News  Administration responds to Task Force on Diversity

Student senators call for overarching equity policy

In Senate yesterday, Provost Anthony Masi presented the preliminary administrative response to the Principal’s Task Force on Diversity, Excellence and Community Engagement.

The Task Force was convened in Fall 2009 and the final report was released on February 21, 2011.

According to the final report, the Task Force’s goal was to “assess our strengths and weaknesses in achieving excellence, inclusiveness and community contributions and to formulate concrete strategies for improvement.”

The Task Force made three recommendations in its final report. The first was for the University to make “a firm commitment to the recruitment, retention and professional development of a diverse and excellent [group of staff and students].”

Masi spoke to the possibility of expanding the office of Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures and Equity) Lydia White, as well as the creation of a University fact-base to respond to issues concerning equity. He said that collecting data was “part of the problem.”

“We don’t have a good statistical database – a lot relies on self-identification,” he said. “We don’t have good information about ourselves, and it’s difficult to get people to conform.”

SSMU President Maggie Knight addressed Masi’s point in an interview with The Daily after Senate.

“If people aren’t ready to self-identify, why is that? […] If that’s a problem, doesn’t that point to something systemic? Let’s be willing to acknowledge that we’re not perfect and that we need to do work,” she said.

The Task Force’s second recommendation was that the “definition of excellence at McGill shall be broadened” in order to reflect McGill’s “distinctive mission,” and indicators to measure progress. According to Masi, this has in part been accomplished by Senate. Prior to his presentation, Senate approved the creation of the McGill University Award for Equity & Community Building.

The award is a student-led initiative brought to Senate with the Joint Board Senate Committee on Equity’s unanimous endorsement. The award aims to “enhance McGill’s commitment to equity by recognizing outstanding achievements” on the part of staff and students. Senate unanimously approved the award’s creation.

The report’s final recommendation was for the University to affirm its historical “service to society” and expand its commitment to “positive engagement with – and impact on – external communities.”

Knight asked how the University would avoid the appearance of “tokenistic” engagement with external communities.

“I reject the hypothesis of your questions,” Masi responded. “We don’t have the intention of doing anything that won’t have a large impact.”

Music Senator Emil Briones asked whether an over-arching equity policy would be drafted as a result of the Task Force.

In response, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum spoke to a trend at McGill of creating policy and then forgetting it. “What this Task Force should really engage in is changing practice,” she said.

Currently, McGill’s policies pertaining to equity are found in the Charter of Students’ Rights and Responsibilities, Employment Equity Policy, and the Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Prohibited by Law.

According to Knight, an overarching equity policy would serve to “[set] out the values” of the University. She pointed to the equity policies already in place within SSMU, PGSS and with some faculties such as Engineering, Music, and Management.

SSMU VP University Affairs Emily Clare, who has worked with three different versions of SSMU’s equity policy, spoke to the benefits of such a policy. “It is very beneficial because it really makes it clear that we have a clear stance on things. It clearly lays out informal and formal mechanisms,” she said.

“If you have good policy which is outlined with a clear set of values you can build a community of trust around that policy,” she continued.

In Senate, Clare read a statement she prepared on racism at McGill.

“To be perfectly frank, I have seen so many of [my] peers, colleagues, even staff and faculty, feeling so disempowered within McGill that they don’t feel they have anyone to go to, that they can’t speak up, that they’re silenced constantly,” she said in a later interview with The Daily.

PGSS VP (University & Academic Affairs) Lily Han called McGill’s lack of an office dedicated to equity issues a “glaring gap.” She pointed to equity offices at other Canadian universities such as the University of Western Ontario, the University of British Columbia, Queen’s University, and the University of Toronto.

“Right now, it seems to me that there’s a bit of a disconnect between what we hear from various students and what they’re experiencing – and to a lesser degree from staff – versus what the relevant people in the administration are aware of,” said Knight.

Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures and Equity) Lydia White said she would take the issues raised back to the Joint Board Senate Committee on Equity, and spend the next academic year working to address them.

The final response from the University administration to the Task Force will be presented in Fall 2012 and afterwards will be implemented.