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Universities are ramping up targeted hiring to meet CRC equity goals

As the number of job ads aimed at under-represented groups grows, it’s garnering attention and generating controversy both in Canada and south of the border.


University job postings seldom get noticed by the public. But this spring, Quebec politicians, the National Post and even Fox News took umbrage at advertisements for Canada Research Chair (CRC) positions at Université Laval, the University of Toronto and others that stipulated only women, visible minorities, Indigenous people and people with disabilities should apply.

A Queen’s University posting for an engineering chair that was open only to women; a University of Waterloo faculty of environment position for someone who identifies as a woman, transgender, non-binary, or two-spirit; and a Western University ad for a Tier 1 CRC job for a person with a disability “in any area of research across Western’s eleven faculties” have similarly been drawing attention.

All of these institutions were following guidance and diversity targets laid out by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat, which is the government body responsible for administering the CRC program. Amid these small-scale controversies, the secretariat’s directives may be transforming diversity mandates at Canadian universities. “What we’ve heard from many faculty and institutions is that our work to promote equity, diversity and inclusion has increased discussions and actions within institutions, and the research ecosystem more broadly,” said Marie-Lynne Boudreau, the secretariat’s director.

The CRC targets are based on the 2016 census and will ramp up, by 2029, to see 50 per cent women, 22 per cent racialized minorities, 4.9 per cent Indigenous peoples and 7.5 per cent persons with disabilities holding chair appointments. As of October 2021, women held 40.9 per cent of these prestigious research jobs, visible minorities 22.8 per cent, Indigenous peoples 3.4 per cent, and people with disabilities 5.8 per cent.

Universities are required to reach interim targets by December 2022. If they’re unable to, they can only hire new chairs from the four designated equity groups and, by 2029, their allocation of chairs will be reduced (although by how much has not yet been stipulated). Universities that fail to meet reporting obligations will face sanctions. Hence the targeted job ads.

“These are proactive measures to ameliorate inequities,” said Malinda Smith, vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Calgary. “We know that human rights codes allow for these kinds of efforts. These ads are being written to do exactly what has long been permitted.” Indeed, the Ontario Human Rights Code allows for “special programs” to address inequities. Institutions in some other provinces have taken a different approach. The University of British Columbia, for instance, has applied to B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner for a special program to permit the wording of targeted CRC job ads.

Coveted appointments

The CRC program was launched in 2000 to fund 2,000 research chairs (although there are now 2,285) to attract and keep top academics in Canada. Tier 2 chairs are for five-year terms worth $100,000 in annual federal funding, and are awarded to emerging researchers. Tier 1 chairs reward world-leading academics with $200,000 annually over seven years.

In 2001, just 14 per cent of CRC appointments went to women, while the CRC secretariat was collecting no other diversity data. In 2003, a group of eight women academics across the country filed a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, alleging systemic discrimination. The Tri-Councils (SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR) agreed in 2006 to measure diversity and set targets, but few universities met them. Then in 2016, another professor launched a race-based human rights challenge, against the CRC program. Three years later, the original complainants signed an addendum to the 2006 settlement agreement that required more ambitious targets and tangible consequences if institutions fail to meet them.

With the 2022 deadline looming, universities are acting on their EDI plans. UBC — which has 199 chairs — has filled 60 CRC positions since 2020. “They’ve all been targeted hires,” said Moura Quayle, vice-provost and associate vice-president of academic affairs. “We’ve been more than successful with white women, we’re now over that target. But we need to work on finding people with disabilities.”

Read also: Latest settlement in CRC equity issue sets hard deadline for targets

UBC is working on a preferential hiring strategy for people with disabilities for the school overall, and is testing better ways to attract and evaluate candidates. (It now does interviews over a two-day period, for instance.) Dr. Quayle said the school has received just one complaint from an outside candidate since 2021 for its CRC hiring approach.

But the subject appears to be a touchy one for many institutions. ULaval and Queen’s declined to comment for this story, and the University of Regina said it was unable to find a spokesperson. Three others offered written statements.

Western’s vice-provost of academic planning, policy and faculty, Margaret McGlynn, said the institution’s special program to recruit three Indigenous CRCs and a chair with a disability are in compliance with the Ontario Human Rights Code. “This recruitment is critical to building a culture of inclusivity and to integrating expertise and experiences of equity-deserving groups into curricular offerings, research and scholarly activities, teaching and service.”

