Canada scores well on governance diversity but has more to do

While finding seats as university directors, minorities still lack teaching equity and questions remain over ‘check-box representation’

September 6, 2020
Board members in shadow
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Canadian universities lead the nation on a ranking of governing board diversity, an indicator that analysts find both encouraging and as illuminating deeper challenges for racial minorities in higher education.

The study by the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, covering eight major Canadian cities, found that racial minorities account for almost 15 per cent of the members of university governing boards.

While below the 22 per cent level of Canada’s overall population, the share of minority board members at universities exceeds that found in any other sector, including corporations, provincial and municipal governments, school boards and non-profit groups.

Aboriginal and other racial minorities account for more than 40 per cent of Canada’s undergraduate students, as well as holding 22 per cent of faculty jobs and 18 per cent of all teaching positions, the Canadian Association of University Teachers reported in 2018.

Such numbers show that Canadian universities are paying attention to racial diversity, but they could still do even more, said the Ryerson study’s lead author, Wendy Cukier, a professor of management.

That is because governing boards in academia are places where it can be relatively easy to make personnel changes − with some spots reserved for faculty and students − but relatively difficult to affect hiring, Professor Cukier said.

Diversity on boards, said one activist, Hugh Anthony Simmonds, a teacher of geography and environmental studies at Ryerson, can be an exercise in “check-box representation” if it is not part of a wider strategy.

Dr Simmonds, who was not part of the Diversity Institute study, is co-founder and co-chair of the New Humanity Initiative, which works to counter systemic racism across the greater Toronto area. He has also been passed over three times for a tenure track appointment and knows of black colleagues who remain contract lecturers despite 15 or 20 years of experience.

“They’re getting better,” he said of Canada’s universities, “but there’s more work to be done.”

The Diversity Institute report involved reviewing 9,843 members of boards of directors in public and private sectors in the Canadian cities of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, Hamilton, London and Ottawa.

Overall, slightly more than 10 per cent of the directors were identified by the study as racial minorities, with their levels by sector ranging from highs of 14.6 per cent at colleges and universities, and 13.1 per cent for municipal governments, to lows of 8.6 per cent at provincial governments, 8.4 per cent for school boards and 4.5 per cent among corporations.

There is no guaranteed method of translating diversity at the board level to classrooms and labs, Professor Cukier said, but past experience has shown that when the federal government has included diversity requirements in its research grant allocations, hiring quickly reflects the prioritisation, she said.

That, in turn, gives minority researchers the power to hire and assist minority colleagues and students, said Professor Cukier, a former vice-president of research and innovation at Ryerson.

University boards, meanwhile, most closely oversee institutional presidents, who in turn have limited power to affect hiring, because they are typically asked to approve faculty candidates at the end of the selection process, she said.

There are, however, some exceptions. They include the Ontario College of Art & Design University, which recently hired five new tenure-track faculty members, all of whom are black. That was the direct result of an initiative put in place by the university’s outgoing president, Sara Diamond, just before she stepped down this summer.

While such a move by a university president is unusual, it is not impossible, Professor Cukier said. “You really have to think through where the levers are that you can actually use to shift behaviour,” she said.

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