A fork in the road: Unpacking York’s most notorious stereotype

In 2012, University of Toronto engineering students mocked York’s engineering department by installing this statue. (Image Courtesy of Imgur)

I’m just a few conversations away from never using a fork again.

A single phrase has plagued my academic life for the last two years. I dread the moment when it comes up in small talk. What school do you go to? 

“York,” I’d say, preparing a pre-emptive list of justifications. “I actually really like my program —”

Before I can continue, I am inevitably halted by the nightmare phrase, coupled with a good-natured smirk. 

If you can hold a fork, you can go to York — a pithy phrase that instantly stereotypes 55,000 students and hundreds of thousands of alumni.

By sitting down with members of the York community and delving as far back as Google could take me, I sought out the origins of this damning phrase. How big of an impact does it have on student life today — and without the fork, what does it mean to go to York?

THE CUTLERY DRAWER

For students, the phrase is indicative of a common misconception regarding York’s lack of academic rigor. The phrase appears to be a major component of York’s reputation, one that serves as a deterrent during the application process. 

One Lassonde graduate who wishes to remain anonymous says that the fork phrase represents a “blanket generalization.” They say that during their time at York, they were often on the receiving end of passive-aggressive remarks from other people regarding what school they went to.

“People often put York in a negative light because certain programs are easier to get into,” they claim. The graduate adds that the common assumption is that “York is an easy university and it’s so easy to graduate from.”

For prospective students considering York, the phrase can be one of the first things they hear about the school — and it can stick. 

Sarah Ahmed, a biology student at the University of Waterloo, says the phrase might have impacted how students viewed the admissions process. “I just assumed kids who were less interested in school or more likely to slack might hear that and gravitate towards York,” she says. 

Her own image of the institution, however, was not affected. “My perception of the actual university didn’t change much because I know York has a prestigious business school and a lot of well-known programs like kinesiology and psychology.”

Elwad, an incoming nursing student to Ryerson University’s class of 2025 — currently known as X University pending the name change — starkly outlines the role that the phrase played in her experience applying to post-secondary schools. Elwad explains it made York sound like an unappealing option to her.

Muhammad Hannad Ahsan, a third-year healthcare management student at Humber College, says that York’s overarching reputation had a significant impact on him when he was applying to schools.

“I was very naïve. In my community and close circle, York was considered an ‘easy’ university to attend in order to get a degree,” he says. “Obviously this was wrong.”

THE FORK IN THE STONE

Alongside the ever-present if you can hold a fork saying, generally unfavourable comparisons between York and the University of Toronto (U of T) are a constant. This appears obvious, considering York’s position as the second-largest university in Canada, after U of T, and their appearance together on many lists and rankings.

What is less obvious — and more surprising — is the connection between U of T and the fork saying itself.

U of T engineering students posing with their handiwork / Image available under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

One of the oldest references to the saying that can be found online is the “Fork in the Stone” incident of 2012. As described on Skulepedia, the unofficial wiki dedicated to the U of T engineering student body (known as Skule), the incident is as follows:

“A large aluminum fork measuring 46.5 inches was purchased and installed into a large hollow concrete base,” the page stated. “The entire structure was then transported to the engineering building at York and placed at the front terrace.”

The page credits the inspiration behind the fork’s construction as “derived from the chant ‘if you can hold a fork, you can go to York,’” because the engineering department didn’t have a mascot of their own.

The belittling implication that the saying — and the statue — are meant to cast on York students is also clear, as the website states that the prank was meant to provide York “with a proper mascot befitting their name and stature.” 

A current U of T engineering student who spoke to Excalibur on the condition of anonymity says that they heard about the Fork in the Stone very early on. 

“I’m pretty sure this was something they mentioned at Frosh orientation,” they say. “The U of T engineering department is very heavy on pranks with other schools, and it’s usually between other engineering departments at different universities in Canada.

“I think it’s really fun, even amongst the academic rigor, they manage to have this cool, fun pranking culture within university,” they add.

Before starting at U of T and hearing the prank lauded at the Frosh orientation, the student says they had never heard the if you can hold a fork statement about York. 

While the Fork in the Stone prank appears to be the most prominent example of the saying’s history, the origin itself cannot definitively be pinned to U of T. 

An Urban Dictionary post from September 2010 references the saying as well, implying that the stereotype was part of discourse about York some time before the major prank. 

“A large portion of the student body at York are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour — I’m not particularly surprised that people specifically chose to throw insults at this school.”

Regardless of where it originated, the role that other prominent universities’ student bodies have played in disseminating the stereotype is clear. The oldest internet trace of the phrase this reporter could find comes from a July 2007 post on a McMaster Insiders forum

“We’re better than York,” says the unnamed student. “If you can hold a fork, you can go to York.”

Nada Abdel-Maksoud, a York law and society graduate who is also starting at Osgoode Hall Law School in August, says that the underpinnings of York’s negative reputation could be more sinister than petty comparison. Many of the negative stereotypes surrounding York’s student body, she says, have implications that single out marginalized students.

“I quickly learned in my time at York why it’s perceived the way that it is,” she says. “From my understanding, York was established as a place to provide educational opportunities for people who mostly come from low-income households, or just generally, people who identify as a part of various marginalized groups.” 

The diverse makeup of York’s student body is corroborated in the book York University: The Way Must Be Tried (2009), a history of the university compiled by Canadian historian and Glendon professor emeritus Michiel Horn.

