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In my opinion

How traditional C-suite appointments continue to maintain the whiteness of the academy

Analysis of the appointments of provosts underscores the need to disrupt and dismantle current promotion processes.


In the fall of 2017, Universities Canada, the voice of Canadian universities, took an important step forward by releasing both its Action Plan on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and Principles on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Through this, Universities Canada on behalf of its member institutions made a commitment to work harder to attract and retain students, faculty, staff, and leaders from more diverse backgrounds. Universities Canada also acknowledged that in order to serve their missions, senior leaders needed to commit themselves to be active champions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in their truest forms.

Two years later, in 2019, Universities Canada published a report titled, “Equity, diversity and inclusion at Canadian universities.” Among the interesting statistics reported was the fact that 60 per cent of senior university leaders who responded to the survey identified as belonging to at least one of the five designated equity-deserving groups, which for the purposes of the survey were: 1) women, 2) Indigenous people, 3) persons with disabilities, 4) members of racialized groups and 5) those who identified as LGBTQ2S+. In addition, 11 per cent of the respondents identified as belonging to at least two of the equity-deserving groups.

The fact that the majority of senior leaders in Canadian universities identify as belonging to at least one of the equity-deserving groups offers a glimmer of optimism that commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion have taken hold. However, a more detailed analysis illustrates that the traditional academic leadership of Canadian universities – that is as provost and/or vice-president, academic – has been and continues to be predominantly held by people who are white.

Based on an intersectional analysis of the Universities Canada data, 38.5 per cent of the respondents who served provosts were female while 62.5 per cent were male. Given that almost 49 per cent of all of the university senior leadership positions are held by females, there is clearly a disproportionate lower number who serve as provosts. The same inference can be made of the fact that very few provosts are racialized, Indigenous, have a disability or identify as LGBTQ2S.

Provosts matter

While there is variation in the specific duties and responsibilities of a provost and/or vice-president, academic – as the title can be applied differently in different universities – in general, a provost serves as a university’s chief academic officer. At the institutional level, the provost champions a university’s academic mission, vision, and priorities. Provosts have authority delegated to them by the president to provide academic leadership and oversight. Oftentimes, they support the president by taking on some of the responsibility to develop policies, manage budgets, are involved in strategic planning, and assist in making faculty tenure and promotion decisions.

Provosts also typically work with a team of vice-provosts and/or deans to ensure that the university is fulfilling its academic raison d’être. As the second-in-command for academic matters, it is not uncommon for the role of provost to be seen as one of the more direct career pathways that eventually leads to the president’s office.

Current status in the diversity of provosts

Recently, I embarked on a large research project that examined how Canadian universities have responded to the 2019 Universities Canada report. One aspect involved using a web-content mining approach to conduct an internet search of each of the Universities Canada member institutions to determine which ones had announced the appointment or re-appointment of a provost, beginning in the fall of 2019 until winter 2022. This three-year period was chosen as it coincided with the three years immediately after the release of the Universities Canada report.

My search identified 26 renewals of appointments or new appointments of provosts. Interim and pro tempore appointments were excluded from the search as they were transitional by design. In each case, the official public-facing university announcement was analyzed for demographic information provided by the institution that might describe the incumbent belonging to one or more of the five equity-deserving groups.

The demographic information and photo images supplied by the university accompanying the appointments/renewals were subjected to a discursive analysis. Particular attention was paid to language choices traditionally associated with gender identity, such as the use of male- and/or female-assigned pronouns like “he/him” and “she/her”; or as “being Indigenous,” “identifying as Indigenous,” or “belonging to” an Indigenous community, or “being a member” of an Indigenous nation; or as being “Black,” or of “African” or “Caribbean” ancestry/descent, or “racialized” or “a visible minority”; or as “having a disability” or “living with a disability”.

Half of the 26 renewed or appointed provosts were male and the other half female. One of the females appointed as provost is an Indigenous person, and one of the male appointees is a racialized person. Based on the data analyzed, it appears that no one identified as having and/or living with a disability or as belonging to the LGBTQ2S+ community.

