Meet Sanni Yaya, new Vice-President International and Francophonie

Posted on Friday, June 19, 2020

Portrait of Professor Sanni Yaya, Vice-President, international and Francophonie

Last December, the University of Ottawa announced the creation of a new position, Vice-President International and Francophonie, to further strengthen its commitment in these areas. Professor Sanni Yaya recently became the first appointee to this new role. We asked him a few questions about his work, his interests, and his goals in his new role.

For those who may be less familiar with this role, how would you define this commitment to la Francophonie and internationalization?

My commitment to la Francophonie and to internationalization exists in the context of a global knowledge economy in the throes of profound upheaval. Over the last few decades, the digital revolution has created challenges to be overcome and opportunities to be seized, but it has also forced universities to rethink the usual boundaries of their activity more and more each day. In response to these challenges, the time has come for the University of Ottawa to update its options and to propose original, more coherent perspectives. In my opinion, this will inevitably involve our activity in new geographic and academic spaces, along with an educational framework that embraces intercultural and cross-cultural experiences and the establishment of new collaborative research networks.

This internationalization must promote diversity and the maintenance and development of the world's cultures and languages. Today more than ever, we must ensure that the French language is strengthened, in Ontario, in Canada and throughout the world.

This language that we share is more than a simple communication tool; it is a true vector of culture and identity, and a language internationally recognized for intellectual, scientific and cultural vibrancy that lies at the heart of many multicultural and multilingual learning spaces.

On the strength of this firm conviction, I agreed to apply for the position of Vice-President, International and Francophonie. These two pillars are part of our institutional history and, for me, inseparable. They must serve as a strategic anchor for our positioning and guide our new momentum.

Why did you personally feel compelled to take up this new mandate?

I think the University of Ottawa has reached a major crossroads in its history. With the gradual decline of public funding for higher education, the emergence of new forms of knowledge acquisition and dissemination, and the rise of new systems for harnessing the benefits of knowledge, we have no choice but to find new ways to fulfill our ambitions. This involves updating our plans for internationalization and la Francophonie so that the University can achieve distinction academically and socially at the local, national and international levels.

The international character of our university and greater promotion of la Francophonie are vital to research excellence and to educating students to become engaged citizens of our world.

I was especially drawn to the idea of combining these two aspects under this new mandate, because I see them as two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. In the coming weeks, we will have to act quickly, by continuing the work underway on internationalization, and by exploring new pathways within la Francophonie.The academic community is currently searching for new points of reference for these issues, and I hope to promptly set the tone by replacing doubt with action, and transaction with transformation.

As a key step in my new role as Vice-President I intend to propose a coherent, dedicated strategy aimed at further strengthening our national and international profile and presence.

How will your new role function within the administration and how will it help to guide the University’s internationalization efforts?

The main feature of internationalization is that it is cross cutting. It is part of every aspect of university life and all of its strategic pillars: teaching, research and community service.

My priority will therefore be to work with all the members of the Administrative Committee to ensure that our primary missions extend to international and Francophone spaces, and that the University's internal procedures are organized in such a way that both are always taken into account.

Teamwork will therefore be vital to this process, and I am committed to playing an active role in promoting our expertise and programs through a collaborative, simplified approach. Together, we must find ways to build a stronger community by rallying in support of the success of our students, by supporting our researchers’ quests for excellence and by staunchly defending the influence of Francophonie as an instrument of otherness and of cultural and linguistic multipolarity.

Knowledge and learning must and can embody other worlds of meaning, including those driven by the French language. The scholarly mission of universities is by nature international. Today, in an environment marked by fierce rivalry to recruit and to retain the best talent, and by the emergence of new needs that must be adapted to global and contemporary realities, this openness to the world appears to be a matter of survival.

How do you plan to support the University’s longstanding Francophone tradition through this role?

As Vice-President, International and Francophonie, I consider it my duty to promote the University's vision for la Francophonie and I intend to begin by promoting and strengthening the presence and influence of la Francophonie on campus.