A spokesperson for the U of Waterloo offered a statement saying: “Our ongoing work to hire from the under-represented groups will help us work towards these targets,” which requires “a continuous process.”

The U of T, which has the most chairs in the country at 315, said to meet the targets and “address persistent systemic barriers faced by underrepresented groups, the university currently limits chair opportunities to those candidates who self-identify in one or more of the four designated groups. These efforts are complemented by institutional efforts to increase the diversity of the broader research community.”

‘Academia is still so homogenous’

The apparent reluctance on the part of many universities to speak publicly about the subject does not surprise Momin Rahman, a professor of sociology at Trent University and the outgoing co-chair of the equity committee at the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “They’re not confident enough in their own reasons for doing this to form a positive point of view,” he said. “The actual intellectual explanation for why they’re doing this, I think, is not very strong.”

Dr. Rahman also sees the initiative happening in isolation. “The CRC program is mostly run by senior management. I don’t get the sense that they’ve been educating their faculties about what they’ve been doing and why. Very few universities have taken that information and literacy and applied it throughout the whole hiring ecosystem.”

For instance, he said few people at Trent know that in 2020, the institution was ordered to hire only from the four designed groups because its equity plan did not pass a review process. (The same thing happened to Laurentian University, the Royal Military College of Canada and the University of Northern British Columbia.)

Dr. Smith, meanwhile, has her own theory of why few institutions want to talk. “There continues to be discomfort with speaking publicly as to why this is important, and how it’s important. This rests on the assumption that if you say you’re contributing to diversity somehow you’re going to be trading off with excellence,” she said, “or that somehow you are not objective.”

That myth is perpetuated in how academics are assessed during hiring and promotion, said Bibiana Pulido, a Montreal-based expert in EDI. “We need to value different competencies than publishing in high-impact journals,” she said. Community work, teaching, mentoring, activism and administrative work are undervalued. Yet, innovation in academia may lie in these areas. “We need diverse research, diverse knowledge. Academia is still so homogenous.”

Ms. Pulido is concerned that universities may meet their targets but won’t have the resources in place to support their new hires. “It’s not only about the representation of diversity, but how schools manage to keep these people,” she said. “The problem is that it’s tokenism…. Their expertise and their knowledge are not well valued and acknowledged.”

As the CRC equity targets ramp up in the coming years, institutions will need to both hire emerging Tier 2 talents — which they can pluck out of the more diverse pool of PhDs, postdocs and contract faculty — and build up a stronger pipeline of potential Tier 1 chairs. Those tasks could become more challenging depending on how the targets evolve. Dr. Rahman noted that the visible-minority target could change to match Canada’s 2021 census numbers, for instance.

“This is a moment that does require some courage,” said Dr. Smith, who sees the changes underway as a means to help more Canadian universities operate at a world-class level. “The research chairs are Canada’s effort to recruit top talent from around the world and enhance our competitiveness. We need more than one demographic group, or two groups, to do that.”

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  1. Zeil / May 27, 2022 at 10:14

    It would be interesting to have some data on the demographics among the ever-growing number of directors, diversity and inclusion. My bet is that few are white, over 50 and male. A new unfair situation cannot erase or repair an older situation of the same kind.

    • Sean / June 15, 2022 at 14:52

      You should check out the well researched book on the topic before making assumptions: The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities by Frances Henry, Enakshi Dua, Carl E. James, Audrey Kobayashi, Peter Li, Howard Ramos, and Malinda S. Smith. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

      • Dev / August 11, 2022 at 20:38

        You’re referencing a book published half a decade ago, whose limited statistical analyses are predominantly built around stats that are well over a decade old. Even the most recent stats cited in the book are now pushing a decade in age.

        I’m not sure Equity Myth is the “mic drop” you’re making it out to be.

    • Helen / January 27, 2023 at 09:41

      Excellent point.What’s an Associate Vice-president? What role does an AVP do that a VP is unable to do? Also, how come every administrator I’ve asked can’t tell me what the difference between a dean and director of the department is? Even the assistant director of my department shared that she didn’t know what she does that makes her the assistant director.

  2. Gary G / May 27, 2022 at 13:52

    This article reports that there is opposition to these initiatives, yet manages not to quote a single opponent. Instead, the opposition is (mis-)represented only in the words of those who support these targeted hiring practices, who frame it very simply as baseless, incorrect opposition (perpetuating a myth).

