No more excuses
Investigating the lack of equity at McGill and how faculty staff experience race
Written by: Niyousha Bastani and Rackeb Tesfaye
Credit: Alice E. Shen

Updated on April 5, 2015

It is no secret that racialized minorities are sorely underrepresented on McGill's campus. This lack of representation is strikingly visible within the composition of academic staff at McGill, where racialized people are outliers in a homogenous environment. This is a visible reality that is not only impossible to miss within classrooms at McGill, but it is also one that is supported by statistics.

In 2011, a report on the issue of diversity and equity was released by a task force created in 2009 under the purview of former principal Heather Munroe-Blum in response to the university's lack of diversity. The report's first recommendation called on the University "to demonstrate a firm commitment to the recruitment, retention, and professional development of diverse and excellent academic staff, administrative and support staff, and students." That same year, a report on employment equity showed that an underwhelming percentage of staff self-identified as a 'visible minority,' 'ethnic minority,' or 'Aboriginal.' Yet to this day, four years later, these statistics remain largely unchanged, and in some cases have even regressed.

The Daily obtained an unpublished report compiled by the Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office in 2014 which indicates that of McGill's total academic staff, only 0.18 per cent identify as 'Aboriginal,' 9.2 per cent as a 'visible minority,' and 14.7 per cent as an 'ethnic minority.' Of McGill's tenure-track professors, only 25.5 per cent identified with at least one of these three designated groups. The worst-performing faculties in terms of tenure-track professors who identified as a 'visible minority,' 'ethnic minority,' or 'Aboriginal,' include the Faculty of Education (19.5 per cent) and the Faculty of Arts (22.8 per cent), yet similar numbers can be seen in the majority of faculties.

The aforementioned 2011 report led to the creation of the position of Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures & Equity), an expansion of Lydia White's former role as Associate Provost (Policies and Procedures). Other than the rebranding of the role and the collection of aggregate data regarding staff representation, there have been few other tangible advancements. Although SEDE has done a small amount of Employment Equity training with the Faculty of Engineering and the Faculty of Law (only at each faculty's request), McGill has yet to officially implement such proactive measures across all its faculties. When asked about this in an interview with The Daily, Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures & Equity) Lydia White said, "That is a matter of money in the end, which currently is not available. A real education drive in all departments [...] would be great but it isn't financially feasible right now."

When asked for details about concrete advances on McGill's part since 2011, White said she recognized that there is a gap between "the recognition of the problem and the implementation of solutions." She added that "there is a lot of education work going on by certain deans," and continued to say that the administration hoped that the drive for education and awareness "would be filtered down to the units within the faculty." She did not clarify further on how this process would work.

"Particularly problematic"

The need for equity is made clear by the several human rights complaints filed against the University in recent years on the basis of racial discrimination. Racial barriers extend beyond hiring practices into the work environment. The Joint Board-Senate Committee on Equity, the main body dealing with equity in University governance, recently established an ad-hoc working group to investigate whether systemic bias affects academic staff at McGill, especially with regards to reappointment, promotion, and tenure, as well as work environment.

When The Daily reached out to the working group for comment, members refused to answer questions on whether they believed that their research and report will be followed through with tangible action by the administration. Additionally, when asked for an interview to address their lived experiences as professors of colour at McGill, members agreed it would be a conflict of interest with their role on the committee.

White spoke to her understanding of the issues that the working group is currently studying. "My assessment of the situation is that actually reappointment and tenure are not particularly problematic," she said with regards to the University's procedures. However, White also added that one of the reasons for not getting promotion to full professor could potentially be attributed to lack of action on the part of professors because of a perceived fear of failure. "But there may be [a problem] with respect to promotion to [tenured] professors [...] that people are holding back because they perceive that they may not be promoted."

Faculty voices

During this investigation, many of the academic staff interviewed requested to speak off the record, with some even declining interviews. This makes it clear that there is a vicious cycle of silence and a fear of jeopardizing one's livelihood by talking openly about race at McGill. Concerted efforts need to be put into creating a safe and open environment. It should be noted that professors interviewed spoke to their personal experiences, and their statements should not be taken as the sentiments of all racialized faculty members. Listening to the lived experiences of McGill's academic staff is the first step to breaking the silence.

"My experience differs"

"It's definitely been an isolating experience coming to McGill," said Allan Downey, academic associate in Indigenous Studies at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, when talking about how race has influenced his experience at McGill. "Currently there are no Indigenous tenure-track faculty members here. There are only a couple of us that are in limited term positions."

Charmaine Nelson, an associate professor in Art History, echoed this sentiment. "Of course my experience differs, so my experience, as a Black woman, reflects then the way that I am marginalized both in terms of sexism and racism."

