Faculty play an important role in developing and implementing anti-racism and equity policies and practices at universities. What lessons can be learned from their experiences about how and why to pursue this work?

Having just finished three years in a role as Affirmative Action, Equity, and Inclusion (AAEI) Officer at York University, it is a good time to reflect on the work that I and others do to move forward anti-racism and equity work (known commonly as equity, diversity, and inclusion, or EDI) on campuses across Canada. Specifically, I am investigating the questions: what works, what doesn’t work, what is discussed, and what remains in the margins of conversations?

A critique that has been levelled against EDI programs is that they are performative or a public relations exercise to capitalize on diversity in recruitment and fundraising campaigns. I agree with this critique, but my experience has taught me that such programs do open up space to contemplate equitable futures—a goal worth pursuing.

What is discussed?

In my experience, what is discussed most of the time in EDI work at universities is “unconscious bias.” A big part of my responsibility as an AAEI Officer was to co-facilitate workshops for faculty on anti-racism and equity issues. This task later morphed into leading debriefing sessions following online modules created by the University towards the end of my term. Initially, members of faculty hiring committees, particularly the Affirmative Action representatives on these committees, had to attend our workshop delivered online to groups from all units and Faculties. Once these workshops were turned into shorter debriefing sessions following the creation of online modules, they became mandatory for all tenure-track faculty hiring committee members.

In the sessions, we engaged participants in discussion on the “educational pipeline”—the invisible institutional pathway that academics follow from graduate schools to the halls of academia—and the systemic ways in which under-represented groups of racialized people, women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, and 2SLGBTQ+ people are “leaked” out through unconscious biases (UB). These biases play out through lack of encouragement and mentoring at the front end; reliance on the “old able-bodied white guys’ networks” for recruitment, subjective reference letters, elite school and resume biases, hidden and not-so-hidden criteria such as “good communication skills,” “team player,” “good fit,” “refereed publications,” “world class,” “excellent teacher,” “leadership,” “collegiality,” and other familiar yet vague markers throughout the hiring process; and through the hurdles of tenure and promotion and “retention” in the end.

Some applicants are swept out at the beginning, while others are eliminated in the middle, and still others at the end of the pipeline, sometimes through exhaustion, illness, or harassment, sometimes through lack of support, or as a matter of survival. The point behind these UB discussions with hiring committee members was to explore what could be done proactively to counter these practices of exclusion and leakage. We also acknowledged that the pipeline extended to earlier years of education prior to graduate studies, including undergraduate years, high school, and primary school, and that many from under-represented groups were being lost even before they could reach postsecondary education. Indeed, the lack of diversity in certain areas among educators serves as a hidden curriculum for young students who might only see white teachers, thereby ruling out pursuing higher education.

The nature of engagement

There were two aspects of my experience that were different from those of my predecessors in this role, and which potentially gave me a different perspective on the process. The first was the fact that my term fell during the COVID-19 pandemic when all our work was transferred online. My predecessors did this work in person. Another distinction in my term was the fact that my co-facilitator and I are both racialized women. This fact may have changed the dynamic between us and the participants from previous iterations.

Even though I co-facilitated these discussions online during the pandemic and do not find online conversations ideal, I enjoyed the animated and enthusiastic exchanges on Zoom and usually left feeling exhilarated. I often felt that we were our way to developing a collective understanding of how inequitable hiring practices occur. Most participants were vocal and asked interesting questions, some pointed to contradictions, and some shared insights based on experiences and prior learnings. We co-facilitators were constantly learning from these collective dialogues, and we frequently modified our workshops based on our deepening knowledge base. There were of course some participants who were silent, and we knew they were there because they had to be, but those were few and far between.

My general impression from these experiences is that faculty members from all disciplinary backgrounds are hungry to have these conversations. Out of hundreds that we engaged with, I can remember only a handful who vocalized their resentment that they were mandated to attend the sessions. A few indicated verbally and non-verbally that their knowledge on these matters was already extensive and that these sessions were not adding anything new—which I found hard to believe. Interestingly, these attitudes did not always come from units that were diverse. There were also a few instances of blatant articulations of sexism and racism by participants in these sessions, which we had to address during the meetings and afterwards.

My general impression from these experiences is that faculty members from all disciplinary backgrounds are hungry to have these conversations.

Equity work as “training”: A misconception

There is often an expectation that equity and anti-racist work will come with formulaic answers from “experts” and that UB discussions constitute “training” rather than developing a particular lens, a certain reflexivity, and self-awareness that applies differently in unique hiring situations. To this point, some participants expressed anxiety that we were not providing them with clear-cut answers or ways to hire equitably, and that we were merely increasing the complexity of the job at hand. This view of seeing UB as training that would provide formulaic answers is very compatible with neoliberal bureaucratic thinking, where every social problem is understood as an individual discrepancy and the solution is also left to individual actors following set procedures.

To be sure, some of this work does constitute training, i.e., collecting data and following established procedures flowing out of laws and collective agreements, including the production of certain documents. However, of central importance is the expansion of our collective knowledge about these issues, which allows us to make fair and equitable decisions.

Dealing with difficult encounters

To be honest, I am not sure that we addressed every situation satisfactorily when it came to dealing with racism, sexism, and other conflicts in our sessions with faculty. As a matter of fact, I know we didn’t on some occasions. Those occasions linger in my mind. There were some difficult conversations, for instance, when members would talk about conflicts within their hiring committees and power imbalances, including racism, microaggressions, and even harassment. The sensitive work of listening and advising members confiding in us with such experiences is not in our job descriptions, but it inevitably happens. It is uncompensated emotional work that has been described as “a tax” paid particularly by racialized advocates within higher education.

