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In my opinion

Questioning colonialism in university administration

We must shift our conceptions of leadership beyond the confines of individualist, transactional and hierarchal notions toward more complex, relational and collectivist ways that recognize Indigenous nationhood and knowledges.


Over the past five years, policies about Indigenizing and decolonizing the academy have flooded our newsfeeds. Just in 2021, an advisory committee on equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization established by the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences released a report appealing to higher education institutions to act to confront and unsettle “the impact of colonial histories, ideologies, experiences and legacies on disciplines, archives, canons, curricula, methodologies, and pedagogies, as well as structures of governance…”  Similar appeals have called for universities to diversify leadership, because the majority of administrative positions in universities continue to be held by white men. Despite some progress towards hiring more women in leadership roles, studies show that racialized people continue to be underrepresented, and many women hired into leadership struggle to work in higher education administrative spaces.

In universities, as in any organization, leadership matters. Ideas about what leadership is, however, and how it is determined and  practised, are only occasionally reflected upon critically, and rarely through an Indigenous decolonial lens. Melody Viczko and I have argued that embracing critical perspectives in educational leadership in both theory and practice will help to transform higher education and open it more fully to a diversity of people and ways of knowing.

Like Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz, I argue that simply including more Indigenous people – and more Indigenous administrators – is not enough to decolonize and Indigenize the academy. That will require radical changes in the bicameral and hierarchic structures of universities, in the disciplinary systems and norms, in employee relations, in operational functions such as finance, and in leadership practices, which all sustain ongoing settler colonialism. I came to this understanding as I researched the work experiences of Indigenous women administrators  at universities in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. I have seen that Indigenous women who champion Indigenization work confront, every day, enormous difficulties in trying to put Indigenous policy promises into practice. Their stories speak to the challenges of operating within academic structures that support ongoing settler colonial power dynamics, of functioning in professions dominated by white settler masculinist norms, and of working on the precarious epistemic border between universities and Indigenous communities. I saw that when Indigenous women challenged the underlying colonial structures and ideologies at play in their workplaces, they were often problematized, marked as difficult – too activist, too biased, even uncollegial – because they refused to conform to institutional norms that others claimed were apolitical.

I encountered an example of the pervasiveness of colonial discourses in educational administrative cultures a few years ago when I overheard an administrator comment that some faculty members were “going off the reservation” because they had questioned their business-as-usual logics. Their use of this colonial idiom reflected a deeply ingrained authoritarian pattern in administrative culture that can be rooted back to its disciplinary lineage in colonial administrative science. Regardless of this leader’s intention, this comment acted as a discursive move marking anyone who challenged their authority as a type of “Indian problem,” a problematization steeped in a taken-for-granted authority connected to the nation state’s control of Indigenous Peoples and lands through administrative structures and practices. As an Indigenous woman myself, I was offended and deeply troubled by the remark. It points to the deeper roots of Western institutional authority and its ties to an ontology of hierarchy inherent in Euro-Western settler colonial institutions such as the academy, which often undermine Indigenous rights, and Indigenous community-based and relational approaches to leadership that are vital to working respectfully with Indigenous Peoples.

Within Western academic administrative contexts, an “ontology of hierarchy” grounds the normative ways in which many administrators and power relations function. This ontology of hierarchy is rooted in the development and advancement of Euro-Western imperial and colonial “civilizations.” It is a power system that has been transplanted and imposed on Indigenous nations around the world, and characterizes the structure of most modern institutions, including universities. Within this institutional model, people are essentially managed as labourers within hierarchal authority structures. Perhaps it is inevitable under these administrative conditions that the bureaucratization of education has given rise to managerialist approaches to leadership along with a growing dependency to rely on key performatives limited to Euro-Western notions of rationality, predictability, and measurability. Certainly, government underfunding of higher education has contributed to a corporatization of education, which has led to increasing desires to commodify and own knowledges to survive in a global competitive market. While leadership discourses across disciplines have challenged managerialist and neoliberal/neocolonial notions of education, academic governance and hierarchal systems are firmly intact in universities today. These systemic factors create extreme barriers for Indigenous People and knowledges to survive and thrive in academe.