Nelson explained that her identity interacts with "every aspect of my job, the teaching in terms of how I'm engaged by the dominant white student population [...]there were incidents of people being aggressive with me, being rude with me, wanting to address me by my first name as opposed to professor or doctor, et cetera. [It affects] the way that I'm engaged by colleagues, and the way that I have to fight with the discipline itself, which is racist. So all of it is different for me as a Black woman."

"We are all products of our society and socialization," Zoua Vang, an assistant professor in the department of Sociology, told The Daily. "So for us to pretend that because we have [...] a PhD after our name, that we are immune to racial images, racial stereotypes, that that doesn't affect our daily interactions with each other and with students - that I think is a huge misconception and a huge disservice that we do to ourselves, to the university community, and to our students."

Race at McGill, Vang continued, is not talked about enough. What Vang found "really surprising about coming to Canada [from the U.S.], and coming to McGill in particular, was how much race and issues about race are minimized and silenced at the university," something to which she is still adapting, she said.

"I myself have refrained from bringing up issues of race in my own department and at McGill more generally because there is not this welcoming environment where people can freely talk about race without fear of repercussions," she said.

Nelson presented a similar assessment of the climate at McGill, linking this to a broader Canadian narrative. "Euro-Canadians do not see themselves as having a race. So there is no concept for them of their experiencing white privilege," said Nelson. "So to get them to go from having a race to understanding that they experience racial privilege is a huge leap for a white Canadian in the space of a nation that has taught them that none of that exists."

This colour-blind attitude at McGill also directly affects teaching. As a professor who often discusses the intersection of feminism and race within the context of art history, Nelson mentioned how she was told by the McGill administration to 'tone down' the racial content of her lectures.

Speaking to the McGill environment, Downey pointed to the surprising "lack of Indigenous awareness on the campus [...] the visibility of Indigeneity on the campus is really limited. It's much further behind most universities," he said, adding, "even though [...] steps like incorporating the Indigenous Studies program into the university are good, positive steps, there is a lot that needs to be done."

However, Downey also provided a more optimistic outlook, saying that in regards to his interactions with colleagues at McGill, he found himself supported. "From the faculty's perspective, there are a lot of people that are supporting more Indigenous content and more Indigenous awareness."

The myth of meritocracy

Some of the professors interviewed by The Daily also commented about the myth of meritocracy promulgated as a popular discourse at McGill, and the lack of recognition of white privilege within the university.

According to the administration, in some cases a lack of qualified candidates is a 'barrier' to diversifying McGill. "In employing, taking on people at McGill, the first criterion is your suitability for the job and your qualifications," White told The Daily, adding that the question for the University is whether there "are ways of being more proactive, without telling units that they have got to choose people who may not be the best qualified for the job."

This concept of objective qualification is one that Nelson challenges. "White people who possess the degrees are still not meritorious enough to own [their] positions," she argued. "They've been given them through networks of power and privilege that are also quota systems that are hidden."

Vang also debunked the myth of a fair and unbiased process. "In a purely meritocratic system [...] we'd want to hire people not on the basis of their ethnic or racial background, but because of their qualifications. But we know that our hiring decisions are not all about the applicants' best qualifications. We hire people because of subjective assessments about personality compatibility and prestige of degree."

"And if we, people of colour, enter those, or intercede, or intervene [...] they call it quota, they call it tokenization," Nelson added. "But really, the reality for us as people of colour is that if you sit down with us and look at our CVs [...] we're overqualified and underpaid."

White, however, puts forward this very excuse when asked about the slow progress of diversifying McGill: "So for one grouping at least - Aboriginal persons - the proportion with the qualifications is low, and that may be true for persons with disabilities as well, [though] it's not true for the other [designated groups]."

"They're wrong," says Nelson, addressing such claims from the administration. "There is actually a sizable population, inside the nation, and outside the nation, of Indigenous people and people of colour who are walking around with PhDs, if not post-docs."

"A concerted effort"

Many of the professors interviewed suggested that it was time for McGill to step up and actively combat this myth of meritocracy and increase the number of Indigenous faculty and faculty of colour at the school.

"Listen, it's 2015. If it's not going to change now, when's it going to change?" Nelson asked. "You have to work at it [to] hire that few people of colour. No, seriously, because you just hire us by accident every once in a while."

Speaking to an effort to diversify McGill more broadly, Vang highlights that diverse representation, and "a colour-blind culture" that "minimizes and denies race," are two separate issues, and should be approached as such. "If you are able to successfully increase representation among students and increase representation among faculty members, that doesn't necessarily translate to a disappearance of this culture about race." Additionally, in regards to representation, Vang mentions that diversifying McGill's population must also transcend the student and faculty bodies, to reach higher administrative powers.

