• Dr. Jules Duchastel , Professor of Sociology, Université du Québec à Montréal
• Dr. Imre Szeman, Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies, Professor of English and Film
Studies, University of Alberta
• Dr. Viviana Patroni, Professor of International Development Studies, York University
• Dr. Richard H. Irving, Professor of Operations Management and Information Systems, Schulich
School of Business, York University (Academic Policy, Planning and Research Committee [APPRC]
representative on the panel)
The reviewers for the full six-year review for the Senate Committee of Research met with faculty
and students associated with the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies on Thursday, April 22 and
Friday, April 23, 2010. We had an opportunity to meet with the Director, Seth Feldman, and
Associate Director, Daniel Drache; with members of the Executive Committee, including Steve
Bailey, Colin Coates, Barbara Crow and Warren Crichlow; with the administrative coordinator,
Laura Talman; with visiting scholar Lucy Lee; with researchers connected with the Centre,
including Mars Horodyski and Roger Keil; with graduate students Andrew Burke, Angelica
Radjenovic, and Maureen Senoga; with former director (1991-94), Ken McRoberts; and with AVP
David Dewitt and Executive Officer, Research, Phyllis Lepore Babcock. We also spoke via
conference call with two researchers associated with Robarts: Fred Fletcher (York University) and
José Luis Valdes (National Autonomous University of Mexico). Finally, we spoke with faculty
members not currently associated with the Centre, including Jody Berland (Humanities), Megan
Davies (Social Science), Barbara Godard (English), Marcel Martel (History), Jennifer Stephen
(History), Jon Sufrin (Canadian Studies), and William Westfall (History/Humanities).
Over the past six years (2004-2010), the Robarts Centre has organized a number of conferences
and workshops, has hosted visiting scholars, and has involved a large number of students in
research activities associated with it. The Director and Associate Director have both been highly
successful at receiving research awards in support of their scholarly activities, including receipt of
SSHRC Standard Research Grants and a Research/Creation Grant, and involvement in Research
Development Initiatives and a SSHRC CURA Grant. The Director, Associate Director, and
students associated with the Centre have published a notable amount of research (e.g., Dr.
Drache has published three monographs since 2004). The Centre continues to publish Canada
Watch, a publication that has become an important source of news on Canada for scholars and
researchers across the disciplines, and maintains linkages through its research with universities
and centres located around the world.
We recognize that a research centre cannot be all things to all people. At the same time, a centre
whose mandate is to reflect, represent and support research on Canadian topics and themes at a
large and diverse university such as York should try its best to reach out to faculty and graduate
students across York. Many centres and institutes maintain a list of research associates as well as
a listserv through which its events and activities are announced and described. Despite the
success of the Director and Associate Director in securing funds and carrying out research
projects, the Robarts Centre has struggled with some of the other expected functions of a
research centre or institute.
Few of the people with whom we spoke questioned the research capacity of the Centre or the
achievements of its two core members. However, many raised concerns about the relatively few
faculty and students involved in the Centre; expressed frustration about its failure to engage a
broader community of researchers through its programs and activities; and worried about the
transparency of the Centre‘s governance structures. Since the Centre is entering what is likely to
be a transition period to a new Director, our assessment of the achievements of the Robarts
Centre and the directions it might take over the next six-years focuses necessarily not only on its
performance to date, but its future prospects as it moves from a core executive that has been in
place since 1994 (the current Associate Director, Dr. Drache, was the Director from 1994-2003, at
which time the current Director, Dr. Feldman, was appointed) to a new set of faculty administrators
The interim SCOR review carried out by Prof. Carole Carpenter and Prof. Bernard Lightman in
2006 was guided by several questions: ―Has the Centre moved forward on its mandate? Are
projects moving forward responsibly and appropriately? Is there a thriving community of scholars
at the Centre?‖ (1). Although the reviewers praised the Centre for realizing some of the goals that
it set for itself, it also suggested that it had to work harder to realize the ―tremendous potential‖ of
the Centre. Activities identified as ones that would help enable further growth and development by
the Centre included:
• the involvement of more faculty in its activities, as well as faculty from more units. It was
noted by the reviewers that very few scholars ―ever have been, directly with the Robarts
Centre.‖ The Departments of History and English were named specifically as places to which
the Centre should direct outreach efforts, as both departments have nationally-recognized
strengths in Canadian studies;
• further engagement in activities and events that would help to strengthen the profile of
Canadian studies on campus (it was recommended, for instance, that the Centre consider re-
establishing the Robarts Chair);
• staging events at Glendon College and involving more French-speaking scholars;
• creation of visiting fellowships and an invitation to world-class speakers;
• reduction of the Centre‘s reliance on research grants to run its activities, and the need to
engage in fundraising to support and expand the endowment fund;
• inclusion of greater numbers of graduate students in the activities, events, and research in
• exploration of a wider variety of possibilities for international outreach;
• the creation of a database of researchers engaged in the study of Canada at York
The reviewers recognized that it would be difficult to enact all of these recommendations given
the Centre‘s annual operating funds. However, it also raised questions about the existing
allocation of funds, asking specifically whether there was a need for the Associate Director
position due to its impact on funds available for the Centre to do other things, such as running a
speaker‘s series, continuing with the Robarts Chair, or funding graduate student research.