My call for critical thought and decolonial praxis in educational leadership arises out of recognition that universities and dominant leadership discourses are not only not neutral, they are steeped in Euro-Western notions of hierarchy and colonial logics that limit our ability to decolonize – and that make the meaningful inclusion of Indigenous People and knowledges in the academy challenging if not impossible. Thus, I argue: until universities can truly start to dismantle the deeper, systemic colonial and ideological structures of administration we all take for granted, universities will continue to be hostile and violent to Indigenous People and knowledges.

The late grandmother of Indigenous literatures and wise Sto:lo leader Lee Maracle draws on Indigenous stories and knowledge to frame the abilities of humans  to change. She reminds us that “we are built for transformation. Our stories prepare us for it. Find freedom in the context you inherit; every context is different; discover consequences and change from within, that is the challenge. Still, there is horror in having had change foisted upon you from outside.” Despite the horrors of colonial policies and attitudes that continue to be thrust upon Indigenous People in institutions, I still believe there is hope for the academy to re-create itself.

The journey forward starts with each of us looking within ourselves and our institutions – honestly. Sandy Grande, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, offers three critical steps to making change in academic leadership: 1) become educated on the ongoing colonial structures, logics and power dynamics; 2) work to make these power dynamics explicit in leadership work; and 3) make an honest attempt to negotiate power dynamics and shift structures of power.

Institutions will also have to start by working proactively to create space for different leadership epistemologies and methodologies to emerge and operate. This calls for structural and ideological change at individual, organizational and sectoral levels. We in universities will have to look seriously at our governance structures. Do universities recognize Indigenous sovereignty in governance such as board of governors, senate and other committees? We will also have to address and reorganize reporting relationships that reproduce unequal power dynamics, especially for offices and programs concerning equity and Indigenous matters. In my work on institutional Indigenization, leaders have had to review and rewrite university policies to make room for Indigenous People and knowledges; this has included creating new processes to pay elders, smudge on campus, and even hang local Indigenous nations’ flags.

Certainly, negotiating power dynamics in everyday practice is everyone’s responsibility, but those sitting outside the dominant power systems – Indigenous people, for example – are often the best placed to identify unequal power relations, as they endure the consequences of institutional marginalization. Every. Single. Day. Create processes to listen deeply and often to these people.

As a university community, we must all shift our conceptions of leadership beyond the confines of individualist, transactional and hierarchal notions toward more complex, relational and collectivist ways that recognize Indigenous nationhood, Indigenous knowledges and engage a variety of players – students, staff, faculty members, administrators, and local community partners – in formal and informal roles and positions. As we do this, we must reflect deeply on current unequal power dynamics and actively challenge ourselves to hear and respond to diverse people and diverse ways of knowing, being, and doing. And, we must move beyond thinking that simply by increasing Indigenous representation we are changing in any meaningful way.

I return to one of my first points: Today’s leaders must be willing to reflect critically and humbly on themselves and their preconceived notions of leadership and change, and to recognize their own lack of knowledge and complicity in inadvertently reproducing ongoing settler colonialism; we must own the consequences of the systems we have inherited and actively work to transform Euro-Western structures and normative practices that continue exclude a diversity of people. The change process ahead will be destabilizing and unsettling. But if we make ourselves open to its generative possibilities, we can contribute to making the university better for everyone.

Critical questions university leaders might ask themselves as they move toward decolonization:

  1. What is my knowledge of settler colonialism in higher education and what learning and unlearning do I need to take responsibility for, and then guide others to take responsibility for?
  2. What is driving our strategic priorities and the decision-making processes? How do unequal power relations shape strategic planning processes, timelines, and communications?
  3. Whose interests do our strategies tend to serve? Whose voices are marginalized and missing, and how can we start to include and respond to them in meaningful ways?
  4. How do unequal power relations shape my leadership practices and notions of institutional change?
  5. What are the benefits and limitations of our strategies for Indigenous and other equity-deserving groups? How will we know? How will we check in?
  6. What are our relationships with Indigenous communities and other equity-deserving groups on and off campus? How are we accountable to these groups in ongoing ways?

