Upon retiring, Professor Donald C. Cole took some time to consider his career at the University of Toronto. In doing so, he asks how faculty might be better supported in understanding their role promoting equity within the academy.

My recent retirement was an occasion to reflect on the challenges faculty face, both those who are beginning their careers and those who have been in their roles for many years. Prior to joining the University of Toronto (U of T), I had been a work, environment, and health practitioner and researcher, with a longstanding interest in promoting equity in my communities, workplaces with which I worked, and in broader society. When I joined U of T in 2001, I was eager to see how my colleagues and the institution would embody equity in the academic mission of the university.

Principles detailing how equity should be encompassed in the academy’s work have been set out in Universities Canada’s Inclusive Excellence Principles, U of T’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Action Plan, and U of T’s commitment to “transparency of its governance and decision making.” Though I have learned much during my university career, I continue to struggle with how to better apply these principles and commitments in light of the four challenges I explore in this article: the complexity of higher education; gaps in the application of relevant evidence on teaching; inadequate responses to social-ecological actors; and the problematic relationships our universities and university communities have to the land. I end with some of my thoughts about how universities, departments, and faculty might better help individual professors promote equity within the academy.

The complexity of higher education

As a post-doctoral fellow, I asked my supervisor for literature on how universities are organized. He suggested the campus trilogy of academic novels by David Lodge, which were highly engaging in their descriptions of the interpersonal, inter-departmental, and inter-faculty tensions that arise within the academy. When I became a tenure-stream faculty member, I received some orientation to specific procedures and departments at the university, but the main focus was on the requirements for securing tenure. During an academic leadership session, I asked whether any training on the organization of higher education and how to navigate universities as institutions was available to us. I was pointed to a series of one-week sessions organized for new administrators by Universities Canada and only provided to those taking on deanships and higher-level positions. As I took on leadership within our faculty, I watched a former dean use his own discretion to arrange contracts and appointments for numerous colleagues and, in a rather arbitrary, non-consultative way, rapidly run through a large external donation.

I started reading literature on higher education, discovering multiple journals that examined the history, politics, governance, and international reach of universities. I discovered that scholars at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) were among those who had researched these topics, that the Open University of the UK co-published a book series on higher education, and that the Carnegie Foundation in the USA had funded programs of research on higher education, with books published by the American Association for Higher Education. In workshops organized by our university faculty association, I learned about the history and dynamics of tenure and contract staffing in universities. In my sabbaticals, I attended conferences on higher education in Canada and the UK, where themes including the ascendancy of managerialism and neoliberalism at universities were openly discussed.

There was relevant research literature, systematized experience, and thoughtful analysis to draw upon to support me in program development and faculty governance roles. Why was it not part of my orientation? It would have assisted me in navigating the complexities, contradictions, tensions, and dynamics of academia.

Gaps in the application of relevant evidence on teaching

In public health, we pride ourselves on informing our practice with evidence. In fact, a desire to fill gaps in existing evidence was part of my motivation to initiate a research career and include both primary evidence and systematic reviews in my teaching as much as possible. Yet I received no orientation to the evidence behind higher education teaching—nothing about areas such as course design, assessment, or graduate student mentoring. I watched as colleagues on selection committees argued for recruiting only faculty who had the highest ranks in traditional qualifications, such as grades, scholarships, and publications. They showed no sense or interest in the challenges applicants from other, traditionally marginalized backgrounds might have had to overcome, and no value for the diversity of experience and training these individuals might bring to the classroom.

A desire to fill gaps in existing evidence was part of my motivation to initiate a research career.

During periodic quality assurance reviews of our programs, I noted how few equity indicators were included. Sometimes gender, occasionally origin (such as international versus Canadian), but rarely ethnicity and never socio-economic strata. Similarly, when it came to training highly qualified personnel to increase research capacity, I was stunned by how many proposals for this training repeated past and inadequate patterns so that, even when we obtained funding for training, we did not have frameworks for analyzing the equity impacts of our programs.

I started searching the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) literature, attended seminars and conferences, and joined a community of faculty and staff colleagues to put into practice what we had learned. I engaged in collaborative assessments of the competencies needed in areas of public health practice and evaluated one of our masters’ programs with a colleague with a mind to evidence-based teaching practices. I went on to do a Certificate in Research on Health Professions Education, with a focus on mentorship. I led teams that obtained grants and contracts to examine teaching-capacity strengthening and published contributions to the SoTL literature. I worked with others to implement a more evidence-based process of assessment of contributions to teaching and led seminars for faculty (tenured, status, and adjunct) on ways to seek out and apply evidence in their teaching, and to document this process. Yet how can the SoTL be more fully cultivated and made central to our academic endeavours, including as an essential part of the orientation for new faculty?

Inadequate responses to social-ecological actors

Our department’s periodic strategic planning exercises usually involve reconnecting with our university’s longer-term strategic plan, scans of our departmental or faculty environments for key threats and opportunities, and consultation with key stakeholders. The latter two components have been particularly challenging given the tumultuous financial, political, social, and environmental changes in which we find ourselves.

My colleagues and I have found responding to stakeholders and informing positive changes in workplace, farming, or health provider practices to be daunting work. It is much more involved than the service work described by our provost’s office, and it is incommensurate with how service work is usually evaluated in performance review and promotion. As noted many years ago by Ernest Boyer, there are different kinds of scholarship, including integration, application, discovery, and teaching.