In large part, our concerns echo those raised in the Interim Report. With few exceptions (e.g. the
recent creation of a database of York researchers), it appears to us that in the intervening four
years, the Centre has not succeeded in addressing the concerns raised in 2006. However
successful its activities might be, only a few core faculty appear to be involved in the Centre; the
research activities of the Centre are mostly limited to these faculty members; the graduate
students involved are primarily those working for the core faculty involved; there are limited
numbers of events, talks, seminars, etc., and these tend to be related directly to the core faculty
research projects; and there has been no uptake on the possibility of expanding the Centre‘s
funding or re-allocating the budget in a way that might free up resources to support graduate
students, offer visiting fellowships, and the like.
We expect that a research centre permits those involved in it to engage in the research activities
conducted under its aegis. However, it seems to us that a Centre such as Robarts, and indeed
any university-based research centre or institute, has the further responsibility of promoting and
supporting the field of research its represents and the researchers engaged in this research on
campus, both to campus community and to the wider public. Further, it needs to conduct all of its
activities as transparently as possible and in line with its own mandate. Transparency is critical so
that those outside the Centre can understand what is happening within it, and can understand
what would be involved in participating in its activities and how they themselves might become
involved, whether as individual researchers or by connecting their own research projects with the
A lack of transparency with respect to its governance procedures, coupled with an apparent
disinterest in acting as a campus-wide champion of research on Canada has produced a negative
perception among some scholars at York about the operations of the Robarts Centre. In order for
the Centre to not only survive but thrive as it passes through a transition period at the end of
which it will be led by a new Director, it is important that it address the problems identified in the
Interim Report and found once again in our own review of its operations.
In our view, there are three major problems with the manner in which the Centre operates at the
present time that need to be redressed.
1. The Robarts Centre does not always act as a research centre. While the research activities
of the Centre may well be laudable, the Centre has allocated too few resources – both financial
resources and the time resources of its Director and Associate Director – to support, promote
and enhance research on Canada amongst graduate students and faculty on campus. Three
issues have developed as an outcome of a lack of attention to this area of the Centre‘s
Through its activities in the next six-year period and beyond, the Robarts Centre must strive to
be as inclusive as possible of research on Canada at York. While the Centre‘s statement
regarding its future directions for the next six years acknowledges its potential role as a leading
force in re-invigorating Canadian Studies at York, the plan does not provide sufficient details
about the way in which this is to be accomplished. In particular, it would have been helpful for
the Centre to use this review process to consider how the broader community of scholars
working on Canadian themes at York could be incorporated in the planning of seminar series,
the creation of working groups, or the planning of Robarts Chair lectures.
We heard from numerous faculty members that they felt unwelcome at the Robarts Centre or
that they felt is was too much of a ‗closed shop.‘ The Director and Associate Director told us,
on the contrary, that they have worked with many people on campus and that they welcome
new initiatives. For whatever reason, it appears that many feel that despite the fact that they
are engaged in research on Canada, the activities of the Centre do not involve them, and that
over several years there has been little attempt to solicit input and opinion from them about the
nature of the events that the Centre might stage or the research it might carry out. It is the
responsibility of the Director to make the Centre as inclusive as possible; a lack of
transparency in the mechanisms by which decisions are made and the fact that members of
the Executive Board have been (until recently) largely made up of those directly involved in the
research activities organized by the Centre has contributed to the perception that it is a closed
shop. The specific link of the Centre to the Communication and Culture graduate program has
had a similar effect, whatever its original intentions.
b. On-Campus Presence and Visibility
A number of faculty and graduate students whom we interviewed told us that despite being
scholars directly engaged in research on Canada, they had in many cases only recently heard
about the Centre and were unaware of its activities. This was especially true of faculty who had
been at York less than 10 years or less. Given the large number of events and equally large
number of centres and institutes at York, it can be difficult to get the word out about the
activities of a specific centre. In the case of the Robarts Centre, however, it seems that in
recent years it has engaged in fewer of the activities through which it could make its presence
known – organizing speakers, co-sponsoring events, arranging graduate seminars, etc. These
are not the only ways in which the visibility of the Centre could be enhanced.
Outreach is essential. The Director of the Centre should make the effort to contact new faculty
and graduate students engaged in research on Canada and alert them to the activities of
Robarts; make use of a frequently updated and well-managed listserv; offer faculty the
opportunity to become research associates (in the way in which other centres at York do);
compile an annual bibliography of research on Canada on campus (as was done up until
1994); and so on. Increased visibility and increased inclusivity go hand-in-hand.
c. Involvement of Graduate Students
The Director and Associate Director have been adept at involving graduate students in a
meaningful way in their own research projects and in those connected with the Centre. As an
extension of (a) and (b) above, we insist on the need to reach out to a larger number of
graduate students across campus. Research centres have a special function in assisting with
the professionalization of graduate students. It can do so by sponsoring graduate seminars, by
providing travel grants to students, by sponsoring small bursaries, by facilitating contacts
relevant to their research projects, or by offering postdoctoral fellowships. Such enticements
offer easy ways to get graduate students involved in the Centre; we encourage Robarts to
consider undertaking such programs in the future, since they promote the visibility and
inclusivity of the Centre amongst the graduate student population.
