'Bias' shuts courses

August 11, 1995

The University of British Columbia, Canada's third-largest university, has become the first to close a programme for reasons of racial and sexual bias.

The move follows the release of a 177-page report detailing the findings of a ten-month inquiry into UBC's political science department. The inquiry, conducted by Vancouver lawyer Joan McEwen, focused on the graduate programme, which has temporarily closed its doors to new students.

The report, based on the principles of human rights law, examined evidence for allegations of "pervasive racism and sexism" in political science, where five out of 25 full-time professors are women.

It also looked at the university's previous response to allegations.

The inquiry dates back to 1992, when several complaints were registered by a dozen "primarily female" graduate students. While the department acknowledged and addressed some of the problems, students remained frustrated at a situation which limited them intellectually (a "lack of pluralism"), academically (an absence of formal student input into hiring practices), and socially ("parochial attitude toward women, visible minorities and international students").

The administration has not formally endorsed the report, which makes seven recommendations. Yet it will continue to deny access to the graduate programme until "there are satisfactory provisions in place relating to educational equity and a learning and working environment which is free from harassment and discrimination". It has also agreed to look at possible changes to its new equity office to ensure its independence.

In a letter published in UBC Reports in mid-July, dean of arts Patricia Marchak complained that the report "is deficient in principles of natural justice" because Ms McEwen "dismisses testimony and evidence contrary to the allegations", among other things.

Faculty are certainly unhappy with the document. UBC's faculty association does not endorse it. President Tony Sheppard said that two of the biggest problems are that professors' responses to student allegations are given "short shrift" and that the criteria for lifting the closure are "very vague".

But UBC's graduate students are quite pleased with Ms McEwen's work. The Graduate Student Society's Steve Wilson told The Globe and Mail that students have been "vindicated, that the report has found that there is support for the allegations of pervasive racism and sexism".

In preparing her report, Ms McEwen relied on principles of human rights law, which, she writes, "focuses on the harmful effects caused by . .discriminatory behaviour" rather than on intent.

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