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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2016

Words are not enough

To achieve equity requires real action, says Malinda Smith

Malinda Smith has had her fill of well-meaning policies and symbolic gestures. If universities really believe in equity, they should stop talking about it and do something to make it happen, the University of Alberta political scientist says.

“Despite four decades of equity and diversity policies, a plethora of vision and mission statements, equity statements in job ads that suggest a commitment and websites that depict wonderfully multicultural images, most universities have not moved beyond the declarative and the performative to the practice,” the associate professor said at CAUT’s 79th annual meeting in late November.

Smith was in Ottawa to accept the association’s prestigious 2015 Equity Award, which recognized her struggle for equity and justice over more than 20 years to improve the status of women, racialized minorities, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ2S community.

In her remarks, Smith was unequivocal. Despite all the rhetoric, despite all the reports that have come out over the years, equity simply isn’t happening, she said. “We’re stalled on equity. This is true regarding the status of women in the academy. This is especially true for indigenous and racialized scholars.”

Not convinced? Just look at who the majority of academic representatives are, she said.

“Astonishingly, in 2015, the leadership of virtually every single national scholarly organization remains overwhelmingly white, with some gestures toward gender equity. Our work is not yet done and, in some cases, such as regarding disabilities, it seems not to have started yet.”

Smith believes that universities resist change as much as any other institution. She also believes that while the concepts of justice and equity are generally accepted, they’re rarely applied in everyday life.

“And even those who say they are ‘for equity’ often fail to take it into account when it matters most, in hiring, tenure and promotion, curriculum and leadership,” she said. “Too many seem to think equity can be perpetually deferred or is a luxury for good times that never arrive.”

But now is the time to act, Smith added, pointing to a recent rise in xenophobia, religious bigotry and racial violence in North America. “The dog-whistle politics of the latest Canadian federal election and the current American presidential election may not ultimately lead to electoral success on the part of their purveyors. Nonetheless, such practices have an insidious impact, including opening up spaces for the public affirmation of outright racism and bigotry.”

Smith said academic associations should be paving the way for openness and change. In particular, they have to address the fact that, when it comes to things like committee membership, promotions and conference speakers, people tend to recommend others they know and who resemble them. “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome,” she said.

Smith also wants to change the impression people have that equity is a privilege reserved for the very few.

“Cherry-picking is not about justice; it’s about power,” she said, referring to the practice of targeting only some people in the drive for equity. “Who is chosen for inclusion, and by whom? Some among us will select women and gender equity. Others will select LGBTQs and justice for sexual minorities. Today, we see urgent mobilization around justice for indigenous people and ‘Indigenizing the academy.’

“What we need to name is the continuing invisibility, indeed exclusion, of racialized scholars. Justice for us is perpetually deferred. We are, it seems, the faces at the bottom of the well, the colleagues who can be allowed to ‘let die,’ to disappear. This dividing practice, dressed up with the neoliberal language of ‘priorities,’ is not an act of equality or justice or decolonization. It is the raw exercise of power aimed at protecting itself by predetermining winners and losers. We must resist it and continue to remind ourselves that deep inequalities lie hidden at the intersections.”