In the book’s first chapter, Horn cites post-war high immigration rates in the 1950s as a key factor in the demand for post-secondary education that resulted in York’s founding.

“Over the years, York, especially the Keele campus, has always attracted a significant number of students who were the first in their families to attend university. Many were immigrants or the children of immigrants,” Horn wrote later in the book. 

“An estimate based on census data suggested that by the fall of 2006 members of visible minorities constituted more than a third of York’s student body.”

Abdel-Maksoud adds, “A large portion of the student body at York are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour — I’m not particularly surprised that people specifically chose to throw insults at this school.”

Ahsan recalls that when he was applying to university, York was seen by many around him as lesser, “more of a backup” compared to other schools: “To this day, this sort of mindset exists and it will continue until more people speak up.”

THE FORK IN THE ROAD

At what point does York diverge from the infamous saying? Aside from being students who can hold forks, what else are we?

Abdel-Maksoud says that when she applied to York, people told her it “wasn’t a good school,” but she was determined to see it and experience it for herself before making a decision. Her decision to do her due diligence ultimately paid off. 

“I instantly fell in love with the content and the emphasis on critical thinking York has in its liberal arts programs,” she said. “In addition to that, I was aware of the large platforms for political and social activism on campus at York,” something that she says was like “no other school in the area.”

Abdel-Maksoud says that she does not believe her experience “was at all in line with public perception of the school.” 

While she disagreed with decisions or viewpoints on the part of the university’s administration, she spent her undergraduate degree “supporting and working for and with clubs whose goals revolved around criticizing and changing the administration and the ways it operated.”

Ahmed Jaffer, a third-year kinesiology student at York, says that while the saying may have some truth regarding the ease of admissions to certain programs, it fails to hold water regarding the university experience: “Once you’re in class, I don’t think it’s easier than any other school.”

Moreover, one of the most commonly cited detriments about York — its high number of students — is actually a positive for Jaffer.

Racism and classism are definitely far more embarrassing attributes than the ability to hold a fork and go to York.

“One of the reasons I’ve come to like York is because of how many students there really are. I’ve heard so many things about how the campus is massive, and there are more students than most universities,” Jaffer says. “That kind of worried me at first, but I really like having so many different types of people on campus — more people to befriend.”

The Lassonde student who wishes to remain anonymous defines their York experience as “great.” They say that the fork phrase “really undermines how difficult this university is, and how good some of the programs actually are.”

“I think Lassonde and the electrical engineering and computer science department are amazing. During my internships, I met people from more prestigious computer science programs,” they say. “The reality is that we all learn the same stuff.”

These days, some York students have been able to triumphantly reclaim the phrase, putting a positive spin on something that has long been used to degrade and insult. In a 2020 article on Campusguides.ca, writer Fara Seddigh turned the phrase on its head: “If you can hold a fork, you MUST go to York.”

“A phrase more commonly used by the U of T students: if you can hold a fork, you can go to York. This unofficial slogan, embraced by most rival schools, mocks York,” Seddigh stated in her guide to the best spots to eat at York. 

“However, the reality is that these students are expressing their jealousy. They don’t attend a school with a billion different spots for good food.”

FORKING IT OVER

As aggravating as it may be in the moment, the if you can hold a fork saying doesn’t have tangible weight. Its biggest documented impact appears to be stroking the egos of rival students with too much time on their hands.

For all that’s been said about York being an “easy” school — with my coursework, I certainly don’t have the time to handcraft a giant fork sculpture, pick out a sketchy outfit, deliver it across the city, and then brag about it for years. But that’s just me.

The not-so-harmless role the phrase can also play in degrading students from marginalized backgrounds is truly nothing to be proud of. Racism and classism are definitely far more embarrassing attributes than the ability to hold a fork and go to York.

Image via York University Website

Ultimately, York students’ futures have been proven to transcend petty mockery and stereotyping. The school is just a Google search away from a slate of glowing recommendations. 

York and its students have consistently been ranked as global leaders, in metrics that supersede inter-Ontario university elitism. 

In the 2021 Times Higher Education global Impact Ranking, which classifies universities regarding the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), York has placed 11th in Canada. It also placed 67th overall, against 1,115 institutions from 94 countries.

York’s Schulich School of Business was ranked number one in Canada by Forbes magazine, and the university was also ranked first in Ontario for global collaborative research publications.  

Similarly, York’s prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School has been consistently ranked in the top five across Canada.

“Osgoode has been my dream law school since I started considering this field in high school,” says Abdel-Maksoud. “So no, what people had to say about York didn’t affect my decision to pursue both my undergrad and law degree there. The education that York provided me as a liberal arts student was unmatched.

“The critical thinking skills I gained completely shaped who I am as a person, so I’m grateful to most of my professors for emphasizing social and political responsibility alongside critical thinking during my undergrad.

“If you want to receive an education that will shape you into someone who is equipped to understand issues of politics, history, and social justice — and subsequently, someone who stands up for justice,” says Abdel-Maksoud, “I recommend York.”

Today, York boasts a gleaming 94 per cent of employed graduates within two years of graduation — and not a fork in sight.

About the Author

By Sakeina Syed

Former Editor

Sakeina is in her third year at York University studying public administration and creative writing. She is committed to learning and writing about critical issues and uplifting marginalized stories. Outside of Excalibur, you'll most likely find her reading a book or collecting funny cat videos.

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Kay

This is a fantastic article.