University promises minority review of black student applications

Calgary initiative aims to stamp out unconscious bias in law and medicine

September 15, 2020
Protester holds  Black Lives Matter banner
Source: Getty

A Canadian university is promising that black applicants will have their applications reviewed by ethnic minority reviewers, in a bid to combat unconscious bias among assessors.

In the University of Calgary’s medical school, minority reviewers will be added to the initial assessment of black students’ applications, while in the law school, applicants will get that option if they are denied entry through the regular process.

The moves at Calgary and at least two other Canadian institutions suggest a warming attitude toward affirmative action-style measures in a year marked by global protests over racial discrimination.

While race-based admissions preferences have long been common in the US, Canada has largely relied upon student aid – with uneven rates of success – to overcome historic patterns of discrimination.

The initiatives at Calgary, university officials said, were not aimed at creating any different standard for admission, but rather at ensuring that black applicants get an unbiased assessment of whether they met the existing criteria.

Leaders of both schools at Calgary acknowledged that their own students, energised by protests originating with the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, helped them realise the need to take more aggressive action against racial imbalances in their enrolments.

The additional review process for admissions was just one step in the right direction, the medical school’s dean, Jon Meddings, said. “There is more we can do to achieve equity and diversity in our admissions process and within our school,” Professor Meddings said.

The law school said it wanted to confront “systemic racism” in its admission process and wider society.

It’s a welcome move, with the potential for driving deep change across the profession, said Jacqueline Beckles, a federal government lawyer who serves as secretary of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers. She noted that law schools at the University of Toronto and York University have implemented similar systems to help their black and Indigenous applicants.

There is no reason to believe similar processes could not be adopted by other academic fields and universities across the country, said Ms Beckles, a senior counsel with the international assistance group of Canada’s Department of Justice, who also teaches in the paralegal programme at Algonquin College.

The innovation at Calgary was important, said Wendy Cukier, a professor of management at Ryerson University, because biases can be a matter of both written standards and the unwritten ways in which they are applied.

Even when standardised testing systems are eliminated and formal admissions rules are stripped of their biases, professional schools can still harbour class-related advantages of connections and shared insights, said Professor Cukier, the founder and academic director of Ryerson’s Diversity Institute.

In such cases, as the medical and law schools at Calgary are pointing out, “the assessments do not actually assess the standards they purport to be evaluating”, she said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Where does this end? If everyone has to have their application to a university assessed by someone of the same ethnicity as themselves, what next? Do they have to share a faith (or lack thereof), or even something as trivial as a passion for sports? Any of these things can as easily provoke unconcious bias (positive or negative) in an admissions tutor. And what do you do with an applicant when you cannot find a match in the admissions team?
In response to. “ Where does this end? If everyone has to have their application to a university assessed by someone of the same ethnicity as themselves, what next?” Perhaps all applications should be reviewed by people not of the dominant group instead. When something is not what one is used to, and something needs to change, we should be willing to explore other ways forward instead of throwing up our hands.
Many Canadian's I know will be unsurprised, the lieberal left continues to drive down standards, Toronto, Ryerson and York are well known for this with many staff happy to take early retirement rather than be involved in the further reduction and destruction of standards. How many of the 4.2% of the total population of Calgary will this benefit now and the total population later? If it's about the standards of written English and/or French then one can only hope those admitted can improve their language skills enough to be safe practitioners of medicine once/if qualified. As for 'law' I fear that's a lost cause anyway...

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