The Problem with Diversity in Policy and Academia

Anna-Kay Russell

I recently came across a timely article published in the University of Toronto’s Bulletin Report. In the lead up to Black History Month, Huda Hassan, a Black female and Ph.D. student in Women & Gender Studies, achieved Twitter fame for doing something quite unique: she tweeted an invitation to all Black female students applying to graduate studies to submit their statements of interest to her for review – for free.

Hassan, who received more than 80 requests for review (and over 5,000 likes and retweets) in response to her post, states that she did this mainly because she wanted to improve the notable under-representation of minority students and faculty in academia – a persistent problem in the Canadian academy, including in policy schools.

The Stats

The 2015 Canada Graduate Survey Consortium found that, nationally, 32 per cent of graduate students self-identified as being part of a minority, but only 4 per cent identify as Black and 4 per cent as Indigenous.

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Figure 1. – According to Statistics Canada, 1 in every 5 Canadians is a visible minority. Minorities make up 19.1% of the Canadian population (approximately 6.3 million people). South-Asian, Chinese and Black make up the three highest minority groups.

Last May, the Canada Research Chairs program (CRC), a Canadian federal agency  for attracting and retaining top academics, issued a statement saying that they had failed to meet their annual national targets of hiring Canadian women, visible minorities, people with disabilities, and Indigenous people in university faculties. As such, the CRC steering committee encouraged universities to intensify their own equity goals in the new year in order to help the CRC achieve equal representation in its program.

Some schools, like McGill University, now collect their own data on the ethnic disparities in their faculty and student body. A 2009 report on student and faculty diversity at McGill shows that the majority of undergraduate students identify as being of White, Chinese and South Asian heritage (71 per cent, 10 per cent and 6 per cent respectively, similar to the highest national proportions of ethnic groups as shown in Figure 1. above). However, McGill found that Black students make up just 2.7 per cent of students; Indigenous students, only 0.8 per cent. The University of Toronto plans to roll out a similar survey for current and incoming undergraduates, alongside a revamped employment equity survey, in the fall of 2017.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) also conducted a survey in 2009 which found that 38% of their students identify as a minority (a statistic  with noted inflation by international students, mainly from countries in Asia). The university is also held accountable for its student and faculty by the Government of British Columbia. Likewise, Queen’s University has its own statement of diversity and inclusion included in the institute’s Strategic Academic Plan. Both universities met three of the four (women, minorities, people with disabilities and Indigenous peoples)  issued by the CRC. The University of Calgary and the University of Ottawa, however, met none.

Diversity in Policy Schools

As a Black female student in academia myself, I admire Hassan’s efforts and want to see this problem resolved. Perhaps the issues she identified are in fact interconnected: there is a lack of minority students participating in or completing post-graduate studies, which leads to a lack of diversity in faculty (as the former is a prerequisite for the latter). The same could be said about the lack of diversity in political settings like the Canadian Parliament. Though the current Liberal government achieved its goal of a closely mirrored representation of visible minorities in the Canadian population (16 per cent, Figure 1.) to that of Parliament’s (14 per cent), these changes only saw equitable representation for two major communities: South Asian and Chinese. Most other minorities and Indigenous peoples remain underrepresented, with Indigenous members taking up the fewest seats of only 3 per cent.

So, bringing it back full-circle to Hassan’s point of increasing graduate student diversity: we need to start from within schools (i.e., policy schools) in order to increase diversity in professional settings like academic faculties or the Canadian Parliament. Currently, little public data exists on the ethnic demographics in policy schools, a possible first step in the process of diversity improvement: the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, for example, has some data on who its students are, citing that 41.5 per cent of its students identify with a minority group; however, the proportions of students in each minority group are unspecified, misleading one’s interpretation of how diverse a minority community the school actually has.

Jamal Depradine went from being a teen in Scarborough to a member of the Faculty of Medicine's 1T6 graduating class. In 2004, he enrolled in the Summer Mentorship Program (SMP). The SMP, administered by the Office of Health Professions Student Affairs (OHPSA), gives high school students of Black and Indigenous ancestry the opportunity to explore the health sciences at U of T.

Jamal Depradine went from being a teen in Scarborough to a member of the Faculty of Medicine’s 1T6 graduating class. In 2004, he enrolled in the Summer Mentorship Program (SMP). The SMP, administered by the Office of Health Professions Student Affairs (OHPSA), gives high school students of Black and Indigenous ancestry the opportunity to explore the health sciences at U of T.

Nevertheless, one solution to increasing and actively promoting diversity in policy schools, comes from the Ford School’s Center for Public Policy in Diverse Societies, a centre founded in 2009 dedicated to supporting public policy research and educational programs for diversity, its challenges and opportunities. One could even address the issue of diversity before students reach the post-secondary level, like the summer mentorship program for Medical Sciences at the University of Toronto, which invites Black and Indigenous high school students to campus to learn more about the field and what studying it would be like.

Progress is Progress

Hassan’s initiative is tackling a part of the problem and every step forward counts. She plans to expand on the initiative, making it a full-fledged program next year. Her decision to tweet her call for statements of interest was a bold move and a reaffirmation that this issue matters. It was also a signal, a cry from the inside, that the system she is a part of needs to do more: universities, beyond government legislation and national board targets, need to challenge these biases and take further, more impactful action if they themselves truly intend to see things change. There is still work to be done.

Anna-Kay Russell is a first year Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto. She completed her international bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology at Glendon College, York University. Her policy interests include, but are not limited to, environmental policy, implementation, municipal affairs and public opinion. An advocate for diversity, her hobbies include travelling, learning new languages and trying new recipes. She hopes to continue exploring these interests during her policy internship this summer.

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