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York University Faculty Association says the university should release the names of top candidates.

© Mark Blinch / Reuters/REUTERS

The search for a new president of York University is running into controversy, with opposition mounting from students and faculty to one of the rumoured front-runners and demands that the process to find a new leader become more open.

A poll conducted over the past week by the York University Faculty Association (YUFA) and released on Tuesday showed that 58 per cent of those who responded would not support the appointment of current provost Rhonda Lenton, who is said to be on the short list for candidates. Just over 10 per cent would be happy with that choice. A third said they did not have enough information to have an opinion.

"We don't know who the other candidates are," said Richard Wellen, the president of YUFA. "Maybe Dr. Lenton is the best candidate among the alternatives. It's hard to know how one takes a position when one does not know the alternatives."

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On Monday, the graduate students association released a letter objecting to Dr. Lenton's possible appointment. The group said such a decision would endorse a "fraught and divisive status quo."

York said it conducted extensive consultations over the spring and summer on what qualities are needed in the institution's new president. No decision has yet been made, and the names of top candidates will not be released, the university added.

"Inevitably times of change can create a feeling of uncertainty," Rick Waugh, the chair of the board of governors, said in a statement. The presidential search committee "has taken every effort to ensure we gather feedback and consult with York University's diverse community."

Critics of Dr. Lenton say she was part of a university negotiating team during a month-long strike by teaching assistants in 2015, and she supports a budget model that is making departments compete against one another for money.

"The board of governors should absolutely reject a candidate which in the YUFA poll has received 11 per cent support from full-time faculty members of this university," said Ricardo Grinspun, an associate professor in economics and a member of the university's Senate.

Dr. Grinspun wrote a letter to his colleagues opposing the potential appointment. "It is nothing personal against Dr. Lenton – this is about her suitability as a candidate for president," he said.

Dr. Lenton has more than a decade of experience at York. She was first dean of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies before moving to more senior administrative posts. She has been provost since 2012 and has a PhD in sociology from the University of Toronto.

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Conflict over the presidency of Canadian universities has increased in recent years. Studies show that the number of presidents who are fired early in their terms by their boards of governors is rising.

On Tuesday, the board of Cape Breton University suspended president David Wheeler while it conducts an investigation into what the board described as "governance issues."

More open search processes, at York and elsewhere, would lead to fewer such controversies, some say.

"When it's a closed search, you get way less information about the candidate," Dr. Wellen said.

In its most recent round of bargaining, YUFA unsuccessfully sought more faculty participation in searches for key senior administrators. Until 2005, York had partly open searches, in which short-listed candidates spoke to Senate members.

Almost all Canadian universities conduct confidential searches for their presidents. Boards argue fewer strong applicants would come forward if candidates' names were published.

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Current president Mamdouh Shoukri ends his second term this summer. His replacement is expected to be announced in early 2017.

"This whole decision might be made really close to the end of the term and things will be under the radar," said Mina Rajabi Paak, the president of the York University Graduate Students' Association.

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