The sensitive work of listening and advising members confiding in us with such experiences is not in our job descriptions, but it inevitably happens.

What I learned from these occasions is to suspend the agenda and attend to the situation at hand just as we would do in a classroom situation. I have heard of the notion of using such “teachable moments” for deep analysis and creative thinking. That is easier said than done! But it is not impossible, and we can work towards it.

This brings me to what was not discussed (or not discussed adequately).

What is not discussed?

In our sessions, we left certain structural obstacles as fixed, for instance: government requirements around employment equity, free trade agreements, immigration rules, and availability of occupational expertise. Occasionally, colleagues would point out that internationally educated professionals in their field would have to be licensed or demonstrate eligibility for licensing in order to be considered for shortlisting at a Canadian university. This requirement eliminated many applicants, including those who are permanent residents of Canada. Colleagues in some units pointed out that external funding regulations limited the number of applicants that can be hired. We did not explore what hiring might look like if these parameters were different—needless to say, it would greatly change the nature of hiring at our universities.

One of the assumptions of the UB paradigm is that we are all guilty of partiality, predispositions, and prejudices. Thus, there was a comfort level imagined among participants, since the framework was not asserting questions of power nor accusing certain groups of having more social power than others. This framework assumed that Black, brown, and Indigenous colleagues were also carrying unconscious biases with them along with white counterparts, and so the conversation became less confrontational, and members of dominant groups were absolved of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia.

However, we know that privately, members of under-represented groups talk about the fact that we are not operating on an equal plane and that power differentials among professors play out on an everyday basis, including in hiring situations. Anti-racist educator Shirley Anne Tate, who was a guest panelist on our campus earlier this year, points out that not considering systemic racism maintains what she calls “whiteliness” or white supremacy.

Once or twice, participants in our workshops pointed out that it is not clear what is unconscious and what is conscious. While noting that fact, we did not pursue that question to any great extent, not being trained in psychology as facilitators. Perhaps facilitators could dwell on that more in sessions, but it would have to be done carefully and requires thoughtful pedagogic interventions (and where do we learn those?).

The role of systemic discrimination

Another issue that we did not interrogate in our sessions, but remains critical to anti-racism and equity work, is the role of systemic and institutional discrimination in the lives of the people who work and study within those systems and institutions. UB discussions assume that discrimination is a result only of individual inclinations and individual practices based on those inclinations and fail to see its systemic and institutionalized parts. The fact that individuals can act in discriminatory ways because the institutional structures and cultures allow them to do so without impunity is an aspect of institutional discrimination. It is a topic that is rarely acknowledged by universities and skirted around in UB discussions. The question remains: How must we consider the fragility of dominant group members in pointing out racism, sexism, ableism, and the like, while ignoring Indigenous, Black, racialized folks, women, and others traumatized by violence? When we often glibly declare that we are providing a “safe space for everyone,” is that even possible when there are unequal power relations in every group? And what are the pre-requisites for that to be true? Systemic discrimination, such as systemic racism and sexism, is significant to name and disrupt, because that is the reason why, for instance, certain groups, including Black, Indigenous, women, persons with disabilities, and trans folks remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), despite all the years of UB discussions.

Another systemic element of the hiring process that we examined—but did not reimagine in our sessions—is the job advertisement itself and the job criteria highlighted in it. Its importance in ensuring that certain folks are not being excluded from the outset is often disregarded. By using and re-using old templates of ads, it is easy to use hackneyed phrases such as “refereed publications” in “high-impact journals” or the industry’s “top-ranked journals,” which serve to eliminate excellent candidates from historically under-represented groups. We did talk in our sessions about the significance of ads in systematizing racism, sexism, and other discriminations but there is often not enough thought given to drafting those ads or to the fact that the Dean’s Offices often have a decisive say in the language in those ads. It is not clear to me that administrators at higher levels are well versed in issues of equity and diversity, as seen in the language used in contemporary job postings for university faculty. Participants in our sessions often acknowledged their powerlessness to consider alternatives to certain received practices although they knew the problems with them.

Another systemic issue that is not part of UB training is the kind of work experience under-represented group members have in academia after they are hired. Are their perspectives and knowledges recognized within departmental curricula in a central way, rather than peripherally? Are they being allocated only to teach “elective” courses as opposed to “required” courses? Are their community engagements recognized as indicative of “scholarly impact”? Are their research projects amplified? Are they being treated as tokens? Are they being harassed? Are they being evaluated negatively because they teach against the grain and use different pedagogies? If they face challenges, are they supported by co-workers, chairs, and administrators, or pathologized as problems? In our sessions, we invariably talked about mentoring and the need to ensure “readiness,” but I often had a feeling that there was dissonance between the discussions that took place in our sessions and what happened in reality.

Even after expressing many concerns and sharing my apprehensions about affirmative action and equity programs in general, and UB sessions in particular, I would still insist on their importance and urge their continuation on our campuses. These programs provide us with a crucial space to engage, clarify, share, struggle over, learn from each other, and create much-needed relationships and knowledge on these matters. They may be somewhat performative, but they are also pushing the margins in pursuit of a more equitable university.

Tania Das Gupta is a Professor in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at York University.