Beneath the skin of faculty diversity

Hiring targets aren’t the be-all and end-all for equity efforts

Despite past efforts, faculty diversity remains elusive.
Despite past efforts, faculty diversity remains elusive.

While Sarah Saeed, ArtSci ’19, has only been at Queen’s for under a year, she says she’s already tired of the lack of diversity among her professors.

“All my friends have noticed,” she said. “All of them.” 

For Saeed and her friends, there are few observations as disheartening as the inability to see themselves represented in their faculty.

The lack of diversity has been on the minds of administration, faculty and students for years, but the issue is systemic and one that has continued to impact racialized students and culture at Queen’s in persistent ways.

However, it appears there’s no hiring target that’ll provide a long-term solution. Filling a quota of non-white professors doesn’t necessarily foster deeper discussions about the experiences of racialized faculty members.

The University has acknowledged the issue in the Diversity, Anti-Racism and Equity (DARE) Report, which was published in 2009 as part of an effort to streamline the University’s diversity-oriented goals. 

The report’s long-term recommendations described the University’s goal to “actively recruit and retain racialized and other faculty from underrepresented groups.” 

After a female professor of colour left her teaching position due to alleged experiences of racism, with five other faculty members following suit, Queen’s asked the Senate Educational Equity Committee (SEEC) to conduct a study in 2001 on the experience of minority faculty members. 

In 2004, York University Professor Emerita Dr. Frances Henry wrote an analysis of the study’s finding in the report “Systemic Racism Towards Faculty of Colour and Aboriginal Faculty at Queen’s University”. 

Her report, known as the Henry Report, was telling. When respondents were asked if they felt that their colleagues treated them with respect, 75.4 per cent of white faculty agreed, while 62 per cent of non-white faculty agreed — with more than a 10 per cent difference between the responses.

When asked if the University supports diversity, 55.8 per cent of white respondents agreed, while only 34.8 per cent of minority of faculty agreed — a 21 per cent difference.

Traditional Values

It’s almost impossible to discuss potential solutions for the lack of diversity before looking into the extent of the problem. Although the way it manifests itself at Queen’s is, in Henry’s words, a unique “traditional university culture,” the problem spans far beyond this campus.

Dr. Armand Ruffo, an Aboriginal writer and recently hired associate professor in English, said he’s aware of the problem, but he believes it’s not an isolated issue. The professor, who specializes in Indigenous literature, said he didn’t expect diversity coming in. 

“There aren’t a lot of minority faculty,” he said. “At the same time, coming from another university … it’s the same. It’s a systematic issue across the board, as well as a function of where the university might be located.” 

Dr. Barrington Walker, a Black associate professor in History  who specializes in Black Canadian history, immigration and race, agrees. 

“By no means is Queen’s an anomaly,” he said. “There’s no one easy answer for why these things happen — a lot of it is due to the inherent conservatism of the institutions.”

Walker said there’s been a lack of sustained effort to diversify faculty and staff at Queen’s, despite previous spurts of attention. 

“There have been periods where it’s been an institutional priority, but over time, they’ve been an anomaly.”

Walker said the traditionalist nature of universities is a major reason for this lack in continued discussion. 

“Universities are very old institutions — many in Canada are actually older than Confederation,” he said. “Universities, by nature, are loathe to make radical changes.”

The pushback against equitable hiring occurs primarily with the people at the top of the administrative hierarchy, Walker added.

“Often the pushback will come that going out and making hires specifically targeted to increase diversity is at odds with the principles of excellence.” 

Eurocentric Curriculum

Though Queen’s is a particular example of “traditional” values permeating many aspects of the university — despite years of gradual progress — Dr. Frances Henry said the issue is bigger than Queen’s alone. That said, the concrete effects on students are often underestimated, according to Henry.

Speaking to The Journal, Henry said a lack of faculty diversity can greatly affect the mentality of students.

“In the first instance, there is of course the effect on racialized students and Aboriginal students, who take classes and don’t see themselves in those classes or at the head of the class,” Henry said. 

She said it’s helpful to be able to identify with a fellow minority in a predominantly white community. 

“There is that immediate identification with somebody who looks like you. It’s very important for students, and becomes more [important] as the student body is diversifying. It’s not happening quickly enough [at universities],” Henry said.

She said the first step in diversifying the classroom to reflect global diversity and intersectional experiences is adding more non-Eurocentric courses in the humanities and social sciences. Racialized students, according to Dr. Henry, are negatively affected when white professors continuously teach subject matter relating to the cultures and histories of their respective communities.

Several of the faculty members interviewed agreed that non-white faculty and subject matter that falls outside a Eurocentric, “Western” worldview should become more common and accessible. 

However, Henry said the process of tenure can stall the change in curriculum and teaching practices. 

“[Tenured faculty] continue teaching what their area of speciality is, and there isn’t room to hire anyone for non-European history because they can’t hire anyone else teaching it.” 

The misconception about a potential solution

Once the need for diversification among faculty has been acknowledged, the question shifts — how can the University move forward to devise potential solutions?

Irene Bujara, director of the Human Rights and Equity Offices said there are steps being taken at Queen’s to address the racial representation of faculty. 

“The Equity Office works with the Senate Educational Equity Committee (SEEC) to develop the tools necessary to address broader systemic issues, and works with the Employment Equity Framework working groups to address diversity goals related specifically to employment equity,” Bujara wrote in an email to The Journal

The progress hasn’t always been easy and there are reasons why diversification is slow going, Bujara says.

“The challenges to reaching this goal are very complex and include availability of diversity within specific disciplines, slow growth and turnover in the workforce, and geographical isolation from larger centres,” she wrote.

“Institutional strategies supported by the most senior levels of an institution are critical to success and this is what Queen’s and the Equity Office are currently undertaking.”

Kara Melton, a Gender Studies Masters candidate, said students in marginalized communities miss the support system that accompanies access to professors they identify with, based on her experience as a racialized student and her studies of race theories. 

“A lot of professors of colour are checking their environments and investing effort into making accountable spaces,” Melton said. “Students who are aware of their marginalization and don’t have those professors can really miss out on that.”

The last area of the racial representation conversation — and perhaps the most significant — is what steps need to be taken to initiate lasting discussion.

Melton believes being critical of past diversification efforts is a significant part of moving towards a solution. According to her, when it comes to questions of diversity, students, faculty and administration need to understand what they’re asking for.

Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology Dr. Sarita Srivastava said asking whether the faculty at Queen’s is “diverse” is not the right question to ask. 

“So often, the conversation begins and ends with how many people of colour are there in a particular department. It needs to go much deeper than that,” she said. 

“It’s so easy to ask about numbers … but we need to ask about why we care about diversity, what we mean by ‘diversity’? 

 Melton agreed. She emphasized that having conversations about what diversity means should be a prolonged first step before looking for potential solutions. 

The discussion about solutions in terms of adding racialized people to the faculty, Melton said, is very different than the kind of talk we should be fostering — which is about how the University can work diligently to alleviate the systematic erasure of certain people from academic spaces.

“I think we should be very hesitant to think that it’s just about getting bodies in the room and not about developing a system of knowledge exchange that values a multitude of knowledges and knowledge producers,” Melton said.

“Those overlap somewhere but the way these conversations are frequently taken up is numerical, and that’s not the full answer.”

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