    From Ms. Pulido’s own words, it seems clear that the concern Dr. Smith mentions about a trade-off with “excellence” is a valid one – depending, of course, on what one means by “excellence”. Obviously Ms. Pulido believes research excellence should become less significant an assessment factor… which is a case many might support, but she also proposes making “activiism” one of those factors to rate higher in importance. Rather self-serving, obviously, and I would hope there would be some serious misgivings about thinking along the lines of “sure, this person’s research is a muddled mess, but at least they’re passionate about their views, unsupported by evidence though they seem to be”. That isn’t excellent at all, and this attitude has far broader and troubling implications than just for CR Chairs.

    Yes, there is room for institutions to broaden their categories of assessment – though most already do at least somewhat consider “Community work, teaching, mentoring, [maybe not explicitly activism] and administrative work.” But I’d think the CRCs – you know, the Canada RESEARCH Chairs – should always maintain research excellence as their primary criterion.

    By all means, let’s work towards improved opportunities for everyone … and maybe this is the best way to do that. But let’s not pretend that targeted hires don’t, by design, put another criterion before excellence, however that is defined. I don’t doubt the eventual appointees are still generally excellent – though I suppose one might worry in those areas with the most trouble meeting targets, where “pretty good” might still cross the bar; better a mediocre Chair than facing institutional penalties from a crucial funder for failing to make quota … sorry, to “meet a target”.

  3. Stuart Chambers, PhD / May 27, 2022 at 15:49

    There are several reasons to be skeptical about the article’s assumption that merit will be unaffected by diversity. First, excellence is sacrificed for the sake of diversity when a committee intentionally limits its pool of candidates based on characteristics unrelated to skill (i.e., sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity). You could end up with some good scholars, but one can never know the complete spectrum of talent without an open competition.

    Second, self-identification in the hiring process also invites cheating. Candidates can self-identify according to categories that are invisible. How would a hiring committee know if a potential candidate was non-binary or two-spirit? What about a hidden disability? Academics have already lied about their Indigenous identity and their race in the hopes of attaining employment.

    Lastly, there is a reason why long-standing criteria are trusted and why other qualities are of lesser importance. This is highlighted in Randall Kennedy’s new book Say It Loud! Professor Kennedy discusses how Derrick Bell, the godfather of critical race theory, attempted to water down objective hiring criteria (i.e., scholarly publications, test scores, grades) by substituting these with subjective criteria, such as empathy and other social skills. Kennedy rejected Bell’s position because it “excessively demoted individual effort and talent.” Bell’s more relaxed standards would have resulted in the hiring of weaker scholars.

    The article above employs Bell’s strategy: “We need to value different competencies than publishing in high-impact journals… Community work, teaching, mentoring, activism and administrative work are undervalued…Academia is still so homogenous.”

    By homogenous, the EDI expert means that academia relies too heavily on a sense of excellence in publishing, which must be weakened to allow room for less scholarly-based criteria. That is how merit loses at the expense of diversity. It’s a trade-off, and EDI enthusiasts should just admit up front that they condone such a trade-off, all for the sake of diversity.

  4. Sunny G. / May 27, 2022 at 22:42

    As a visible minority candidate from a Canadian Institution, I have kind of given up the hopes for an academic career in Canada. Many of our doctoral programs have almost 90% or more students coming from visible minority groups- many are international students who get their citizenship during their studies. Unfortunately, universities find ways to employ more than 90% of the positions with white male candidates while hiring. They are not shameful about finding the ‘best fit’ only among candidates coming from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds.

  5. Johnny Eh McDonald / June 2, 2022 at 14:13

    Does no one care about the Orwellian quality of this piece? Are we Canadians past caring, or is it rather that we must now welcome it with open arms?

    Is anyone at all interested in whether the relatively new provisions in the named provincial human rights codes are actually constitutional (i.e,, can they be squared with Sections 7 & 15 of the Charter)? Is it just to be assumed that they are, or must be – even though no jurist till about ten years ago would have had the gall to (or dreamed to openly) claim as much?

    Are we really ameliorating inequities when we hire elites from the Global South to fill some of these roles?

    When it’s claimed that we need “diverse research” and “diverse knowledge”, why doesn’t that include or entail diversity of viewpoints? Personally, I should very much like to see the inclusion of many more PRC loyalists, religious conservatives and ultra-conservatives, ethno-nationalists, and others whose views are representative of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people in the globe, yet are woefully under-represented in the academy.

    How is this not all just a racket?