How the Smith Transparency Project is inspiring change through data

To better address the needs of EDII, Commerce students are working together to address the information gap at Queen’s business school

Three founders of the Smith Transparency Project discuss their journey.
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In the wake of Instagram account ‘Stolen by Smith’, there was harsh criticism from those who questioned the credibility of the anecdotal evidence the account relied on. Commerce students were missing empirical evidence to support the patterns demonstrated by the page when trying to understand the needs of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Indigeneity (EDII).

Shortly after the release of the page, the Smith Transparency Project (STP), which addressed this information gap, published its first report.

“Qualitative stories help inspire change,” Brian Colbert, Comm ’21, said. “Whereas quantitative figures may help direct efforts as to where that change or initiative could be best placed.”

STP is a student-led research initiative dedicated to gathering and analyzing data to inform EDII efforts at the Smith School of Business, having already released two out of three reports which analyze how socioeconomic status impacts potential, current, and past Smith students. The project was founded by Colbert alongside fourth-year Commerce students Alice He, Langni Zeng, and Lucy Ji.

READ MORE: ‘A safe haven’: The impact of Stolen by Smith, as told by QTBIPOC students & faculty

The idea sparked for Zeng when she read an Op-ed on racism in the Commerce program and witnessed backlash from some of her peers. She felt quantitative analysis would help support some of the article’s claims and make people more receptive to addressing EDII issues at Smith.

Further pressured by discussions about EDII over the summer, the group came together to form the STP.

“We didn’t have a specific release date,” He said. “We wanted to release it in one big report later on, but the work of Stolen by Smith, in my opinion, was so compelling that we were like ‘people are listening now, there’s no way we can’t release this.’”

A lack of transparency

According to He, “the overarching idea behind the entire Smith Transparency Project is to provide data that can help spark discussions, catalyze change, [and] inform change.”

The STP is broken into three reports to form the Broken Ladder series. The first report lays the groundwork for the socioeconomic circumstances which make Canadian students more or less likely to apply and be accepted into Queen’s Commerce. The second report discusses why the Commerce program is composed of its existing demographics. The third and currently unreleased report will examine the effects of socioeconomic status on finding success within and beyond the program.

Initially, the researchers anticipated they would be able to rely solely on publicly available information to form the reports. They were wrong.

Zeng pointed out that, while she assumed sources like the Queen’s equity census would speak extensively to the socioeconomic positions of students, Queen’s and Smith don’t seem to publicize program-specific information on socioeconomic demographics, nor do they publish information about the neighbourhoods students are applying from.

“That’s what inspired the name Smith Transparency Project,” Zeng said. “Because we realized it really was an issue about transparency.”

Zeng recalled a meeting with Lori Garnier, executive director of the Commerce program, about a year and a half ago. Zeng was seeking support from the Commerce Office in collecting data on the demographics of Commerce students and, while Garnier initially showed excitement for the idea, Zeng said the office eventually claimed it didn’t have the bandwidth to take on such a project. 

When asked about the meeting, Garnier clarified in an email to The Journal that Smith has been engaged in other research initiatives over the past 10 months, adding that “quality data collection that meets the university’s rigorous standards requires time and resources.”

Smith’s initiatives include a census of all four years of the Commerce program being conducted by the Queen’s Human Rights and Equity Office, as well as a look into application data to understand the socioeconomic status of applicants by Undergraduate Admissions & Recruitment.

Ultimately, the STP team relied on four main data sources for their reports: public information from the Canadian census, social media information, internal surveys released to Commerce students, and interviews with a random subset of the survey participants.

At the project’s inception, Colbert and He scoured LinkedIn to figure out where current students attended high school in order to approximate the neighbourhoods they grew up in.

“We reached out to [Ji], who has better programming experience. She wrote a code that iterates and finds high school information,” Colbert said.

After finding this data, the team approximated the neighbourhoods students were applying from by looking at the catchment areas of these high schools and pulling data from the Canadian census about income levels. Even with this information in hand, it proved difficult to gain insights during the interview stage for the whole range of socioeconomic groups—specifically into students from low-income schools, since there weren’t very many.

“We’ve grouped low-income as every school below the 50th percentile [for income], which is shocking if you think about it. We’re calling the bottom half of Canada low income, and we still can’t find the students to talk to.”

Visualizing unspoken assumptions

The wake of the first report brought key insights which shook preconceived notions of diversity in the Commerce program. Among these insights was the concept of “superfeeders,” a group of 16 prestigious Canadian high schools—nine of which are private—which compose over 20 per cent of the Comm ’21 class.