Candace Brunette-Debassige is a scholar with Cree and French ancestry originally from Peetabeck First Nation in Treaty 9 Territory. She is an assistant professor in the faculty of education and a teaching fellow of Indigenous learning at Western University, where she has taken on various leadership roles. Her scholarship centres on advancing the liberatory needs of Indigen.

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  1. Kathleen Lowrey / January 12, 2022 at 17:32

    Have you read anything about the Inka Empire? Was both hierarchical and highly bureaucratic.

    This is not a Western invention.

    • Seosaihm B / January 17, 2022 at 10:35

      Have you read anything about western colonialism since 1800? Was built on an epistemology of Enlightenment rationalism & individualism, hierarchy of realities, and industrial capitalist exploitation of Indigenous peoples across the globe, which inaugurated genocides and a climate crisis.

      The Inkas had an empire, yes, and they had a bureaucracy, yes, but not all hierarchies and bureaucracies are the same. Did the Inka enforce mass sterilization, residential schools, nuclear warfare, toxic waste dumps, pipelines, oil-sands, and a surveillance state on the modern scale? The answer is obviously no. The Inka were a violent regime but they did not facilitate the kind of destruction and intergenerational trauma that continues today.

      The call to decolonize is not to end all forms of imperialism that have ever existed across all time and space. No one has that grand of an ambition, however noble. Decolonizing the university is a much more particular project. From reading this piece, it seems clear that the objective is to alter university governance structures to make institutions less fixated on chasing every last buck and instead focus on prioritizing and supporting the needs and wellbeing of their communities of students, workers, knowledge keepers, etc. amidst a whole host of crises (i.e. pandemic, genocide, climate crisis).

      I agree that this article is light on specific policy improvements as other commenters have pointed out but I think it was also a lot more specific than just “Euro-western epistemologies are responsible for everything that’s bad.”

      • Jasper Brandt / January 22, 2022 at 20:32

        In order to “decolonize” a university, you have to prove the case and make the case that a university is guilty of genocide, climate change, and the factors mentioned. No case has ever been made, it is just absurd rhetoric.

        • D'Arcy Vermette / January 24, 2022 at 17:56

          Your reply is not responsive to what Seosaihm wrote. Rather, your reply asks Seosaihm to prove an argument that you alone created. I would agree that the argument you created was, in some ways, absurd. However, as Seosaihm notes “The call to decolonize is not to end all forms of imperialism that have ever existed across all time and space….Decolonizing the university is a much more particular project.” Seosaihm is specific about these smaller projects and the references they make to the pandemic, genocide, and climate crises are things that complicate the smaller goals of decolonization at a University. These factors aren’t presented as defining the history of the relationship between the university and Indigenous people.

          • Jasper Brandt / January 26, 2022 at 07:12

            D’Arcy, the posed thesis is “Questioning colonialism in university administration” and my point was reflective of the author’s message.

    • Natalia Gonzales / January 19, 2022 at 15:37

      I have heard of the Incas and I initially had your perspective on them. However, I later realized that all the knowledge we have about that society is based on European colonizers describing “the other”. The traditional western process of describing creates simplicity and order (hierarchy), even when things were more complex. Europeans didn’t learn how to read the quipus (so we don’t know anything about their history as written by them – if they quipus were more than accounting methods, which many suspect), and unlike in Mexico, when an effort was made to collect this information about the Aztecs through interviews with elders and deciphering of pictographic manuscripts, nothing nearing that effort was made to describe the Inca Empire.

    • D'Arcy Vermette / January 19, 2022 at 16:29

      How is this Inka insight relevant to the article above? Is it the hierarchical traditions of the Inka that colonized Indigenous people in Canada or around the world? Do we have to dismantle Inka-based bureaucracies at Universities in Canada or around the world? Nope. It turns out the author was clear to indicate that the issue is with “Euro-Western notions of hierarchy”. Fortunately, that statement fits the history, and challenge they describe, fairly well.

