Duncan drags universities kicking and screaming into 21st century

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Universities with more than five research chairs will have funding withheld if they fail to meet equity targets in hiring of women, aboriginal and visible minorities and the disabled.


First published on Monday, October 30, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—Show me the money and I will show you the path to equality.

Just last week, the university sector announced groundbreaking news about a new nation-wide plan to collect and publish data on how each institution is doing when it comes to diversity.

The Action Plan for Inclusive Excellence, a five-year strategy unveiled Thursday by a group representing all Canadian universities, made positive headlines across the country.

The plan includes self-monitoring, and publication of demographic data on faculty, students, and staff. On first blush, it appears to be a robust attempt to tackle the gross financial and tenure discrepancies in the treatment of white men and everyone else in the university sector.

But the further you dig, the more you realize that the universities are being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

The unheralded hero of this announcement is actually federal minister Kirsty Duncan.

Last spring, Science Minister Duncan announced a government initiative, the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion plan, which requires universities who want to access Canada Research Chair funding to revamp the way they recruit chair holders. The plan seeks the elimination of unconscious bias, active recruitment of diverse candidates, and continual monitoring for diversity in every step of the selection process.

Duncan gave a Dec. 15 deadline for universities to implement their own plans to improve transparency and diversity objectives, including public posting of their progress. Universities with more than five research chairs will have funding withheld if they fail to meet equity targets in hiring of women, aboriginal and visible minorities and the disabled.

Last week’s announcement was an attempt to collectively meet the challenge that Duncan has placed before the universities.

And given that $265-million in Research Chair money is at stake, the universities had no choice but to tackle the inequities.

Duncan knows first-hand the challenges faced by women and minorities in the university world. Prior to her surprise win in the riding of Etobicoke North, Ont., in 2008, Duncan taught meteorology, climatology and climate change at the University of Windsor and she still serves as an adjunct professor teaching both medical geography at the University of Toronto and global environmental processes at Royal Roads University. Duncan was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Having spent a lifetime as a woman in science, she experienced first-hand the sexism in the Canadian university sector.

Last June, she penned an op-ed piece for The Globe and Mail which served as a stark reminder of the rampant sexism in the university world. Excerpts included this stunning revelation: “When I was teaching at a university, a fellow faculty member shot a question at me during a staff meeting: When did I plan on getting pregnant? On other occasions, I was asked how I wanted to be treated: as a woman or as a scientist. Later, when I asked a university official why I was being paid in the bottom 10th percentile, I was told it was because I was ‘a woman’.”

Move over Harvey Weinstein. The depth and breadth of sexism is not exclusive to Hollywood.

Congratulations to the minister of science for putting the issue squarely on the table. As for the universities, statements on the launch of the diversity plan prompted a few questions.

University of Lethbridge president Mike Mahon, speaking on behalf of the Universities Canada board which he chairs, said the initiative involved “public self-monitoring” which he said would provoke change.

The new initiative involves developing a public national data base which will upload individual university information on race, gender, and ethnicity. Universities already keep individual databases but in most cases, the information collected is neither cross-referenced nor public.

In commenting on the plan, Mahon said the university strategy would also include broadening the pool of diverse students by starting at junior high school. That comment caused some alarm bells to ring, as it suggests that the current diversity deficit is caused by too few applicants from the underrepresented groups.

The minister’s own experience as a scientist clearly demonstrated the solutions are caused by biased university processes, not the paucity of applicants.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, added the action plan would be transparent “but I don’t think you will see us doing rankings and report cards.”

The minister should push back hard on that one.

Report cards and rankings are exactly how student performance is evaluated. Why shouldn’t universities be subject to similar testing?


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.