On January 28, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) held a panel discussion on “Diversity in Academia,” following the release of a report entitled “Equity in the Hiring of McGill Academic Staff: An Investigation,” acquired by The Daily on January 24, which discussed concerns with the state of McGill’s employment equity.
In 2007, McGill Senate and Board of Governors ratified an Employment Equity Policy. Last May, the biennial review of the policy noted that since 2013 there has been “little change” in the proportional representation of “designated groups” within McGill faculty.
“Lack of commitment, formalized practice, and transparency in regards to employment equity at McGill.”
The policy specifies six “designated groups”: Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, ethnic minorities whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, persons with disabilities, women, and persons of minority sexual orientations and gender identities.
The panel began with Carolin Huang, one of the SSMU Equitable Hiring Researchers who wrote the report along with Molly Korab, a former Daily editor. Huang described their findings, which included a “lack of commitment, formalized practice, and transparency in regards to employment equity at McGill,” and a “lack of leadership from the upper administration on equity.”
The panel comprised of four McGill faculty members: Tara Flanagan, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology; Susan Gaskin, professor in the Department of Civil Engineering; Zoua Vang, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology; and Adelle Blackett, professor in the Faculty of Law.
Commitment to diversity
The panelists questioned McGill’s – and more generally Canadian and U.S. universities’ – commitment to diversity. “We say things like ‘diversity is good’ but I’m not sure to what extent the University really believes that we are not excellent if we are not diverse,” said Blackett.
“Since 2008, the percentage of Aboriginals and people with disabilities [who are McGill faculty] has actually declined,” explained Huang. Over the last eight years, the percentage of McGill faculty that identify as women has only increased by 1 per cent; the percentage that identify as ethnic minorities increased by 0.9 per cent, and the percentage that identify as visible minorities increased by 0.8 per cent.
McGill’s Employment Equity Policy states that “in its pursuit of employment equity it is understood that the University will not engage in reverse discrimination [or…] impose quotas.” Rather, its stated goal is “the enlargement of the pool of appropriately qualified candidates by encouraging applications from a broader range of persons.”
“We say things like ‘diversity is good’ but I’m not sure to what extent the University really believes that we are not excellent if we are not diverse.”
“There’s a misperception that the pool of qualified minority candidates is just not there – that there are maybe one or two qualified minority faculty but then the rest of them are subpar,” countered Vang. “I think because of that misconception, university administrators and hiring committees go on with their ‘business as usual’ mentality and there isn’t effort to go out there and to recruit talented minority faculty.”
Further, Vang noted that “there is this misperception that you can’t have racial diversity among faculty and still commit to academic excellence. And this idea that the two are incompatible is based on stereotypes that minority faculty are less qualified than white faculty,” she explained.
Both before and after being hired, racialized candidates’ qualifications are viewed with “greater scrutiny and suspicion” by administrators, colleagues, and students than those of their white counterparts, Vang explained.
Blackett pointed to the links between the lack of diversity in faculty and the lack of academic space given to topics such as race, disability, and Indigeneity. “The ‘designated groups’ become measures of underinclusion, but also become measures of intellectual erasure,” she explained.
Flanagan noted that McGill does not have a disability studies department, and as a result, McGill fails to “legitimize the experience and the scholarship around disability, as they do at other universities.”
“There exists the resistance to challenging a canon that we assume captures the highest level of academic expression, but that might actually be built on a really narrow range of expertise,” Blackett added.
“The more I talk about these issues, the more I’m silenced, and the more I get a reputation as the ‘angry Asian woman with a chip on her shoulder.'”
Huang and Korab’s report notes that “equity at McGill has largely focused on women (and by proxy, white women) as opposed to other identity categories.” This lack of academic diversity, the report said, “hinders creating a safe space for members of minority groups.”
“The more I talk about these issues, the more I’m silenced, and the more I get a reputation as the ‘angry Asian woman with a chip on her shoulder,’” said Vang. “With diversity you have the chance to change and transform these cultures of silence, these cultures of denial.”
Huang explained that while conducting interviews for the report, she found “no one has a clear idea of their role in the entire implementation of the employment equity process. […] There’s no documents that actually show how these practices are implemented at the university.”
“In comparison to other universities [in Canada…] McGill doesn’t have any particular programs or even an official equity office apart from the SEDE [Social Equity and Diversity in Education] office, which doesn’t actually have the power to influence upper administration decision-making,” Huang added.
“In the discussion in general it seemed like we were conflating diversity with anti-discrimination.”
“I think we need to be forced out of our comfort zone,” said Gaskin. “It could come from a strong leader at the top of the administration who says ‘this is my priority and this is what is going to happen.’”
A Cognitive Science student, who attended the panel and preferred to remain anonymous, told The Daily that they felt the panelists and the University failed to clearly distinguish between affirmative action and more halfhearted hiring practices that do not account for differences.
“I find I have a lot of questions as to the approaches that are taken [to] establish diversity, and also in the discussion in general it seemed like we were conflating diversity with anti-discrimination. I see those as separate questions which both have value – but without defining the values explicitly and by conflating the two, it can stunt progress,” the student said.
Action from within
Blackett criticized the fact that the University needed encouragement from outside forces before it acted upon issues regarding equity.
For instance, in 2013, Woo Jin Edward Lee, doctoral student and a course lecturer at the McGill School of Social Work, filed a human rights complaint against the University, accusing the school of systemic racism in its hiring practices.
Later, in March 2015, another human rights complaint was filed against the University, this time by an employee in McGill’s Faculty of Medicine who was allegedly fired “without due notice or cause,” and had claimed ethnic discrimination and related psychological harassment.
“The inability to reflect internally the type of broader open society that we want to have externally is really a terrible predicament of academic institutions.”
“Internal to institutions, we are very jealous of our academic freedom, and rightly so, but that makes it all the more incumbent on academic institutions to take the challenge of diversity seriously and to take leadership on it, rather than to wait for external bodies like human rights tribunals to tell the University that it hasn’t actually been living up to its requirements,” said Blackett.
“The inability to reflect internally the type of broader open society that we want to have externally is really a terrible predicament of academic institutions,” Blackett emphasized. “Taking seriously the challenge of inclusion is not just for the betterment of the universities, but it’s part and parcel of our responsibility to society at large.”
The employment equity data for the various universities was collected from the following linked sources: McGill University, Queen’s University, Dalhousie University, York University, University of Windsor, Western University.