While an imperfect analysis that relied on quite limited publicly available information, it appears that 24 or just over 92 per cent of the total appointments/renewals were made to individuals who can be racially categorized as white, able-bodied and heterosexual. The remaining two out of the 26 appointments, or less than eight per cent, went to either an able-bodied and heterosexual Indigenous person or racialized person.

Given the continuing fight for gender equality that women face, the good news is that half of the more recent provost appointments/renewals were women. This is an important step forward towards gender equality. Its impact should not be disregarded.

However, from a race-conscious understanding of equity – one anchored in the pioneering work of Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, a distinguished professor of law at the University of California and at Columbia University – that considers the primacy of race and racialization and how it intersects with other aspects of identity it is disconcerting that nearly all of the recent provost appointments were to individuals who are racially white, straight and able-bodied.

This analysis illustrates that from a race conscious perspective, very little has changed with respect to “who” gets appointed as provost, even though the member institutions of Universities Canada made an explicit commitment “to recruit, retain and support the advancement of diverse senior leaders” (2019, p. 35) The data highlights the fact that white heterosexual, able-bodied, females continue to be the visible face of diversity in the most traditional space for senior academic leadership in Canadian universities.

An opportunity to change the singular face of diversity

The assembly of well-respected scholars who contributed to The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity at Canadian Universities (2017) made it clear that claims of a colour-blind promotion and career progression model have been used to conveniently veil university processes that overwhelmingly benefit the career trajectories of white academics. And, while historically the benefit was almost exclusively afforded to white males, it appears that in the past three years the benefit has equally gone to white females with respect to who gets appointed or renewed as provost.

The outcomes of the entrenched process and normative models still being used to make career progression decisions will not change unless the presidents of the member institutions of Universities Canada are truly committed to racialized diversity, equity, and inclusion. What is needed are unflinching champions who are willing to take on and dismantle the tenacious, status quo processes embedded into the fabric of Canadian universities that favour progressing white academics into the highest senior leadership offices. Change will require presidents who have the socio-emotional strength and cognitive stamina to disrupt and dismantle the institutionalization of whiteness that remains prevalent in the academy.

Before we can dream and design a different future in higher education, we need to disrupt and dismantle the present social order. Anything less will simply continue to reproduce the racial biases and social inequities that continue to exist in society in the academy. It is not an easy task to dismantle systemic racism. But it is possible.

Jerome Cranston is the vice-provost, students and learning and a professor in the college of Education at the University of Saskatchewan.

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  1. Ismet Ugursal / August 17, 2023 at 04:53

    1. Why are there only five designated equity deserving groups? For example, why are children who suffered from neglect, dereliction and abuse not designated as an equity deserving group although they grow up with much less opportunity to become successful or functioning members of the society than those who come from a caring, loving and functional family belonging to one of the five designated equity deserving groups?

    2. Are the five designated equity deserving groups monolithic? Do all individual members of all designated equity deserving groups deserve equity equally?

    3. How is the degree of equity deservingness measured to rank order competing candidates from different designated groups? How is the degree of equity deservingness measured to rank order competing candidates from one designated group?

    4. How is competence weighted in reference to membership in a designated equity deserving group?

    • Helen / February 24, 2024 at 00:55

      These are important questions. Thank you for raising them.
      I’d like to add another one: Isn’t “equity deserving” a contradiction in terms since equity is supposed to mean that everyone gets equal, just and fair access to what they need to achieve their potential? How is deservingness of equity appraised? Who decides who “deserves” equity? Everyone deserves equity. Everyone has potential. That’s the whole point.

  2. Samuel H. / August 26, 2023 at 10:45

    I agree Ismet. Past traumas and family socioeconomic status are barriers that have a profound impact on people’s development and opportunities. Yet we focus almost entirely on race and sexuality/gender. And how do we objectively rank people based on their barriers and lack of opportunity? And who is qualified to make such judgements? In my experience, it is usually an HR dominated by white, hetero, cis women who, while maybe we’ll meaning, are not exactly qualified in terms of lived experiences.

    I look forward to when we have a more genuine pursuit of equity and stop filtering everyone through their race/sexuality/gender.

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