Toronto leads the way for Canada on diversity data

Institution aims to end national reluctance to ask about racial and ethnic identity, with other universities across the country showing interest in following suit

December 6, 2020
international students, student, canada, studying abroad, coronavirus, covid-19

Canada’s colleges and universities, while faring well on many measures of equity, are getting more serious about one important exception: their measurements of equity.

Unlike their counterparts across the border in the US, Canadian institutions generally do not collect basic demographic diversity statistics on their student populations beyond the question of indigenous heritage.

It is a blind spot that the nation’s top-ranked institution, the University of Toronto, is taking steps to fix.

The university has created a voluntary online survey through which students can provide demographic data such as their racial, ethnic and gender identity.

The need for such information became clear, said Micah Stickel, the university’s acting vice-provost for students, as Toronto got deeper into the work of addressing diversity concerns among both students and faculty.

“We needed more awareness of our student population and the various identities that exist,” said Dr Stickel, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “This is just data that we currently don’t have.”

That data gap became most evident as Toronto tried to tackle a problem common among universities: having a faculty that is far less diverse than the students they teach.

To help solve that, Toronto is moving to adopt another programme found in the US, in which colleges fund summertime preparatory training ahead of graduate school for promising minority students seen as having the potential to become future faculty.

The Summer Research Opportunities Program was created in 1986 by the Big 10 Academic Alliance grouping of universities, centred in the Midwestern region of the US. It has served more than 10,000 students, including more than 600 who went on to earn a doctoral degree.

“It’s really a long-game kind of approach,” said Sonia Kang, an associate professor of organisational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto who is helping to replicate the idea on her campus. “It’s all about filling the pipeline.”

The eight-week programme will offer incoming graduate students’ intensive research activities and related experiences with faculty mentors. The initial version this coming summer will be modest, Professor Kang said, serving just 15 to 18 students in her department.

The programme will be entirely online for its first summer, due to the pandemic, avoiding housing and thereby leaving the overall cost to the university at only about C$9,000 (£5,000) per student, she said.

The online demographic survey, meanwhile, is open to all undergraduate and graduate students on any of the University of Toronto’s three campuses. Individual responses will be kept confidential, Professor Stickel said. Summary findings of the combined responses will be used in areas that include improving student recruitment and support services, he said.

The details of such uses will be guided by an advisory panel of students, staff and faculty. The university hopes to combine the basic data it gathers on personal identity with student opinion information it gets from its participation in the US-based National Survey of Student Engagement to discover and better address areas of inequity and concern, Professor Stickel said.

“Our goal is to understand the barriers that exist because, currently, we just don’t have clarity on all of those barriers,” he said.

The only other major institution in Canada known to be doing such a thing is Ryerson University, but wider expansion seems likely, given the number of universities already contacting Toronto seeking guidance, Professor Stickel said.

“We will probably see more and more of this across Canada in the coming years,” he added.

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