Dishonourable Secrecy and University Governance: The Sambra Affair

Zilpha Ellis (zellis@YORKU.CA)
Wed, 24 Sep 1997 18:09:26 -0400

This message is in MIME format. The first part should be readable text,
while the remaining parts are likely unreadable without MIME-aware tools.
Send mail to for more info.

Content-ID: <>

Dear Colleague,
Many of us are concerned to discover that President Marsden
has created a position and filled it without following the normal York
procedures. This apparent breach of York practice is aggravated by her
use of anonymous funding. If you share our concern, would you
please indicate to me (if you have not already done so) that you would be
willing to join us in signing the following letter to Marsden.

Dear President Marsden,
We the undersigned request that the appointment of a
writer-in-exile to York University be annulled until this appointment has
been approved by the York Senate. We are concerned about the anonymity of
the funding and the rationale for the appointment. We believe that it is
important to respect York's policy of collegiality in these matters, a
policy which is protected by Article 12 of the YUFA agreement and by the
Senate responsibility for York's academic programmes.
Yours truly,

Zilpha Ellis, Lee Lorch, Paul Laurendeau, Penni Stewart, Luigi Bianchi,

Nuri Jazairi, Gail Kellough, Igor Kusyszyn, Ioan Davies, Ellen Baar,

Martin Muldoon, Althea Prince, Mike McNamee, Walter Giesbrecht, Joel

Shore, Peter Penz, Jim Benson, Donna Krasnow, David Wiesenthal


A rationale for such a letter (but which would not be included) could
be the following:

Well, the cat is out of the bag. According to the headline of the
Sept. 17 Excalibur ("Marsden imports Cuban"), President Marsden has
finally found a situation in the Creative Writing programme in Vanier
College for her "writer-in-exile."
A few in the York University community have been aware for some
time that Pres. Marsden had been attempting to find a York position for
the Cuban writer and journalist, Cecilio Ismael Sambra Haber, whom she
appointed as a writer-in-residence to Wilfred Laurier on May 11 of this
year. Marsden has stated that she was asked by the Minister of Foreign
Affairs Lloyd Axworthy, to find Sambra a position according to Isobel
Harry, the policy director of PEN Canada (see "Marsden Imports Cuban,"
EXCALIBUR, Sept. 17, 1997, pp. 1, 4). According to Harry, Marsden
"apparently found some anonymous donors to fund the program" (EXCALIBUR,
p. 4). A Canadian Press Newswire (May 12, 1997) mentions one anonymous
donor, and York colleagues with whom Marsden has discussed the creation of
a York position for Sambra have been told that the donor was a businessman
with interests in Cuba who wishes to remain anonymous "because of the
Helms-Burton law" which attempts to economically harrass and punish those
who are pursuing business ventures with Cuba.
There are several aspects of this administrative "deal" which are
unacceptable to the teaching and research community that is York: 1) the
anonymous source of the financing of the position and 2) the by-passing of
York's policies of governance, some of which are based on hard-won
democratic procedures embodied in Article 12 of the YUFA collective
agreement and others on the Senate's responsibility for the academic work
of the university, one of whose programmes is Creative Writing. If the
donor wants a mechanism for obtaining a tax deduction for his support of
an individual, in this case Sambra, why is York laundering his money?
We may ask why he moved to York from Wilfred Laurier University after he
had accepted a two year appointment there? We might also ask by what
literary or academic criteria and processes Sambra was judged to be
eligible for a writer-in-residence position at a Canadian university and at
WLU or at York University in particular.
But the most unsettling question is who or what is the source of
the secret funds being used to impose this particular writer, this
anti-Cuban writer, on a Canadian university and now on York. Is York to
become a base for anti-Cuban activities? Certainly a smear campaign
against a third world country in which all education is free and students
are not charged for university residence might help to stem pressures on
Canadian political leaders as tuition fee increases here in Canada
continue to limit access to or full participation in our educational
system to our young people. Is this "writer-in-exile" position part of a
campaign to discredit a third world country which, in spite of being
hobbled by unrelenting economic pressures from the U.S., provides
universal, free and excellent health care to its own people and to the
suffering who come from other places: the nearly 14,000 children of
Chernobyl or the children victims of the Montserrat volcano, the third
world country which sends its medical professionals to many third world
countries, just recently establishing rural health clinics in South
Africa, for example.
What are the motives behind these secret funds? Why is the York
administration so willing to accept secret funds that it breaks with the
spirit and, we believe, the letter of its contract with its teachers.
YUFA complains vigourously and regularly about the administration's
unwillingness to open meaningfully the university's financial books.
This latest insult to the principle of collegial governance of the work of
the university, embodied in the Collective Agreement, is equally
intolerable. In the absence of this information (Sambra himself claims not
to know who is funding his position), those who care about York's
reputation must make every effort to end this situation. We must be
reassured that we are not the unwitting participants in an ignominious and
particularly vicious attack on a third world country engaged in a
successful struggle against marginalisation by a first world
superpower breaking international laws.
The absurdity of the donor's Helms-Burton excuse makes the
anonymity of the funding all the more disquieting. Helms-Burton
would on the contrary tend to favour a businessman who helps
weaken and becloud Canadian relations with Cuba by providing an opponent
of the Cuban government with a very high platform such as one of Canada's
foremost universities from which to vent his animosity.
In the context of the intensification of U.S. demands that
Canada (and other countries) surrender their sovereign rights to trade as
their own national policies determine, U.S. insistence that Canada join
its anti-Cuban campaign, and with the U.S. offering and demanding more
support for those seeking to destroy the Cuban government, we must know
more. The U.S. has invested hundreds of millions for terrorism against
Castro and Cuban airliners and hotels, for anti-Cuban germ and biological
warfare (attested to by well documented admissions of CIA attempts on
Castro's life, the downing of a Cuban airliner flying out of Barbados, CIA
involvement in dengue fever, swine fever, and tobacco-attacking blue mold
epidemics, the present investigation of the International Convention of
Biological Weapons regarding the introduction of the Thrips palmi blight
which attacked and destroyed a wide variety of crops last winter, the
recent confession of a U.S. trained Salvadorean hotel bomb-setter who
killed a Montreal resident, and many other violent or inhumane acts). This
is nothing that Canadian institutions should be helping, wittingly or
unwittingly, directly or indirectly.
In the light of these increasingly barbaric and illegal attacks on
a country which adheres more thoroughly than any other country to the
totality, to the broad spectrum, of the human rights described in
the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights (which include what the
industrialized world either withholds or is now downsizing: the right to
work, to education, to health care), it is important that academics act
responsibly to ensure that misinformation is corrected and that full
information is made public.
The York academic community can not be asked to ignore what may
well be its participation in another dimension (the increased
disinformation campaign) of what can only be described as an uncalled-for
all-out attack on a country involved in a life and death struggle against
U.S. domination. If Minister Axworthy believes that Canada, in order to
continue trading with Cuba, must appease the Helms and the Burtons by
accepting dissidents, let Canada offer visas as it did to Eastern European
academics and writers. But let us not weaken our academic credibility by
accepting secret money. We remember still the Sasagawa affair of a few
years ago (in which a Japanese racketeering boss attempted to whitewash
his tainted name by giving money to York). The York Senate involvement at
that time corrected what seems to have been administrative ignorance.
The precedents for this new "secret operation" are sufficiently
reprehensible for our academic community to wish to disassociate itself
from any appearance of complicity. It is imperative that Senate, YUFA and
YUSA demand to know all the facts--who and where the money is really
coming from, why now and what for--so that the due process and openness of
York's governance policies may be seen to have been respected and York's
academic integrity remain strong.

Zilpha Ellis
French Studies, N737R
York University
(416) 736-2100 x77068
Tel (905) 822-1972
Fax (905) 855-2251