      • Jasper Brandt / January 26, 2022 at 07:17

        D’Arcy, Canada has an independent education system we’ve formed here now going on more than 150 years. It is not colonial nor is it European in nature. It is a mistake to suggest otherwise. The mistakes we made have largely been corrected, two generations ago they closed the residential schools. Our mistakes were recognized by previous generations and were corrected. The hyperbole of the present era will go down in record as a moment of hysteria, not one where we focus on the goal of equality. Every single university speech, job posting, and statement shouldn’t be prefaced by “we’re on the lands of [insert defunct nation here]” and then wrapped in language that equates Canada with truly evil powers. We at least have attempted to correct our wrongs where wrongs clearly have occurred. We are a democracy in where pluralism is encouraged, in where minority voices matter, and in where we have a healthy set of programs to try and undo past wrongs. This insistence that we’re in need of decolonization still is a political argument to divide and conquer, not one of unity and equality.

        • D'Arcy Vermette / January 27, 2022 at 03:35

          Jasper (now that we seem to be on a first-name basis), just a heads-up to let you know that when you appear this insincere about discussing the issues at hand, people will probably stop responding to you. It might be a better approach to try to appear like you have made, at the very least, a minimal effort to understand the issues at hand. Take care.

          • Carl Debris / January 28, 2022 at 12:28

            How should Jasper have addressed you, if not by your first name? Professor? Doctor? Lord…?

  2. Valentina Galvani / January 12, 2022 at 17:34

    I am pretty sure I did not understand well what the author wanted us to do. I like the checklist, it seems sensible, if a bit abstract. But then, again, the author is describing guiding principles and could not go down to details.
    From a practical perspective, I doubt that the majority of the academic population would accept “destabilizing and unsettling” changes. And why should they, them being the majority of the academic population? For ethical reasons? I am not really clear on this point. But, again, I might have misunderstood the author.

  3. Gary Grothman / January 13, 2022 at 20:03

    I think it’s fair for us in the academy to ask for some concrete examples of desired change, rather than just calls to question, dismantle, and disrupt. We might embrace change if we could see at least some glimmers of where that change is taking us. But we know intimately what the author is proposing to tear down; we do not know what precisely they intend to build up in its place. “This thing is broken, so any change at all will be an improvement” is not going to sell. “This thing is broken, so let’s think about change” isn’t news.

    The only truly concrete suggestions I see are “new processes to pay elders, smudge on campus, and even hang local Indigenous nations’ flags.” Those are fine and barely controversial, in the grand scheme – though maybe it would be more appropriate to remove all flags, since the ideal of a university isn’t to be subordinate to any nation, indigenous or otherwise. I’m pretty sure the author would not be satisfied with such changes. So what, exactly, do they want to see? There are hints in this article, but be bold: if you want dedicated seats on governing bodies for elders, or alternate promotion metrics for first nations scholars, say so. Then we have something to discuss. If you just want universities to ask these questions … I think they are, but it seems you aren’t satisfied with their answers yet.

    I don’t know if this fear of the unknown is a product of “Western ‘civilization'” as the author seems to sneer a bit, but I do know that “look before you leap” is pretty good advice no matter your background. The author would agree we’ve seen some bad changes come to academia already – forgive us for being wary now, even as we acknowledge room for improvement.

    • Jasper Brandt / January 26, 2022 at 07:22

      We have a problem with dialogue in the modern era. In the year 2022, we need to embrace that these are defunct societies and move on. Remember, but don’t preface everything we do with nonsensical language. For example, in Germany you don’t see every speech in at the former Karl Marx University begin with “on the lands of the German Democratic Republic, as well as the Holy Roman Empire” before every speech.

      We have to get beyond this nonsensical, hyperbolic era of language abuse. Universities are beginning to look like exclusive groups of socially awkward people who don’t participate in regular society, and its disturbing to think when we need more education, not less in this world.

  4. Jasper Brandt / January 22, 2022 at 20:29

    It is unfortunate that we cannot look at anything today without a racial lens. In order to achieve equality we must be less race conscious today, not more. We may have been not race conscious enough in the distant past, but we certainly are too race conscious today. Only when the pendulum swings back a bit will we be able to look back at this era of hysteria and learn that equality doesn’t mean new forms of racism to combat old forms. We have much to learn.

    I am not aware of any law in Canada that limits or discourages any particular race from getting involved in higher education, yet we act as if we have such severe limitations as to invoke language that intends to equate us with some of the most evil powers in the world. Today’s rhetoric does not match the record we’ve built, and a record that is very much independent and not dependent upon any colonial power from hundreds of years ago.