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Plug pulled on Dimensions program

Despite significant progress at participating institutions, funding for program was not renewed in 2023.


It may come as a surprise for some to learn that the Dimensions pilot project, originally launched in 2018 by the Tri-Councils, has ended. What’s more, the program was quietly wrapped up without informing participating institutions. “It’s disappointing,” said Eden Hennessey, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) data specialist at Wilfrid Laurier University’s office of the associate vice-president, EDI. It wasn’t entirely surprising to Dr. Hennessey, who was aware of the rumours circulating about Dimensions: funding would not be included in the 2023 budget submission. “In some ways, it’s a bit confusing,” she explained. “This work takes time.” Malinda Smith, vice-provost, EDI at the University of Calgary, was also holding out hope for the Dimensions program. “To my knowledge, we didn’t receive any letter from NSERC. I kept hoping that the negotiations were underway and we would know on time,” she said.

Kirsty Duncan, who was minister of science and sport when the pilot project was launched, raised the issue in the House of Commons last October. The response on Dec. 12 confirmed the program’s demise; according to reports, the team was disbanded in Fall 2023. “I am very disappointed that a successful program that has received international recognition has ended,” said Ms. Duncan, an EDI advocate, in a statement to University Affairs.

The Dimensions pilot project was originally supported by the three federal research granting bodies: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The ambitious pilot set a higher bar than similar programs worldwide:  out of 40 applicants, 17 institutions were invited to participate in developing a program that would be relevant to all higher education institutions in Canada. “Being selected was something exciting,” Dr. Smith recalled. A total of 143 institutions (CEGEPs, universities, government agencies, research institutes) have since signed the Dimensions Charter.

Small investment, major impact

In a statement sent to UA, NSERC explained that the granting council was responsible for overseeing Dimensions and that the project “received only temporary funding. Given current budgetary constraints, it would be extraordinarily difficult to extend pilot programs with no corresponding budget.” It’s worth remembering that last fall, the federal government called on all federal agencies to tighten their belts.

While it’s not unheard of for a funding program or pilot project not to be renewed, Dr. Smith pointed out that “it’s usually based on an assessment.” Unfortunately, in this case, funding was cut off before the assessment was conducted. In its statement, NSERC said it will release its review, in conjunction with its internal evaluation division, “in early 2024.” Meanwhile, partner institutions anxiously await the results. “I’d like to learn more about the impact of the pilot project. Scientific articles have resulted from assessments of other programs,” said Dr. Hennessey.

Several sources explained that Dimensions wasn’t a particularly expensive affair. It is speculated that the five-year budget of $5 million was not entirely spent.

“Dimensions didn’t call for a large amount of funding, but it was a far-reaching project,” concluded Kamel Beji, director of EDI at Université Laval. “It’s unfortunate that this has happened with respect to what was really a very small budget item in the federal program,” added Steven Liss, vice-president of research and innovation at Toronto Metropolitan University.

The 17 pilot institutions didn’t receive immediate funding but were able to apply for the EDI institutional capacity building grant program (funded at $5.3 million over five years). “In the midst of the pandemic, institutions invested a lot of resources, brain power and energy,” pointed out Dr. Smith, whose institution encountered its own financial challenges during this period.

Moving forward anyway

Dimensions may have ended after five years, but not without making a positive impact. “We fostered a community of practice and shared promising practices and resources. Dimension’s Charter and the pilot were held as a beacon for universities,” remarked Dr. Liss. Dr. Beji agreed: “The pilot project was a lever that motivated us to act.” U Laval has since adopted an EDI action plan. “We jumped at the chance to work together to improve campus practices,” he added.

NSERC maintained in their statement that Dimensions promoted EDI at all sites, creating EDI-dedicated positions, offices and committees, transforming hiring practices and, in some cases, enhancing physical spaces. Institutions were better able to identify their specific assets and shortcomings, focusing on data and data analysis to help them make informed decisions. “The needle was moved,” insisted Dr. Hennessey.

Despite the funding not being renewed, the participating universities are determined to continue their efforts to break down barriers and be more inclusive. “With or without the federal recognition program, TMU will continue to move forward and champion EDI,” maintained Dr. Liss. While recognition was rewarding, according to Dr. Hennessey, “It’s more the process, what you learn about yourself, your institution, the introspection, that is incredibly valuable.”

The impact of the program’s end will vary, particularly for smaller institutions or those without dedicated EDI staff. “That conversation might not continue; perhaps the end of Dimensions will be interpreted as a lack of support,” Dr. Hennessey argued. Even if NSERC has assured that it will pursue their EDI support efforts, “what kind of message does this send to institutions of all sizes?” she asked.

According to Dr. Beji, “the EDI wave is sweeping the country and will inevitably make a comeback, either as Dimensions or in some other form.” However, Dr. Duncan isn’t concealing her disappointment. “Millennia of patriarchy and centuries of colonialism and slavery cast long shadows. This is not the time to stop, but rather to continue, and fix well-known, long-standing inequality.”

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  1. Serge Villemure / March 13, 2024 at 16:08

    This is an unfortunate decision. Excellent work was in progress, which has been terminated way too soon. It is also unfortunate that the granting agencies could not collectively come up with a solution to continue the program. Let’s hope that this step back is to better move forward in the future.
    Full disclosure: the author of this comment is a previous employee of NSERC, where he was an EDI champion and the first Director of the Dimensions program.