Faculty report ‘systemic racism’

Survey of staff experiences prompts calls for change to ‘culture of whiteness’

Five years ago, former Vice-Principal (Academic) Suzanne Fortier was faced with a serious problem. A woman of colour who was a faculty member at the University resigned from her post, a decision she said was prompted by racism she had experienced at Queen’s. Five other faculty members followed suit shortly after.

The six resignations prompted Fortier to ask the Senate Educational Equity Committee to conduct a survey, in March 2001, to learn more about the experiences of Aboriginal and visible minority faculty members at Queen’s.

Five years later, the results of that survey have been made public for the first time.

The report on the survey results was presented at the March 30 Senate meeting, along with the Senate Educational Equity Committee’s recommendations on how to stem the “systemic racism” and “culture of whiteness” the report identified at the University.

Joy Mighty, director of the University’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, has chaired the committee for the past year. She said it was a priority for the committee to decide on recommendations. The committee has been meeting twice a month for nearly a year.

“We needed to take some action to make sure [the report] got out and that Senate was aware of it,” she said.

The report, which draws on surveys and interviews with faculty conducted in late 2003 and early 2004, was written by Frances Henry, a professor emerita at York University. Henry has written extensively over the past 30 years on racism and anti-racism in Canada, and is recognized as one of the country’s leading experts in the field.

In her report, Henry concluded that based on surveys and interviews with faculty—including those who identify as white, Aboriginal or of colour—“white privilege and power continues to be reflected in the Eurocentric curricula, traditional pedagogical approaches, hiring, promotion and tenure practices, and opportunities for research” at Queen’s.

Henry also concluded that white students continue to challenge the expertise, authority and competence of minority faculty. Additionally, she wrote that University administrators and faculty use political correctness, colour-blindness and freedom of expression among other things as “a cover for the persistence of racial bias and differential treatment” of minority colleagues.

Mighty said she doesn’t believe the report’s conclusions will come as a surprise to minority faculty members.

“I personally, as an individual, as a black woman, am not surprised because I know based on my experience that this is the reality of our lives,” she said.

“The point is it’s not individuals or individual acts of racism. It’s systemic … anyone who tries to deny that it exists does not have the experience of living as a minority in a culture of majority.” According to the report, there are 117 self-identified faculty of colour and Aboriginal faculty out of a total of 1,378 faculty members at the University. Forty-three faculty of colour and Aboriginal faculty participated in the survey and 45 per cent of those respondents reported they had experienced “overt discrimination or harassment at the University” from department heads, colleagues or students.

AMS Vice-President (University Affairs) Shiva Mayer was one member of the committee that offered recommendations based on the report. He said he found some of the report’s findings startling, but not entirely unexpected.

“I wasn’t surprised to read the overall tone of the report because Queen’s is not diverse,” he said. “I come from B.C., where in general Vancouver and the lower mainland is more diverse [compared to] Queen’s.” The Educational Equity committee’s recommendations cited the AMS as one body important to educating students about diversity and equity. Mayer said it will be up to the incoming AMS to determine how to do that.

“In terms of concrete steps, I’ll leave that to the next social issues commissioner,” he said. “I would certainly hope that’s a priority for the people who work there.” Employment equity was a major issue raised by Henry’s report. She wrote that there was “general agreement” among survey respondents and those who participated in subsequent focus groups that the “first criterion of hiring should be merit,” and any type of “quota” hiring should be avoided.

Participants in the focus groups recommended targeted recruitment of more faculty of colour and Aboriginal faculty and to educate department heads and hiring committees that employment equity is more than hiring minority faculty, no matter what their qualifications are. The report’s findings are of particular interest to Ekta Singh, MEd ’06, who is the SGPS’s equity commissioner. She is also the SGPS’s representative on the committee and is writing her master’s thesis about racial diversity among faculty at Queen’s. Singh said she often encounters misconceptions about what employment equity really means.

“Number one, Canada doesn’t function under any affirmative action policy. That is from the U.S.,” she said.

“Professional excellence in any hiring is considered first and foremost. But if you have someone from an underrepresented group that meets those criteria, they should be considered without being eliminated first. It’s about creating equal opportunity for everybody.”

Singh said she hopes the University administration takes to heart the committee’s recommendation that a new vice-principal position be created, which would be responsible for ensuring equity at the University.

“The senior administration needs to really overtly show they are committed to diversity at the University. A VP (Equity) would be one way to ensure these reports don’t end up on shelves collecting dust,” she said.

Singh said that was the case with the first report the University conducted on diversity at Queen’s, which was carried out by the Principal’s Advisory Committee on Race Relations in 1991.

While some changes at the University were prompted by that report’s recommendation—such as the creation of the Human Rights Office—Singh and Mighty agreed that many of the report’s other recommendations were overlooked.

“We seem to know the problems and come up with these wonderful reports, but nobody is monitoring how these reports are being implemented,” Singh said.

Current Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane—who took over from Fortier in July—said the issues raised by Henry’s report will be reviewed and discussed during the coming academic year.

“What’s really important about this report is that it should be very widely discussed, and that it should go on concurrently with our examining our practices. The tabling of the report at Senate is the start of the process and not the end,” he said.

Deane acknowledged Henry’s comment in the conclusion of her report that “the scope and pace” of change at Queen’s remains “glacially slow.”

“She makes a good point … change on these types of issues is very slow to come and that’s something everybody needs to be mindful of,” Deane said. “Establishing a momentum that is maintained is the key thing here.”

“I want to make concrete progress as quickly as possible,” Deane added, noting that the establishment of a resource centre for visible minorities on campus could be a part of that progress.

Singh said that now that the report has been released, all eyes are on the administration.

“The next step is [that the administration] is going to include their address of these issues in their strategic plan,” she said.

“Let’s see what’s going to happen now.”

The Senate Educational Equity Committee’s next meeting will be open to the public and will take place on April 19 at noon in the Collins Room of Richardson Hall.

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