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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 2000

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

ChanDrakant P. Shah
I used to think systemic discrimination was out there somewhere but that it did not impact institutions of higher learning. I thought learned people were broad-minded and accepting of others as equals. I thought by definition the university means encompassing the universe, which is made up of diverse views, ideologies, epistemology and people.

How naive I have been. My experience at the University of Toronto, probably with very few exceptions, could be generalized at many institutions of higher learning.

I am a neophyte in the area of systemic discrimination at the university even though I have been fighting against discrimination for the past quarter of the century. Most of my work has been in the area of aboriginal health and I have seen the ravages of colonialism, discrimination, dispossession and marginalization on the health of aboriginals.

Canada's Employment Equity Act defines visible minorities as "persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour," to include "Chinese, South Asians, Blacks, Arabs and West Asians, Filipinos, Southeast Asians, Latin Americans, Japanese, Koreans and Pacific Islanders."

In September 1986, many Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto, became signatories to the Federal Contractors Program, which allows the university to bid on federal contracts over $200,000. In becoming participants, the universities certified their commitment to implement employment equity in accordance with 11 criteria. Criterion#6 clearly states the university must comply by "establishment of goals and timetables for the hiring, training and promotion of the designated group employees."

Four years later, in response to student unrest, the U of T appointed presidential advisors on ethno-cultural groups and visible minorities who issued a report in December 1990. U of T President Robert Prichard responded to the report in addressing the governing council:

"At the last meeting of the governing council I spoke of my convictions that we must ask ourselves what steps we can take to respond more fully to the changing cultural, racial and linguistic diversity of Toronto and our province. The community around us has changed faster than we have changed ourselves. It remains clear to me that we have some catching up to do."

In response to the report's recommendation on faculty recruitment, the U of T governing council approved an employment equity policy in March 1991. It stated: "While remaining alert and sensitive to the issue of fair and equitable treatment for all, the university has a special concern with the participation and advancement of members of four designated groups that have traditionally been disadvantaged in employment: women, visible minorities, aboriginal peoples and persons with disabilities."

The policy further stipulated a commitment to employment equity meant the university would:

  • Endeavour to ensure that university policies and practices do not have an adverse impact on the participation and advancement of designated group members;
  • Set goals consistent with this policy, and timetables and plans for achieving them;
  • Implement programs to facilitate the participation and advancement of designated groups; and
  • Make reasonable accommodation for differences related to designated group membership.

Further, it added the university would "maintain open communication on this policy and on the results of employment equity initiatives, by reporting annually to the university community."

The governing council had clearly enunciated the employment equity policy with regard to setting goals and timetables in achieving them. But since the affirmation of the policy in 1991 the following bleak picture has emerged for the percentage of visible minorities in tenure stream faculty — 9.7 per cent (1990/91); 6.7 per cent (1992/93); 8.8 per cent (1996/97); and 8.7 per cent (1998/99).

It appears that in spite of our good intentions, we have not made any gains in increasing the visible minority composition of our tenured and tenured stream faculty.

The university's employment equity reports over the intervening years reveal a consistent comment, namely,
"... it is worth noting, however, that especially with respect to visible minority faculty the change is slow (and the 'face' is still very different from the 'face' of our students)."

In 1999, the university again reiterated its goal: "The University of Toronto should continue and develop its
policy of seeking to ensure that the proportion of members of under-represented groups who are hired as faculty members reflects their representation in the applicant pool."

Despite these words, the reality of change is difficult to achieve.

My own department of public health provides a case in point of the difficulties. We were concerned about issues related to ethno-racial diversity in our strategic planning. The department chair set up a task force to address ethno-racial diversity within the department. One of the recommendations of the task force was that the department should have at least 15 per cent of its staff as visible minority based on census data and the American Psychological Association's 1990 recommendation, "Toward Ethnic Diversification in Psychology Education and Training," which, suggests at least 15 per cent of faculty must be from visible minorities to maintain a minimal critical mass.

Critical mass is understood to refer to reducing the potential for minority colleagues to feel isolated or marginalized. It was not meant to be feelings of affinity based on specific racial or cultural heritage, but an unspoken sharing of common experiences related to being a visible minority in a dominant white society. In this context, it is not simply the experiences themselves, but the social relations, within which these experiences are formed, that are germane.

During this period the provost assured me he was in the process of hiring a provostial advisor on proactive recruitment and developing guidelines on hiring visible minorities.

In September 1999, the university announced its intent to hire at least 100 professors every year for the next five years. Later in the same year, Canada's prime minister announced the 2000 Millennium Research Chairs of which we assumed at least 200 to 250 would be allocated to the University of Toronto.

Because of the tenured nature of professorial jobs, those hired over the next five years will, by and large, define what our university would look like over the next 25 to 30 years. Diversity is not on the agenda. Many faculties and departments have had no plan to address this issue.

I was fortunate enough to bring together a number of professors, both white and persons of colour, who were concerned and sensitive about the issue. We met for the first time in November 1999. This group is composed of a dean, a chairman, and professors of all ranks from different faculties. This group legitimized the voice of a few isolated individuals in different faculties.

In January 2000, Dr. Tomislav Svoboda and I published a study that predicted how long (25 to 119 years) it would take to achieve an even modest increase of 15 per cent of the total faculty complement to be of visible minority background from the present 8.7 per cent, if we begin to hire new faculty members with 15 per cent of them being of visible minority background.

The model also indicated the impact of different policy options such as hiring of new recruits as visible minorities at 20 per cent and 30 per cent, which in essence will reduce the time it will take to hit the 15 per cent mark. This model is a tool, which helps to make different choices. This study clearly indicates that "good intentions" are not enough.

How can we move beyond good intentions?

While reaffirmation of policies on employment equity is needed, we must make sure there is accountability from those who are required to implement policies. There should be a statement from the administration on: goals and timetable for hiring visible minority faculty; mechanisms for their advancement; mechanisms of accountability of the actions of administrators, principals, deans and chairs to achieve these goals and timetables; and, an additional resource devoted to achieving these policy objectives. The whole process should be transparent.

In summary, all institutions of higher learning have on their books, a policy on employment equity. However, we have not made any significant progress in hiring visible minorities at the faculty level. The time has come to act on our good intentions by establishing goals and timetables and developing an accountable and transparent process to show our true commitment to diversity.

Professor Chandrakant P. Shah is with the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.