How Canada's universities hope to improve equity, diversity and inclusion

Elizabeth Cannon on why Canada's HE sector still has some work to do to achieve true diversity, and how universities are approaching this problem

November 14, 2017
Gender, equality, diversity, discrimination
Source: iStock

I never planned to become a university president. When I decided to do a doctorate in engineering, I didn’t even think about becoming a professor.

But in 1991, just as I was finishing my PhD, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada started a faculty award programme to get more women into faculty positions in science and engineering. My supervisor asked if I wanted to be nominated, and I thought, “Why not?”

When I joined the University of Calgary’s department of geomatics engineering, I became the second female faculty member in the engineering school of 86 professors.

That was more than 25 years ago, and despite major strides, we still have yet to reach equal representation by women in the STEM fields and in academic leadership more broadly – just as we have yet to see appropriate representation of our country’s true diversity in academic leadership, faculty and research chair positions across Canada.

Changing this has been a long-term priority for university leaders in Canada. Last month, Canada’s university presidents officially voted to endorse a set of seven Inclusive Excellence Principles, and accompanying action plan, that will advance our efforts to improve the participation and success of under-represented groups within the academic community.

The unanimous vote at the Universities Canada’s annual membership meeting highlights a rallying of Canada’s university leadership. These principles came out of our collective desire to do better – for our students, faculty members, administrators, communities and Canada.

Many Canadian universities have already shown great leadership in improving equity, diversity and inclusion. But until last month, we hadn’t joined together to make a unified commitment to these issues.

These new principles represent a consensus from all of Canada’s university leaders to work together to share best practices, learn from each other and motivate each other to do better where there are gaps. We know we have an incredible amount of work to do – and we’re going to do it.

Part of that will be collecting data so that we can measure progress, but the bigger piece is doing the work that will support that progress. We’ll be setting up an advisory group of institutional leaders and experts who will provide advice and technical expertise to Universities Canada staff during the implementation of the action plan, while Universities Canada will lead on workshops, training and sharing best practices.

On campus, we will need to make changes. From training hiring boards and grant committees to taking a more holistic look at candidates’ CVs and creating spaces for marginalised students to find support and resources. There are many steps we can take to support an inclusive academic environment that reflects the tremendous diversity and talent of all Canadians.

I am now the president of the University of Calgary because my ability was recognised early on in my career, and I was given mentorship and support to realise my potential. That first job led to many other opportunities that I embraced wholeheartedly.

If the funding opportunity from NSERC – and the encouragement that it represented – hadn’t been available, I would have gone down a different path.

Universities are essential spaces of inquiry and knowledge generation. They occupy a special and essential role in society. We need to be exemplars of equity and inclusion. And if we are to achieve our mission of excellence in research, teaching and community engagement, all members of our community must be encouraged to reach their potential.  

Elizabeth Cannon is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Calgary.

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