Opinion: Universities need to move beyond 'diversity crisis' approaches to equity planning. Here's how.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Conversation on March 31

Dr. Arig al Shaibah is the associate vice-president, equity & inclusion and an honorary associate professor of Educational Studies.

The higher education system plays an essential role in advancing sustainable development goals. These range from providing knowledge and innovative solutions to educating and equipping generations to navigate the future.

Universities that meaningfully integrate equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) into their teaching, research, service and leadership stand to improve their impact on increasingly complex social, economic and environmental challenges. This matters enormously in today’s diverse and globally connected society.

I have worked as a senior equity leader in four Canadian public universities in the last two decades. I am concerned about two key aspects surrounding taking action on equity, diversity and inclusion: ensuring senior equity leaders have sufficient authority to implement changes, and shifting away from a “diversity crisis mode” of planning.

Pace and impact of change

Despite decades of efforts to advance EDI in universities, some scholars have questioned the pace and impact of progress to date.

Some recent advances in equitably hiring faculty have been due to leveraging human rights legislation. For example, there was a 2016 Canadian Human Rights Settlement Agreement and subsequent 2019 addendum requiring equitable representation in the Canada Research Chair program. This has had a significant impact on hiring a broader gendered and racialized diversity of research chairs between 2016 and 2022.

Provincial human rights code provisions have enabled universities to accelerate recruiting scholars who have been underrepresented due to systemic inequities.

These interventions reflect compliance with legislation. But they don’t affect culture and system changes. These are needed to eliminate biases and barriers that reproduce inequities.

Short-sighted solutions

Short-sighted solutions focused on compliance are due, in part, to a cyclical diversity crisis model of planning. Universities seem perpetually trapped in this.

A reactive mode of planning starts with an incident of hate-motivated violence or another watershed event. Such an event typically reveals anew historical or contemporary systemic inequities.

These moments can come in the aftermath of events with a global reach — like the movement to meaningfully address anti-Black racism after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. But most of these moments arise from local contexts and campus events, like a string of departures of racialized faculty members sparking calls for improving support for minoritized scholars.

What follows such moments are often reactionary and hastily developed institutional statements of commitments — and largely symbolic responses.

These include some spontaneous institutional efforts that soon fall by the wayside due to their isolated and ill-conceived nature. These efforts, even if well-intentioned, have a demoralizing effect on campus communities. They also contribute to disillusionment among a diversity of students, faculty and staff about the university’s commitment and capacity to meaningfully advance EDI.

That said, with courageous leadership and institutional readiness, these peak events can also catalyze important and lasting responses.

Empowered senior equity leaders

In 2022, I authored a report on report on building race-conscious institutions for Universities Canada. The guide offers a framework focused on:

(1) Educational access and employment equity; (2) governance and accountability; (3) academic and educational content and learning context; and (4) interpersonal and intergroup relations and climate.

It emphasizes the importance of having a senior equity leader with specialized knowledge and expertise to lead EDI strategic priorities. It also discusses the importance of leaders’ authority and span of control to foster a university-wide culture of accountability and ownership.

Portfolio model is the most robust model

In 2019, Universities Canada surveyed its [96] members about their EDI administrative structures. It revealed how universities rely on three typical organizational forms to implement equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives:

  1. The collaborative model: an equity lead represents a “one-person” shop with no office, staff or budget;
  2. The unit-based model: an equity leader oversees a core EDI office team with some administrative support staff as well as program specialists and budget; and
  3. The portfolio divisional model: a senior equity leader oversees an EDI office team and a range of other related or adjacent units and staff teams directly within their authority and budget. This model is associated with a larger budget. It also offers the greatest opportunities for direct collaboration with other senior administrators and for a direct relationship with other units to better enable the pursuit of institution-wide goals.

Growth of senior equity roles

In the last five years, there has been a proliferation of senior equity roles in universities.

An internet search I conducted of the organizational structures of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities revealed that 13 had senior administrative officers with titles or mandates explicitly referencing EDI. They report to a president, provost, deputy provost and/or vice-president. Only five of these roles existed in 2019, at the time of the Universities Canada survey.

Among the 13 current senior equity roles, three have a portfolio divisional model and report to the president (and as such are cabinet-level roles). The other 10 senior equity roles reflect a unit-based model. These staff are vice-provosts, associate-provosts and/or associate vice-presidents.

Nearly 70 per cent of these roles came into existence after 2019. Two of the three cabinet-level roles were inaugurated in the last two years.

A further scan reveals that, since 2019, at least five other non-U15 schools have also recruited cabinet-level roles overseeing a portfolio of units. This suggests a possible promising trend towards greater authority and span of control for senior equity leads.

EDI in academic and administrative areas

However organizational structures evolve, it will be essential to ensure senior equity leaders are sufficiently influential across academic and administrative portfolios — meaning it’s important they report both to provosts and presidents.

A shift is needed away from reactive diversity crisis-driven planning to proactive mission-driven EDI planning.

Universities must not only invest in dedicated senior equity leader roles with specialized knowledge and expertise. They must also ensure equity roles are resourced and empowered for optimal success.

This is an opinion article. It reflects only the author's views and does not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Have something to say about what you just read? Contribute to the conversation and send a letter to the editor in response or your own submission at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.

The Conversation