Senate debates responsibility for lack of racial diversity amongst Queen’s professors

Discussion prompted by last year’s open letter to Senate

At Senate this week, a response to a letter addressed to the University’s governing body last December, was presented by the Senate Education Equity Committee (SEEC).

The response, dated April 13, written by SEEC chair Michael Blennerhassett, stated that the claims made in the December letter were beyond their mandate.

The original letter was written by Anisa Mercedes Rawhani, Queen’s alum and former editor-in-chief of The Journal. Last December, Rawhani appealed to the Queen’s Senate, the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Department of English language and literature to diversify their faculty.

“As the fall term of my final undergraduate year at Queen’s comes to a close, I can’t help but notice something, or rather someone, is missing — professors of colour,” she wrote.

According to Rawhani, the disproportionate amount of white professors at Queen’s creates a sense of alienation within many students of colour and allows white privilege to dictate campus culture. 36 other students were signatories on the letter. *

“Students of colour shouldn’t be able to go through their entire undergraduate careers without seeing their own face or hearing their own history. Equally important, white students need to interact with other races in an academic setting so that they are equipped to bring about equity in humanity,” Rawhani wrote.

In closing, she appealed to the Senate to take action in addressing this issue.

In his response letter, Blennerhassett, on behalf of SEEC, put forth that this issue is beyond their mandate, and that “concerns relating to faculty representation should be addressed to the Equity Office and to the Principal’s Council on Employment Equity.”

SEEC also pointed to their current efforts towards ensuring educational equity, including their Diversity and Equity Assessment Planning (DEAP) tool, which was designed last year.

According to SEEC, the tool is an online, interactive application that invites departments “to explore [the University’s] diversity profile” and “to set goals based on their self-assessment and to track their progress over time.”

Members of Senate on Tuesday were divided on how to approach the issue.

Queen’s University Faculty Association President Lynne Hanson suggested in her comments that a robust approach to equity might be warranted.

In response, Blennerhassett reiterated the message put forth in his letter — that equity within Queen’s faculties is an issue that lies outside of the committee’s mandate.

“I don’t find myself in complete agreement that there’s a need for a robust approach for this. It is in place, and we’re proceeding towards our goals,” Blennerhassett told Senate.

When asked how SEEC is addressing concerns regarding a lack of non-western knowledge in Queen’s curriculum, Blennerhassett replied that departments conduct self-assessment, examining each unit in their curriculum, considering them in context with the issue of diversity.

Senator Eleanor MacDonald then drew attention to the fact that when she attempted to use the DEAP tool launched by SEEC, she wasn’t able to properly access it. Blennerhassett assured the meeting that the problem would be fixed, but other senators echoed the sentiment, noting that they were unable to access it themselves.

Later in the meeting, the group discussed a recommendation report composed by the Senate Governance and Nominating Committee (SGNC) regarding how to properly address similar letters to Senate.

In the report, SGNC explains that they receive many letters addressed to Senate, and they recommend that “it is not appropriate to include all correspondence addressed to Senate on the Senate agenda.”

However, this concerned some Senators present at the meeting, including Senator MacDonald.

According to MacDonald, if Senate were able to exclude certain legitimate letters from their meeting agendas, then Rawhani’s letter on diversity might never have made the cut.

“I’m extremely glad that we got to see that letter. It’s a very important letter that senators got to read and ponder even if it falls beyond the mandate of SEEC,” MacDonald said.

At the end of Senate’s open session on Sept. 27, no conclusion had been reached as to what will be done regarding Rawhani’s letter.

 - With files from Victoria Gibson

*Among the 36 student signatories on the letter were a number of past and present members of The Journal’s masthead.

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