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In my opinion

Why don’t Canadian universities hire more racialized and Indigenous senior administrators?

It’s not for a lack of qualified individuals. We simply have to decide that it’s important enough that we actually do it.


In November 2019, approximately 175 delegates representing more than 25 Canadian universities and colleges met for ConversAction, a summit focused on anti-racism work in the higher-education sector. During a session facilitated by Laura-Mae Lindo, she stopped and asked the obvious question: “Why are we still talking about so many of the same things we were talking about five years ago? Why are things so slow to change?”

Perhaps that’s because university administrators have done little to change their institutions beyond putting out the same carbon-copy EDI statements, and hiring EDI champions and then not properly supporting them. The solution? Hire more racialized and Indigenous administrators who can speak to these issues at the tables where decisions actually get made. And why hasn’t this happened, after all this time, and after all those wordy EDI statements and commitments? That’s the million-dollar question.

Let’s be clear – when universities decide to fix a problem of representation, they do it. In the late ’90s, universities realized the need to diversify themselves and, almost universally, they focused first on gender. And while it’s obvious that we have a long way to go in terms of gender politics and representation in the sector, there has been clear progress.

Undergraduate researcher team releases report on racism at Laurier

Today, women comprise 49 percent of senior Canadian university leadership, according a recent report by Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs). An article in University Affairs last November notes that, “of the 96 member institutions of Universities Canada, 25 have a female executive head, or more than one-quarter.”

Over the same time frame, the representation of racialized senior administrators has reached a mere 8.3 percent, and that of Indigenous senior administrators only 2.9 percent. Even among that low number, “racialized people make up a very low number of senior university leaders who are president, provost/vice-president academic, vice-president research or other vice-presidents. The largest proportion of racialized senior leaders are deans in the health and STEM fields. … And few Indigenous peoples are deans.”

A clear message

The focus on, and success in, hiring senior women leaders sends a very clear message to women on campus: your experiences and success matter to us, and we care enough about you to seriously address your lack of representation, and to ensure that your experiences are accounted for at all levels of the institution. Likewise, Canadian universities’ continued failure to hire racialized and Indigenous senior leaders can easily be perceived as sending an equally clear message to those groups: you don’t matter, and your priorities are not priorities for us.

This has very serious consequences for the mental health, and sense of belonging to the campus community, of members of those groups, who clearly feel that their voices are being ignored. A group of current and former Wilfrid Laurier students, faculty and staff recently released a report entitled Being Raced. The study notes that three-quarters of respondents surveyed had either experienced or witnessed racism on WLU campuses. More telling is the finding that 71.5 percent “said that they do not report racist encounters they experience, and disagree that, or are unsure if, the administration is genuinely concerned with confronting racism on campus.”

When, in 2017, Professor Michael Marrus, during an interaction between a black student and the master of Massey College, said, “You know this is your master, eh? You feel the lash?” the union representing the University of Toronto teaching staff noted on its Facebook page that, “For many of our members who have seen, heard of or experienced racism at Massey College, this latest incident will come as no surprise.” (Soon after, Massey College did away with the “master” title for its leader, opting for the title “principal.”)

Responding to an incident at Queen’s University in which racist graffiti was scrawled inside a student residence, student Alysha Mohamed wrote: “I felt an overwhelming sense that I could never truly belong at Queen’s – at least not in its current state. … The majority of staff at Queen’s look nothing like me or any other visible minority. Queen’s must take concrete action in prioritizing diversity, inclusion, and representation, or it will continue to uphold the external perception that this school is for the white elite.” The authors of Being Raced make a similar call: “Represent racial diversity in the hiring of staff, faculty and administrators.”

Until people with lived experience of marginalization and oppression are present at all levels of Canadian universities, our priorities will never be adequately accounted for. When there is no-one to advocate proactively for our racialized and Indigenous members, there are serious consequences for their success and health within our communities; lack of senior representation means that, as Kenny Murphy of U of T’s race and ethnicity caucus noted in 2018, “the onus has repeatedly fallen on racialized students, faculty and staff to voice their concerns and call the university to action. This takes time and effort away from their academic work, not to mention the mental and emotional burden that these folks have to bear, again and again.”

There are so many Indigenous and racialized faculty qualified to fill our senior administration ranks that arguments about meritocracy, and the strength of the pool, are clearly red herrings. We simply have to decide that it’s important enough to us that we actually do it.

Kofi Campbell is vice-president, academic, and dean at Renison University College, affiliated with the University of Waterloo.

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  1. Alan / May 8, 2020 at 21:48

    A Diversity executive told me it’s a challenge bringing new people in, because there are so few openings. Nobody leaves — you have to wait for someone to retire or die for an opening to occur. Then because it’s a Union shop someone already in the building has first dibs at the job. If there is a semi-qualified admin staffer, savvy enough to enrol in a Masters, or PhD program, to be eligible for consideration, or a part-time instructor with a teaching history and the relationships in place, then they have the edge.
    Often they have the job even before the gig is posted. And it’s posted just as a requirement — you can tell when you are being challenged during an interview over zealously because one, or two people on the panel have someone else they want to score higher. I’ve often been amazed to discover that a Manager in Research and Industry Partnerships worked as a Real Estate Agent, prior to getting a Masters Degree, and had no significant “Industry” or “Research” background.

  2. M Hutchinson / May 9, 2020 at 10:52

    The medium is the message. Taking the colonizers’ education systems is the form of assimilation that is easiest on the colonizer. Universities and what they teach are cultural products and are very close to the centres of those cultures. Cultures are all encompassing things that do not just involve what you know, but also the paperwork involved to get from Point A to Point B, in day-to-day society, politics and the physical world. The short answer to the questions is; they are not assimilated enough and, even if they can pass the assimilation sniff test of a University interviewer, they may not have passed the assimilation sniff test of Canadian society, which means they may have never made it to the interview stage.

  3. Stuart Chambers / May 11, 2020 at 21:44

    The question begs: Should we emphasize merit or diversity for a skilled position? As a disabled professor, I would never want a job given to me to fill a quota. I want to earn it based on skill and work ethic and continue to earn it based on those traits alone.