The University of Ottawa has the distinction of belonging to two worlds of major importance: the world of major research universities and the world of the rare bilingual institutions that have a special role to play in higher education within la Francophonie in Canada and internationally. For this reason, our Francophone character must be viewed as an asset that distinguishes and defines us.

One means of achieving this is to ensure that the University is connected to the international scene and to enhance its image within la Francophonie. I consider it imperative to transform the discourse about la Francophonie at the University of Ottawa into something more meaningful, vibrant and engaging, and to ensure that it is seen as an added value. For decades we have played la Francophonie card defensively. Now we must do so actively and intelligently by proposing a new form of governance for la Francophonie on campus and by re-examining our accountability and responsibility framework.

We must also make more room for French in some of our programs, such as science and engineering. We need to devise a concerted, coherent strategy for recruiting graduate students in French and to propose a funding mechanism for Francophone students. Immediate implementation of the Cardinal Report's recommendations (2019) should allow us to achieve this goal.

La Francophonie is part of campus culture. Each individual expresses this Francophone identity, culture and history differently. What does la Francophonie mean to you?

As the son of a Francophone immigrant, I realized the importance of language in constructing identity very early on, and what it means to be a minority in an intercultural and transcultural society within a multilingual space. More than an instrument of communication and interpersonal understanding, language is a vector of culture and identity that expresses the intellectual, scientific, cultural and heritage energy of a community.

My involvement in various issues within major Canadian and international institutional networks representing the scholarly and political community of la Francophonie has given me a good grasp of the issues at stake and I am fully committed to the objectives and aspirations of la Francophonie. My work with the Collège des chaires de recherche sur le monde francophone, as Senghor Chair, has allowed me to fully appreciate the opportunities and challenges of conducting research in French. I am also very sensitive to linguistic minorities, and I feel particularly committed to the Franco-Ontarian community.

In my view, the French-speaking world is not just a geographical reality or a particular language group. It’s also a cultural matrix, a collective of people who, in one way or another, share a certain connection with the French language or with Francophone cultures. This plurality of la Francophonie experiences comes with inherent contradictions: in Canada, the decline in the relative influence of French in a situation of linguistic erosion calls for vigilance, while at the same time, its role as an international language grows stronger with the rise of Africa, which alone accounts for more than half of the world's 300 million French speakers.

Today more than ever, people need an alliance like la Francophonie that respects the specific historical realities of each country, yet is driven by the same passion and the same need for recognition, legitimacy and solidarity.

You are well-known for your research skill and many accomplishments, but to help our readers get to know you a little better on a personal level, our last question is a bit more informal. Can you tell us about your favourite leisure activities, and the kinds of interests you enjoy outside of work?

As the years pass, my free time has dwindled dramatically, but between research, teaching, student supervision and my involvement in various committees, I have always made a point of taking a step back from work and to take some time off.

My most important passion is family. My second passion is news and current events. It's probably an occupational hazard but because of my strong intellectual curiosity, I love to read on all topics. To me, this seems essential for a rich and diverse all-around education. I am also an avid reader of comics (yes, it's true!); I only realized how important they were later in my adult life. They help inform and steward young people, and make them think about a host of delicate topics but, above all, they encourage their love of reading.

I'm also a big fan of team sports, especially basketball (I’m a Raptors fan) and soccer. I'm a fan of the Gee-Gees basketball team, and I hope to see them go very far next year! Those who know me know that I am a devoted soccer fan and have played since I was a child. I can spend hours in front of the television watching soccer legends. I still play once a week during the winter and two or three times a week in the summer. Soccer is where I developed my best friendships. It is also a sport that teaches strong values, including humility (as you very quickly discover your betters), discipline, teamwork, excellence, solidarity and open-mindedness.

Learn more about Sanni Yaya and his new role as Vice-President, International and Francophonie.

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