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In my opinion

Beyond cohorts and clusters: redressing systemic anti-Blackness in higher education

How McMaster University’s Black Excellence Cohort hiring initiative was formed.


There has been growing public acknowledgement of the need for initiatives that address anti-Black racism within the Canadian higher education sector. None of this is new. There have been widespread and consistent critiques of systemic racism within and across institutions in higher education for decades. In Canada, several committees, reports and recommendations advanced by students, faculty and staff have highlighted how experiences of racism are tied to historical, social, political and structural issues that are pervasive and not in any way anomalous or episodic.

Among the recent initiatives to address the racial equity gap are efforts to establish a National Institute for People of African Descent and several initiatives to hire Black faculty members through targeted initiatives. Examples of cluster and cohort hiring initiatives include McMaster’s announcement to hire 12 Black faculty members, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University’s cluster hiring announcement for Black and Indigenous faculty members and OCAD U’s Black faculty cluster hiring initiative, among others.

The McMaster University Black Excellence Cohort hiring initiative is one that should not be interpreted as reactionary, nor oversimplified in terms of what must be appreciated and supported for action going forward. McMaster’s Black Excellence hiring initiative is one of several actions that have resulted from a long, complex confluence of historical trajectories that arose from over a decade of organizing, collectivity, solidarity and resistance. This involved efforts across a number of groups that intervened systemically to shift the structures of decision-making throughout the institution. It has been a grassroots effort in ways that are too often omitted from the ways these stories are told. Our hiring initiative itself has positively shifted how faculties have viewed barriers for Black scholars, thus making the initiative an ongoing approach for the future.

McMaster’s Black Excellence Cohort initiative

The African, Caribbean Faculty Association at McMaster (ACFAM), which was officially established in 2010, played a key role in McMaster’s Black Excellence Cohort initiative. ACFAM arose via the leadership of Black and Caribbean faculty members who recognized the need to establish a body through which shared experiences, knowledge and perspectives could be valued to develop and influence the university’s policies and programming. Their work has helped to establish Black History Month programming at McMaster and to advance the African and African Diaspora Studies Minor (with a goal of establishing a fully supported program or institute). ACFAM members have served to establish and lead the Race, Racialization and Racism (R3) working group of the President’s Advisory Committee on Building and Inclusive Community, advocated for the establishment of a senior leadership role dedicated to equity and inclusion, developed the Black Student Mentorship Program on campus, served on committees to address inequities on campus, and allied with and supported Black student organizations across campus such as the Black Aspiring Physicians of McMaster (BAP-MAC), the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Black Students Association (BSA), and the Black Student Success Centre (BSSC).

It was a culmination of organizing, community solidarity and advocacy that facilitated the development of ACFAM’s statement on racial justice in June 2020. Over a decade of work went into the development of the nine recommendations in a white paper entitled “From words to action: Closing the gap to achieve Black excellence at McMaster”’ that was submitted to senior leadership to address systemic racism. There are now structures (ACFAM, BAP-MAC, NBSE, BSA, BSSC, etc.) that have established relationships where perspectives, initiatives and analyses can be tabled, and where recommendations can be implemented in actions that are focused on impacts and outcomes. How institutions recognize and support the work of Black-led organizations internally and externally can and will have a profound impact on what possibilities emerge.

How it worked

While it was not without its challenges, overall, the cohort hiring initiative for Black scholars at McMaster was an intentional and fruitful process. At the university level, Black and other racialized faculty members led the advocacy and planning for the initiative to ensure that the process was welcoming (and not tokenized), responded to community needs, and addressed issues in inequitable hiring practices. Within each faculty, the hiring committee was co-chaired by a Black faculty member.

Furthermore, ACFAM members met with all short-listed candidates in each of our six faculty searches to provide candidates with support and a safe space to ask questions they may not have been comfortable asking the official hiring committee. ACFAM members and allies also shared analyses that countered the resistance that often arises when targeted initiatives are suggested to address historical inequities.

One example in particular was the need to share information about Section 14 of the Ontario Human rights Code that permits initiatives to address discrimination of disadvantaged groups. Another example was the need to address the myth that this initiative was likely to produce hires of lesser quality. That racist myth was quickly dispelled by the approximately 450 outstanding candidates that applied for these 12 positions. Some of the top applicants said they would have never applied without the targeted initiative, as they felt they would not have had an equitable chance at the job otherwise.

Lessons learned

An organizational structure that allows for independent, Black faculty to facilitate difficult conversations with senior leaders is necessary. Also, supporting these groups within institutions requires that we recognize their value, offer institutional resources and preserve their autonomy. To fail to recognize and support these groups can result in exacerbating the contexts whereby their perspectives and labour go unacknowledged.

ACFAM as an entity, and the allied groups that have supported this work, recognize that racialized people disproportionately live underemployed or overworked, underpaid, over policed, underrepresented and undervalued lives due to racism and its accomplices. Without appreciating the complexities, histories, struggles and relationships that have been forged over time while also challenging complicities, these efforts for change can result in situations whereby cohort hiring can come without attention to support, systems, and structures that also require change.

At this moment, many people want something dramatically different. We can get there, to an entirely new reality. However, we cannot do it without getting very real about the ways our complicities with racism and the oversimplification of our responses can undermine the gains of the struggle against racism and the possibilities for better solidarity. The road is long and difficult. Underestimating and underappreciating the communities, organizations, and leaders that have brought us to these important moments can undermine other efforts to make lasting change.

Ameil Joseph, Juliet Daniel, Bonny Ibhawoh, Jamal Deen, Daniel Coleman, Alpha Abebe, Faith Ogunkoya and Lydia Kapiriri are member of the African, Caribbean Faculty Association of McMaster University (ACFAM).

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  1. MAJORIE ANGEL BROWN / November 18, 2021 at 13:05

    Well done.
    This is an example of equity and inclusion coming to fruition through diversity critical mass in action. I lived to see this organizational change vision of MCOD

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