Zeng added that, while Commerce students may have thought that many of their peers came from particular regions or particular private schools, it was a different experience seeing the STP’s data reveal the extent to which certain schools feed into the Commerce program. The data, while shocking, reaffirmed how Commerce students perceived the backgrounds of their peers.

“I came from a Toronto public school, where, anecdotally, the past five years has only sent one person [to Queen’s Commerce] each year […] Knowing there are these pockets of neighbourhoods and even high schools where 7 per cent of the graduating class goes to Commerce is really absurd to me,” Zeng said.

In many ways, assumptions about the Commerce program are also formed before students apply or are admitted. Part II of A Broken Ladder examines perceptions and awareness of the program. While students from low or middle-income high schools are less likely overall to learn about Queen’s Commerce, they are also more likely to have mixed or negative perceptions once they have learned about it.

Colbert, who attended a high-income school in British Columbia, recalled Queen’s flying representatives in to promote the Commerce program. Once he arrived at Queen’s, he heard from students living a two or three hour drive from Queen’s who saw no such representation. 

Insights into home lives also proved relevant. One survey question presented by the STP assessed parental occupations and found that 40 per cent of Commerce students’ parents were ‘Executive Managers’: directors, vice presidents, or C-Suite executives.

“If you think of the soft power that that brings, not only in the sheer money, but the connections, the fact that you’re acclimatized to business discussions—that’s insane. It really shows that Queen’s Commerce, at least for our year, did cater to this specific sub-segment of the population which is essentially the offspring of the existing business elite.”

Zeng said the snowball effect makes sense.

“If you come from a wealthier family, you get better experiences, and it accumulates over time so thus you are more likely to get in as opposed to someone who’s less wealthy.”

Despite this, she still feels there are structural and systemic factors that contribute to this over-representation of wealthy students within Commerce, both favouring high-income schools and perhaps working against middle and low-income schools.

Reception

One of the first stakeholders which the team was excited to hear from was Smith itself. The STP met with Garnier and Brenda Brouwer, dean of the Smith School of Business, shortly after the release of their first report.

According to the interview notes available on the STP’s Instagram, Brouwer and Garnier confirmed that the report had become one of the mandatory readings for members of the EDII taskforce. However, according to Brouwer, Smith can’t formally attribute the project until it informs a decision or future direction.

On the student and alumni stakeholder side, reception has been mixed. According to the STP team, there were passionate EDI advocates who fully supported the project, as well as critics who provided productive feedback regarding how the methodology could be improved.

However, the STP received some feedback in the form of spam; some anonymous Instagram accounts made claims like “the people on this project hate rich people.”

Despite this, all four founders were pleased with the level of reception and feedback received, and they’ve made an effort to respond to as many people as they can, including setting up a feedback form.

“That’s been one reason that we’ve been able to maintain the level of integrity we have in our work because we’re really not going out there to push an agenda,” Zeng said. “It’s truly a research project. We’re taking the criticism, taking the fair positive feedback, and trying to be the vehicle to deliver this information to everyone.”

Looking to inspire change

While the insights brought to light by the STP are part of a complex EDII sphere, the team is excited by the potential for direct change in small areas—particularly in addressing the gaps in perception and awareness high school students have of the Commerce program.

In Colbert’s view, the simple act of sending representatives to lower-income schools instead of private schools would positively impact the likelihood of students from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds applying to Queen’s Commerce.

“What I think is the most promising part about this awareness piece is, if you broaden the pool and if you increase awareness at low-income schools, you don’t necessarily even have to do [affirmative action] to increase diversity. You literally just broaden the pool, get higher quality applicants in general, and thus have more selections as a school.”

Colbert said he was moved to see engagement with the STP coming from outside of Queen’s Commerce, adding there’s interest from students at Western University and the University of British Columbia to create something similar for their business schools.

The team, in discovering how difficult EDII work can be, also hopes institutions will take on more of this burden rather than relying on students. Additionally, in cases where students choose to engage with EDII work, Zeng hopes there will be compensation provided.

Finally, He emphasized the need to respect EDII advocates—particularly those involved in Stolen by Smith who have contributed to the de-stigmatization of EDII discussions within Commerce—and the complexities of equity work.

READ MORE: School of Business renamed following $50 million donation

“That an institution that received $50 million in funding cannot—with an entire team of people who are educated in higher education—fulfill this huge gap, that, to me, shows the need for and the complexity of equity work.”

“It is not a ‘profit goes up’ thing. It is people’s livelihoods.”

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