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Speculative Diction

On the record: The importance of universities’ organizational histories

For the sake of institutional memory, universities need to foster a culture of collective documentation.


A few months ago on Twitter, professor Dawn Bazely from York University was discussing how, in the process of cleaning out her office last year, she’d discovered an old report on women graduate students at York. This 250+ page document was the outcome of the Task Force on the Status of Graduate Women which conducted “a study on the nature of the educative experience of women graduate students at York University” at the request of the dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS), Sandra Pyke (here is a copy of the report online; many thanks to Dawn for scanning and posting the entire thing).

The context of the report was that the COU’s Committee on the Status of Women had “been examining the situation of women on campuses in the province … with an aim to increasing their numbers and improving the conditions under which they work and study.” The committee released a report in 1987, Women in the Universities of Ontario, and afterwards it “invited reports from Ontario universities on the development of a climate more welcoming to women in all aspects of university life.” York’s task force was formed in response to this call.

The task force report has 10 chapters, each one focused “on a specific issue under the general considerations of women’s participation in traditionally male-dominated disciplines.” It also lists no fewer than 111 final recommendations, which reflect a comprehensive plan to improve the environment for women graduate students at York. Issues taken up in the report include the need for more funding for women, part-time students and later-stage PhDs; appropriate communication (language use, and publicity of York’s recruitment rates, targeted advertising and more); the “chilly” climate and sexism in the classroom, and low numbers of female faculty; the importance of boosting student confidence and professional preparation; abusive supervisory relationships; and problems such as sexual harassment and lack of affordable childcare, which disproportionately affect women.

While the report is impressive in its depth and scope, that so many of its detailed recommendations remain unimplemented in spite of being “addressed directly—and urgently—to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and individual graduate programmes,” shows how much time and work at all levels is required to “make things happen” in universities. The report was completed in 1992, so the descriptions contained in it also provide a reality check for anyone who thought these issues were either recent developments, or portrayed as overly “extreme” in media coverage. Times have changed, but not as much as some might think.

Rather than dissect the entire document—which would take much more space than I have—I want to mention what happened when I asked myself (and others) just one question about one point on that long list of suggestions. The one that piqued my interest, because of its specificity, was a point related to the issue of “sexual and gender harassment,” addressed in chapter five of the report. Fifteen of the 111 recommendations fell under this heading (r.76-90), including the following:

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Just from this recommendation, we can ask why there’s a lack of “convenient channels” that would allow students to report harassment within their programs. What is inconvenient about the situation that this change needs to happen? A look at chapter five provides an explanation; women students and faculty described an environment where harassment based on their gender is still entrenched and widely acceptable; where anonymity is impossible because of the smallness of academic circles (especially within a university); and where students fear the effects of these “discussions” on their future academic careers.

I started wondering about the policy history behind this recommendation, and I posted a few comments on Twitter. What policies existed at the time of the report? What had been implemented afterwards, and when? One of York’s archivists, Anna St. Onge, saw the conversation and mentioned that I should send an email to York’s archives to see if they had anything that might answer my questions.

I sent an email as suggested, and in response I received direction to a surprising amount of detailed information: there were official documents, institutional publications, surveys, books, reports, papers from past university presidents, personal records, and more.

The reason I was surprised is that in my experience, when researching universities, this kind of material isn’t always so readily accessible (ironic, for institutions said to be rooted in the past). But on this particular topic there’s such a large amount of information, a more detailed look at this report could be a dissertation topic on gender, policy, universities, and graduate education (any takers? Or has someone done it already?). Considering the current context, this is still a fascinating and relevant topic; issues of sexual harassment and assault are far from resolved on university campuses, but if change has happened—for the better!—it’s important that we know how and why.

I think there’s a bigger point to be made here about institutional change, policy, and universities’ self-documentation. In the case I’ve just described, if someone wanted to tell this story of policy change, it would be possible to do so—in large part because records were kept. But this kind of thing is also enabled by a broader culture that assumes the past is important to the present.

Why does it matter whether we’re able to tell such stories? For one thing, there’s direct relevance for institutional policy. Surely it helps decision-making to have an understanding of how decisions have happened in the past, whether this has worked out, and what might work better in the future. The institution’s history, which goes so much further than the polished authorized accounts we often see, also tells us something about its culture—which in turn affects future decision-making (something I have blogged about before).

When we have nothing but the institutional memory that lives in people, as valuable as it is, we risk losing that knowledge when those people leave or—as they do in some cases—refuse to discuss it.

Universities need to foster a culture of collective documentation, not merely in the sense of managerial production of forms (we have enough of those), but the collection of papers, reports, letters, meeting minutes, etc. required to help us figure out what goes on over time. This is important not just for looking at organizational governance, but also at sector-wide trends. But process poses challenges that are technical as well as cultural; for example, a major issue is the digitization of organizational communication. How do we keep emails in an archive? Who will be able to access them?

Admittedly, this is a selfish argument I’m making: for dissertation research I’ve struggled to piece together a picture without enough material, and certainly not with relevant material that is readily available from the university library (because it simply doesn’t exist there). This has entailed building my own set of documents pieced together from any sources I could find, which has been a whole other kind of research lesson.

Through this I’ve learned that the difference in culture has a clear effect on the organization’s record of itself, on the stories it tells about itself (and the ones members tell, in the hallways and behind closed doors), and on the ways in which decisions are arrived at and framed. Change agendas are constructed and played out within this context, and organizational discourse helps us learn how that happens. As a researcher who wants to understand this kind of change, even as I search for the important “off the record” information, I have to hope that universities are keeping some of it on the record, too.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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