SSHRC-funded research calls for greater commitment to equity in Higher Ed

York-led research shows racialized and Indigenous university faculty score low on power, prestige and influence; points the way to policy change at the university level and a greater institutional commitment to equity. 

Under-representation points to barriers to access and participation of racialized and Indigenous academics

Under-representation points to barriers to access and participation of racialized and Indigenous academics

Revisiting the equity of the Canada Research Chair program in 2017 set the tone for lasting representational thought leadership in Canada. With a similar lens, groundbreaking new research led by York University Professor Emeritus Frances Henry puts Canadian universities under the microscope. This new inquiry, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, shows that racialized and Indigenous faculty are low in numbers and even lower in terms of power, prestige and influence compared to non-racialized [white, male] counterparts within the university.

Henry, a foremost expert on anti-racism, led a team of researchers from York, Queen’s University, University of Alberta (U of A), University of Saskatchewan (U of S) and Dalhousie University, in a four-year (2012-2016) study of racialization and Indigeneity at eight Canadian universities. (The specific universities remain confidential.)

The Equity Myth. Image courtesy of UBC Press

The Equity Myth. Image courtesy of UBC Press

This landmark study, the findings of which were published in The Equity Myth: Racialization and Indigeneity in Canadian Universities (2017), is the first national study to address the status of racialized and Indigenous scholars in Canadian universities.

Frances Henry. Credit: Pierre Couture

Frances Henry. Credit: Pierre Couture

“It cannot be denied that under-representation occurs, and points to barriers to access and participation of racialized and Indigenous academics,” says Henry. “If this can be effectively addressed, then an institutional commitment to equity is integral to creating a welcoming and supportive academic culture,” she adds.

Original study adds to growing body of literature

A decades-long body of research on equity and diversity in higher education exists. This has documented the persistence of systemic barriers encountered by women, racialized minorities, Indigenous peoples and persons with disabilities. Over the same span of time, Canadian society has undergone a fundamental demographic transformation and become increasingly ethnically and racially diverse, and the Indigenous population has grown significantly – putting inequity at greater odds with the changing realities. This dissonance makes Henry’s research all the more timely.

“Despite decades of talking about equity, diversity and inclusion in society and higher education, this demographic transformation is not reflected in the university,” Dua explains.

The absence of equity is especially notable in the composition of faculty and leadership, which remain primarily white and male

The absence of equity is especially notable in the composition of faculty and leadership, which remain primarily white and male

By its very nature, Henry’s study is noteworthy in that she brought together top scholars in the field: Enakshi Dua and Carl James, alongside Henry at York; Audrey Kobayashi (Queen’s), Peter Li (U of S), Howard Ramos (Dalhousie) and Malinda Smith (U of A).

Using data from their nationwide study Race, Racialization and the University, the team examined what universities have done to combat inequity, and how effective their programs have been.

Researchers utilize qualitative and quantitative methods to gain fulsome analysis

How did the researchers approach this work? Broadly speaking, they used a mixed methods approach, which means they incorporated both qualitative and quantitative research methods; and utilized census data, surveys, interviews, textural and policy analyses. On the qualitative side, to gain a clear picture of the faculty population, they administered a questionnaire survey in eight universities. As well, they conducted interviews with 89 racialized and Indigenous faculty, equity directors and administrators in 12 universities.

Looking to fully understand how racialization and racism take place, the team examined the data along these lines:

  • Representation relating to hiring, tenure and promotion practices, and the attitudes and practices of administrators responsible for equity policy and practice;
  • Institutional culture that generates barriers to access and equity;
  • Mechanisms necessary for inclusion; and
  • Discourses or ways of thinking about equity, diversity, inclusion and exclusion; and how these inform practices.

Digging deeper, the researchers:

  • Studied how universities have responded to the need for equity programs – via human rights, equity and diversity frameworks – and observed the results of those programs in measurable ways, such as representation and salaries.
  • Examined the precariousness of racialized and Indigenous faculty members’ work. This was made possible through surveys and interviews.
  • Highlighted the process of racialization itself – that is, examined the ways in which everyday events create racial difference and oppression.

The interviews were particularly insightful. “Faculty members were eager to speak of their experiences; for many, this was cathartic since they rarely discussed racism,” Henry notes.

Many racialized and Indigenous faculty members believed that their university’s good intentions, which led to their employment in the 1980s, now felt like rhetoric without substance.

Examining the precariousness of racialized and Indigenous faculty members’ work was made possible through surveys and interviews

Examining the precariousness of racialized and Indigenous faculty members’ work was made possible through surveys and interviews

Key findings: “Low in numbers, even lower in power, prestige and influence”

Henry’s team found that racialized and Indigenous faculty (and the disciplines or areas of their expertise) were low in numbers and even lower in terms of power, prestige, and influence, compared to white male counterparts.

“Whether one examines representation in terms of numbers of racialized and Indigenous faculty members and their positioning within the system, their earned income as compared to white faculty, their daily life experiences within the university as workplace, or interactions with colleagues and students, the results are the same,” says James.

Press for institutional commitment to equity

While the researchers cite progress in the equity of women, gender, and sexuality studies, this has not happened for racialized and Indigenous faculty. “Indigenous and racially and ethnically diverse students in social science and humanities in particular, never or rarely experience someone like themselves as professors, mentors, leaders, researchers and knowledge producers,” says James.

Ethnically diverse students rarely experience someone like themselves as a mentor or knowledge producers

Ethnically diverse students rarely experience someone like themselves as a mentor or knowledge producers

The team presses for greater equity: “Critical attention must be given to this area so that racialized and Indigenous faculty members are recognized as legitimate members of the academic community with all the earned rights and privileges,” says Henry.

Frances Henry et al., The Equity Myth was published by UBC Press in 2017. A related article, “Race, racialization and Indigeneity in Canadian universities,” was published in Race Ethnicity and Education (2017).

To read about York’s policies on diversity and equity, visit the Human Resources website.  To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch, watch the York Research Impact Story and see the snapshot infographic.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca