How to tackle campus racism? Listen to and reward minority staff

University of British Columbia head advocates ‘servant leadership’ style to build diversity, in contrast to ‘very top-down’ approach at many institutions

January 12, 2021
Source: Getty

Almost all university leaders are trying to make their institutions more equal, diverse and inclusive, with the Covid-19 pandemic and last year’s Black Lives Matter protests only increasing the urgency of the task. But Santa Ono, president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia (UBC), has more experience than many on how to handle such missions.

During his previous role as president of the University of Cincinnati, a university police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man, Samuel DuBose, during a traffic stop. The high-profile event, which occurred in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015, prompted Professor Ono to design a new model of campus policing to regain the trust of the local public and campus community.

Recent incidents of racial profiling at UBC – although far less serious than the Cincinnati shooting – have led to a similar acceleration of action.

In 2019, during a large academic conference at the university, a black delegate had difficulties registering at a hall of residence, and there were “questions [raised] about whether computer equipment belonged to a person of colour”, Professor Ono said.

Meanwhile, last year, a black postgraduate student had difficulty accessing his supervisor’s office, despite having written permission, after a security guard questioned whether he was part of the university.

In June, Professor Ono, who has been at the helm of UBC since 2016, published a list of commitments aimed at tackling systemic racism at the university, which include increasing diversity among staff and students, creating a more inclusive curriculum and developing anti-racism policies.

His first step was to hold several listening sessions with black and other minority communities at the institution to understand the challenges they were facing and to hear proposals for potential actions. He then developed a plan to act on those recommendations and identified leaders who would be held accountable for implementing key components.

Professor Ono has already appointed two executive leads, who have been charged with increasing diversity among the student community and the professoriate, respectively, as well as a special adviser on inclusive excellence.

It might sound like an obvious and straightforward strategy, but Professor Ono said that a “servant leadership” approach of starting with listening to the community was “somewhat atypical of the approach at many institutions, which is very top-down”.

He added that every dean and vice-president at UBC has been asked to provide information about the steps they are already taking to address racism, what further steps they could take in the next year or two, and what could be accomplished within the next five years, all of which will be shared with the entire university community.

“Certainly we won’t be able to accomplish all of that, but the idea is to look across the entire institution in a systematic way to look for synergies and for very innovative ways to approach racism,” he said, adding that senior leaders’ work towards these priorities will be part of how they are assessed in their annual performance review.

But Professor Ono, who also worked on UCL’s race equality policy when he was a professor at the institution in the early 2000s, said that rewarding staff for working on tackling diversity and inclusion was more important than accountability.

“My situation [at UCL] was probably unique in that I had a very strong group and I had the support I needed so I could focus on those institution-building activities and contributing to the early days of Athena SWAN. But my case is not necessarily the typical case. I was quite senior at the time; I was a full professor,” he said.

“In many cases, faculty and staff who are asked to volunteer or participate on these kinds of activities are tapped [up] very frequently because people of colour are under-represented in the academy everywhere, and so the same people tend to be [picked] over and over again. And that takes away from their core responsibility of scholarship and teaching. There really has to be thought at the institution about how to reward and support those who are going to do very important work to move institution to a better place.”

UBC has several senior faculty advisers who are working on projects to advance the institution’s strategic plan but are also tenured academics. All of them receive a stipend and are given time away from teaching to “make room for the increased responsibilities for service in these portfolios”, Professor Ono said.

“Provide resources, grants and opportunities [and] make it something that we celebrate as an institution: that’s the most effective way to go about addressing systemic racism,” he said.


Print headline: I’m listening: how to start an anti‑racist, diversity drive

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