Significant efforts have been made already, namely a report submitted in 2010 by the Joint Board-Senate Subcommittee on Race and Ethnic Relations, which Nelson chaired at the time. The report, which contextualized the experiences of professors at McGill within a history of institutional racism in Canada, made numerous recommendations to the Principal's Task Force on Diversity, Excellence, and Community Engagement.

The report's recommendations included "immediately hiring senior professors of colour,"and mirroring certain equity practices like those in some parts of Canada and the U.S. where successful initiatives are already in place, such as creating administrative positions with authoritative power to act on equity concerns.

Nelson told The Daily that she felt the report was not taken seriously, saying that she doubted it "ever made it to [former McGill principal] Heather Munroe-Blum's desk." Ultimately, the report was never published - nor were its recommendations considered or followed up on.

Universities across Canada are not only starting to take initiative to address concerns such as those raised in Nelson's report, but are also starting to "reconsider how these institutions might be perpetuating the exclusion of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge," according to Downey.

Downey spoke about the particular need for hiring more Indigenous faculty, and explained that McGill is lagging compared to other universities in Canada. "There needs to be a concerted effort to increase the number of Indigenous faculty at the university. And [the administration has] to find ways [of] being able to do that. [...] There [are] universities across this country that are in double digits now, in all departments," said Downey, referring to the number of Indigenous academic staff. He added, "It's not just about [the Indigenous Studies program], there needs to be a decolonization process throughout the university."

"There are quite a few universities that are just beginning to have these conversations. McGill is one of them," Downey said. "Of course that's a positive development, at least they're open to that dialogue. Now we need to see a little more action."

"Issues around race shouldn't just be raised by minority faculty and minority students. It's a problem and an issue that affects everybody at the university," Vang said. "The fact [is] that the university explicitly relies on minority staff and students to raise issues."

"It's an open discourse, and there is no cringing"

Within McGill's academic life, the Institute of Islamic Studies leads the way in terms of diversifying its environment.

Rula Abisaab, associate professor of Islamic History, described her experience with race at McGill as "extremely positive." However, she added, "I have to, though, qualify this [...] I don't know if that would be the same experience in another department."

Beyond having a diverse academic staff, Abisaab also found that the Institute creates an open environment to talk about race. "I think I can easily say that I and a number of my colleagues would be completely comfortable discussing issues of race and gender [...] it's an open discourse, and there is no cringing."

The research conducted at the Institute also aids this dynamic. "The fields that we work within are [...] always making headlines," Abisaab said. "We are forced to have these conversations. It is not a choice, even."

"You know what, this matters to us"

Vang, Downey, and Nelson all emphasized the importance of students in bringing about change at McGill.

"Sometimes I am amazed by how much courage my students have - so much more than I have, so much more than faculty more generally have," said Vang. "We are supposed to be the adults and the leaders in the picture, yet it's the students that have the courage to talk about race [...] to share their racialized experiences even in an environment that is not always receptive to issues around race."

Like Vang, Downey also pointed to students as the catalysts of positive change. "What keeps striking me is just how it's the students that are calling for it. [...] Students are calling for more Indigenous professors to be at this university because it exposes them to a whole new set of knowledge and ideas."

According to Nelson, more can be done by the student body. "So what would it look like for the students of all races at McGill to say, you know what, this matters to us? When we look at the front of the class [..] we want to see the diversity, the racial complexity of our nation teaching us, because we understand that it matters, because we understand that the questions people pose come from their identity, because people understand the world through their own bodies, which are race, which are gender, which have a sexuality, et cetera."

"It matters who gets to produce knowledge," Nelson said. "So if the students get that, and get to university and say 'this is not working for us,' then that would change overnight."

Writers' Note:
It is disheartening to hear the administration excuse their lack of action by citing funding and resource shortages. This is indicative of a lack of concern, and a refusal to take the systemic exclusion of racialized faculty seriously. Equity is not a passive, ad-hoc approach of trickle-down education, but must rather be a proactive effort to correct the practices inherited from a legacy of colonialism. That the University needs to investigate whether systematic bias affects faculty members is telling of a broader myth that racism does not exist in Canada. As students, we are at an advantage, because to stay in business, the University must cater to the demands and needs of the consumers of its products. Far too often, the voices of faculty members are forgotten in student activism. We must listen to the faculty's lived experiences and come together to take action in numbers that the University cannot afford to ignore. We, in partnership with all members of McGill's academic staff must be persistent in breaking the silence that surrounds us.