In August 2018, the McGill Reporter revealed that McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education office (SEDE) was undergoing structural changes. Director of SEDE Veronica Amberg told the Reporter that her “new vision of SEDE will be to expand the access and community engagement programs.” She went on to state that SEDE will “become a resource hub […] predicated on recognition of the need to create pathways to education through longitudinal support, mentorship, and targeted outreach of especially populations who may experience barriers to getting an excellent post-secondary education.” Amberg also emphasized the modifications being made to SEDE’s strategy of community outreach and engagement. Outreach efforts once handled at SEDE are now the responsibility of enrollment services. SEDE’s initiatives with regards to community engagement post restructuring, however, are where there has been the most contention and concern.
SEDE describes their mission as “address[ing] barriers to education by celebrating and integrating diverse perspectives into campus culture, and fostering research and mentorship opportunities to support more equitable, inclusive outreach and research at McGill.” The office runs many programs like Family Care, which provides resources to students who are caregivers, and hosts events for occasions like Black History Month. The office also runs homework help initiatives and programs at high schools in Montreal. SEDE has established itself as a link between marginalized communities around Montreal and McGill.
An open letter to Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) Angela Campbell posted on Facebook in December 2018, as part of an online campaign called “McGill needs SEDE,” claims that the office is effectively closing. “The McGill Administration justifies this decision by claiming this move will prioritize equity, but breaking up programs of the SEDE office contradicts the real needs and demands of the McGill community.”
In response, the Reporter published an article outlining the main changes in the office so far. The article states that McGill’s equity education advisors are “more aligned with” work concerning anti-harassment and anti discrimination, as well as the mandate of the Special Advisor to the Provost on Indigenous Initiatives. The Family Care Coordinator will be relocated to Student Services, a new position of employment equity administer will be replacing the community partnerships associate and will take on the role of “improv[ing] access to employment at McGill to diverse groups, and develop mentorship opportunities for McGill students with diverse identities who may seek career opportunities at our University following their graduation.”
These changes to SEDE were carried out with no direct student consultation. In correspondence with the Daily, Campbell explained that the SEDE revisions were inspired by other McGill initiatives which featured student input, like the task force on respect and inclusion. She asserted that “changes were motivated by the objective of enhancing the visibility and impact of the work that [my] colleagues within SEDE do in connection with equity and community engagement, and to ensure that there are strong resources in place to support this work.” This sentiment was echoed by Interim Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Fabrice Labeau at a recent roundtable with student press. “What we’re trying to do through this is take the different functions of SEDE and put them in locations where they’re going to be strengthened and have more support,” he explained, “putting these things together in the same service is going to help out.”
Campbell further explained that a focus on equity was the whole purpose of restructuring SEDE. She also asserted that these changes are “positioning those roles in spaces where they will be more supported.” The community outreach efforts to be carried out by enrollment services will apparently see little change in the day-to-day operations. Campbell described the mission of community outreach as “facilitating the goal of bringing McGill into communities and to students who might not otherwise have access. […] [We want] community engagement which focuses on the ultimate goal of enrollment. Our goal is to focus on pathways to the university,” and once students are here, “making sure they are fully supported.” Equity initiatives are now more than ever focused on “bolstering celebration and recognition of diverse groups on campus,” with a special focus on Indigenous students, current and prospective, according to Campbell.
Over email, Anurag Dhir, Community Engagement Coordinator of SEDE, identified a few programs at risk following the changes at the office. He said community engagement will be “repositioned to focus on co-creating Indigenous access to education programs with diverse communities, schools and community partners,” and that this will take place through enrollment services. However, the Schools Outreach program will stop receiving funding after this semester. Additionally, Experiential Community-Engaged Learning & Research (ExCELR), a program started in 2016 which “provides McGill students with community-based experiential learning in various McGill courses, and as part of the Minor in Quebec Studies,” is “looking for a new home.” Dhir explained the importance of ExCELR, detailing how it “meets SEDE’s mandate to provide experiential equity education opportunities for students while providing mutually beneficial and impactful long-term relationships with local community organizations who work with marginalized populations.” He also added that “this program has received positive feedback from students, community partners, and faculty.”
While many involved in the McGill administration believe that the changes to SEDE reflect positively on McGill’s public commitment to equity, those working within, or served by, the office are concerned. They worry that the office’s services may be of less quality, that programs may be cut, or that SEDE will disappear. In the open letter, organizers argue that, despite McGill’s assurance that these efforts will be beneficial, these changes mean that “SEDE will cease to exist as an independent body, depriving McGill of a non bureaucratic office for equity.”
In an interview with the Daily, organizers of the Facebook page “McGill Needs SEDE” Ananya Nair and Maheen Akter expressed concerns over McGill’s handling of SEDE. They pointed out how McGill only provided information about the changes after they had started to be implemented. Akter said that it was “almost blindsiding to see that the administration was making these changes without student input,” and that “from an outsider’s perspective it seems like SEDE is closing.” The organizers also expressed the feeling that administration was being “purposefully vague” in some of their responses, pointing to a lack of clarity on what students are losing with the changes to SEDE. Further, they wonder if community engagement will be “taken seriously” at enrollment services. They identified their main concern as the lack of consultation with stakeholders. “How would the administration know what is better for the students without asking the students?” Nair asked, continuing, “they didn’t consult students involved with, or who benefitted from, these projects. [Student consultation] can’t be bypassed.”
On January 29, Nair posted on the Facebook page, thanking people for their support and reiterating their mission. “We remain unconvinced that certain community engagement initiatives in SEDE will continue to exist to their full extent, but since we are currently led to believe that these projects will continue under their respective offices, we have little ability to demand the continual existence of the physical office itself,” the post read.
The post went on: “by diverting these initiatives to spaces across campus, the collective action that the SEDE office was undertaking to ensure inclusivity and diversity on campus through equity education and community engagement may be diluted.”
Attempts to contact officials at SEDE by the Daily were redirected to other personnel in administration. McGill administration will be meeting with members from student organizations to discuss changes within SEDE and other equity programs on February 12.