York goes after profs’ Gmail account after public criticism

By Christopher D. Blatch

So you think when you’re online you’re safely anonymous from repercussions?

Not according to the ruling of an Ontario judge who made Rogers and Bell turn over the users of a private Gmail account used to criticize York University’s choice of a new dean.

In January, York University announced the appointment of professor Martin Singer, a “renowned scholar of Chinese history,” as the first dean of what is to be the largest faculty in Canada — the new faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies — in its internal publication.

“York University is fortunate to have attracted such a strong scholar and administrator,” YU president Mamdouth Shoukri said in the internal YU document.

But members of the faculty disagreed and took action.

A secretive group was formed, calling itself “York Faculty Concerned About the Future of York University.”

They created a private Gmail account and sent out an email accusing Shoukri of perpetrating “an outrageous fraud.”

The anonymous group called for the president’s resignation and a new dean search, accusing Singer of fraud, saying “lying about scholarly credentials is the gravest offence.”

York history professor David Noble identified himself as the founder of the group. Noble took exception to Singer’s hiring, and has support from other professors in Singer’s field.

“Prof. Singer may be a distinguished administrator, as the York Y-files describe him, but ‘renowned scholar of Chinese history’ he is not,” wrote Arif Dirlik, chair professor of Chinese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in a letter to Noble.

“Indeed, his contribution to scholarship in the field is negligible to the point of being non-existent.”

“That’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, we consulted a number of historians of China. The guy has no reputation whatsoever,” Noble told reporters at the Varsity, a University of Toronto student newspaper. “[Singer’s appointment] should be withdrawn immediately.”

Dirlik alleged that Singer has not even published a “real” book, which he feels “would be the basis for minimal recognition in the field.” Singer’s publications mostly date back to the 1980s.

“It makes York a laughing stock,” said Noble in the Varsity.

Singer has said that he never called himself a renowned scholar, and that it was the university that identified him as such. York recently removed the word “renowned” from its internal documents.

But while York was backtracking, it took actions to go after the critical group. Noble said he received “letters of intimidation” from York’s governing council, one of which asked him to identify the names of anyone else involved in denouncing Shoukri and Singer.

“It indicates to me that the criticism was right on target,” said Noble about York’s actions.

According to the National Post, university authorities won a court order in May compelling Google to turn over the IP addresses linked to the Gmail account. Google said it wasn’t up to them and told the university to talk to Bell Canada and Rogers Communications as the internet service providers from which the email originated. Neither company opposed turning over the ISPs. Last week, Justice George R. Strathy of the Ontario Superior Court released his reasons for granting the orders, stating it was a “reasonable balance between protecting freedom of speech and protection from libel.”

Leave a comment