2. The Robarts Centre does not currently have a functioning Executive Board.
Executive Boards are important to the effective functioning of many organizations, including
research centres and institutes. Properly conceived and managed, they offer invaluable
feedback, provide oversight on decisions (everything from budgets to events and activities
undertaken), and can offer collective input about changes to the aims, objectives and
mandates of the centres that they serve.
The Robarts Centre does have an Executive Board. However, we do not see it as a legitimate
and effectively functioning board. This has less to do with the qualities of the board members
themselves than with the processes and procedures through which they are currently
appointed. It was admitted to us by the Director that the Board is largely made up of research
collaborators; formal board meetings have been held infrequently – twice since 2005 –
because their participation in the on-going operations of the research programs in which the
Centre is involved means (we were told) that there is little new information to pass along.
There is no sense of how long one might be permitted to serve on the Board, whether there
are term limits, whether and to what degree the Board participates in reviewing budgets or
reports generated by the Centre, and so on (e.g., the current six-year plan had a minimal
amount of Board input).
To function effectively, the Executive Board needs to be significantly reconfigured. It needs to
include 6 to 8 members broadly representative of research on Canada across the University.
Ideally, such a board should represent multiple Faculties – not only LAPS and Fine Arts, but
others such as Osgoode, Schulich, and Health Sciences. The Board of the Robarts Centre
should meet at least twice per year and should be governed by clear term limits as well as
formal procedures through which new Board members are approved and appointed.
At present, the Board does not feature in the operations of the Centre in a meaningful way. A
functioning and effective Board would help to allay concerns about the Centre‘s inclusivity. It
would also help with the issue of visibility that we identified above, as well as helping the
Director to carry out the Centre‘s mandate. Finally, a functioning and effective Board would
maximize the transparency of the Centre‘s operations. For instance, according to the Robarts
Centre‘s own policies, a decision about the appointment of the Associate Director, as well as
the specific role that is to be assigned to him or her, is supposed to be made each year by the
Executive Board. The fact that the Board has not met each and every year over the six year
period covered by this report sends the wrong message to the communities that the Centre is
intended to serve.
3. The Robarts Centre must seriously evaluate its financial sustainability.
The operations of the Robarts Centre are financed entirely by annual proceeds from the
endowment fund first established to support a Robarts Chair in 1984. The projected budget for
coming years suggests that it will be a challenge for the Centre to carry out its work with the
funds currently available to it.
There are several ways in which the Centre can address this issue. For example, it can re-
evaluate current budget allocations. The majority of the funds in the budget are allocated to
two expenses: the salary and benefits of a full-time research coordinator, and the cost of
course release and a stipend for the Associate Director. This leaves the Centre with very little
funds to carry out the kinds of programs that we have suggested above—programs that are
consonant with its mandate. Most centres and institutes do not have an associate director, nor
is it typical for a Centre of this size to require a full-time coordinator.
A new Executive Board can help make decisions about both the allocation of resources as well
as the long term financial viability of the Centre‘s programs. In line with the 2006 Interim
Report, we strongly encourage the Director to undertake a fundraising effort in cooperation
with the York Foundation to bolster the endowment fund. We also encourage the Centre to
look beyond SSHRC to other sources of research funding, especially those sources that might
permit the use of funds to support overhead and staff salaries.
Finally, we encourage a new board to get specific details on the history of the operations
endowment fund from 1984 to the present.
Based on our findings, we are recommending a conditional renewal of the Robarts Centre for
Canadian Studies. Given the fact that the Centre is entering a period of transition, it is important for
there to be a review at a later date concerning the degree to which our suggestions have been
implemented, especially in the wake of the pending appointment of a new director and executive
Our specific recommendation concerns the appointment of a renewed executive board for the Centre.
As we suggest above, this executive board should be broadly inclusive of the Faculties in which
research on Canada occurs at York University. The initiative to create a new executive board should
be carried out with the active guidance and oversight of the Associate Vice-Present (Research).
In our opinion, York does not at present have sufficiently clear guidelines concerning the governance
structure of centres and institutes. Also, under current guidelines, the Office of the Vice-President
(Research) does not have sufficient oversight capacity regarding the internal activity of the centres
and institutes within the Office‘s mandate. We recommend that serious attention be focused by the
Senate Committee on Research on both of these gaps in the existing structures under which centres
and institutes are governed.
We believe that the Robarts Centre performs an important and essential function on campus. We
believe strongly, however, that it has to address the issues we raise here in order to continue to be a
strong and vibrant part of the York community. The Senate Policy indicates that the production of a
six-year plan offers centres and institutes an opportunity for self-study, with an emphasis on renewal
and revitalization of its mandate. Since the Centre has not fully taken up the opportunity provided by
the review process to undertake this self-study, we hope that our report could offer it the occasion to
more fully do so.