Faculty are often reminded that scholarship in service to the community is an asset and the involvement of students through service benefits all parties involved, but neither are key to a faculty member’s advancement within their institution. Isn’t the commitment to tackle societal challenges part of our social contract with the public and governments that fund us? Despite my engagement with colleagues in applied research within multiple organizational contexts, I have often felt that I have yet to meet the demands, opportunities, and overall challenges associated with this part of our university and school’s social accountability mission. I certainly learned from my colleagues in the Community Engaged Scholarship movement and the growing literature on how to engage more effectively with community partners in combined research, teaching, and service. Yet none of this work was flagged as important or included in orientations for new faculty at my university. In fact, one of my divisional leads once said that she does not do knowledge translation or exchange, that is someone else’s job.

Working in the field of ecological public health during this era of severe climate change, I feel a responsibility to other social and ecological actors.

Working in the field of ecological public health during this era of severe climate change, I feel a responsibility to other social and ecological actors (the ecosystems we inhabit along with other species). Before us are fundamental inequities both among humans in the form of environmental injustice and among species in the form of ecological injustice. When an energetic student and I jointly made a submission to the President’s Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels at U of T, I was reminded how entrenched the commitment to the status quo is among the backroom financiers of our university, its investment managers, and our pension funds. How do we take part in addressing the massive social-ecological changes in our university’s watershed, the Great Lakes region, the North American continent, and globally? How can we prompt such questions for ourselves, our programs, our departments, and our universities?

Ambiguous relationship to the land

Grappling with my university’s relationship to this land has been a much bigger task than I could have contemplated when I first started as a faculty member. Early on, I was fortunate to receive a copy of Martin Friedland’s 2002 book The University of Toronto: A History. It gave me a sense of the relationships, social compacts, movements, and political changes that shaped the university, as well as the important influence of faculty, students, and staff. Except for a discussion of real estate and some reference to the settings of the Scarborough and Mississauga campuses in the Rouge and Credit River watersheds, the book says little about the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and, most recently, the Mississaugas of the Credit River that the university occupies.

An Ecological Public Health course I led was on universities in watersheds, deepening my understanding of the academy’s relationship to the land, water, non-human species, and Indigenous Peoples. Taking a political ecology perspective, it highlighted the role of extractive industries working across Canada and around the world. They heavily finance my university and its affiliated health institutions and, in turn, the university invests in those industries.

Stuart Tannock also explores these dynamics in his article Learning to Plunder: Global Education, Global Inequality and the Global City. The intentionality and extent of U of T’s involvement with extractive industrial corporations may be greater than some other universities; nevertheless, it was new to most students and faculty, including myself. Little of this appeared in the official history of the university, nor was this analysis of the university’s colonial and neo-colonial modus operandi part of my or any of my colleagues’ orientation to the institution.

Indigenous scholars have brought to the fore concerns about the historically exploitative orientation of universities towards Indigenous people and their territories. In the Spring 2019 issue of Academic Matters, Anishinaabe legal scholar Ashley Courchene called for a fresh look at the options for conciliation. Unlike reconciliation, this is not a return to prior mythical harmonious relationships between settlers and indigenous peoples—it is active work to build better relationships. He encourages us “to frame our discussions and research around the conciliation of poor Indigenous-Canadian relations,” to which I would add poor settler-territory relationships. How can we make learning, questioning, and responding to our universities’ problematic relationships to the land part of both the orientation of newcomers to our university communities, and the ongoing work of our departments and faculty?

A call to universities, departments, and faculty

None of these challenges have easy solutions, as they have been woven into the fabric of our universities to varying extents. We can take notice of them, learn about them, discuss them among ourselves, and continue to craft innovative responses to them, which will naturally change over time. Nevertheless, as intimated by the questions at the end of each section in this article, some key steps could be taken towards explicitly acknowledging these challenges and helping faculty address them.

It could start with the orientation of new faculty. In addition to learning about teaching assignments, research programs, and administrative procedures, new faculty should be alerted to the challenges I have described and provided access to resources to explore them further. Among the resources could be faculty help sites, similar to those that have been developed to support teaching at many universities. In my view, these should prioritize the history, organizational complexity, and problematic relationships to the land of each university.

Another support would be mentoring, the same way this has been developed for teaching and for research progression towards tenure in many of our universities. Existing mentors could be trained or newer mentors developed, perhaps by faculty associations, who could help faculty better navigate the contradictions, tensions, and dynamics of our complex organizations. This would include how to respond to social-ecological actors, both those currently involved in our universities and those whose voices are less often heard. At crucial points during faculty careers, such mentors would be particularly helpful and mentoring could be recognized as part of university service.

Re-visiting the criteria for performance review and advancement to better recognize mentoring and engagement with social-ecological actors as important. Departments, faculty, and university administrations currently vary in the extent to which they recognize the latter, but this needs to move up in priority if our universities are going to effectively partner with others to address the challenges of climate change.

Finally, as a better human resource practice, systematic exit interviews of retiring faculty around the challenges they faced in their careers might be an enlightening activity that faculty associations could lead. With their careers no longer in the balance, faculty would be more likely to speak freely and critically.

These modest suggestions will likely need faculty champions prodding faculty associations to take them up and prompting university administrators to implement them. The effort could be separate or joint, whichever promotes more authentic engagement with the questions these challenges pose to equity—both within our universities and in our institutions’ relationships with their local communities. 

Donald C. Cole is an Emeritus Professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.