Then & now: revisiting diversity on campus
Back in 1998, in an article entitled “Diversity on Campus,” we interviewed a cross-section of Canadian academics and administrators to see how well universities throughout the country were responding to the diverse needs of students, staff and faculty. The people we spoke to identified several needs: better access for disabled members of the university community, prayer space for Muslim students, and acceptance of gay and lesbian students. We reported signs of gradual progress in all of these areas. Seven years later, we thought it was time to re-visit the issues and some of our original sources
If you want to know how far Canadian universities have come in recognizing and accommodating diversity, you could start by looking at how much information is available on the topic. A significant sign of progress is that more institutions are gathering data on the services they provide, says Donna Hardy Cox, a professor at Memorial University’s school of social work. That’s true whether you’re counting the number of prayer rooms for Muslim students or measuring physical access for disabled students, faculty and staff.
Administrators need good data to develop clear policies, theoretical models and programs, says Dr. Hardy Cox, as well as to establish protocols and best practices in all areas of student services. “We’re trying to capture a knowledge base so we can move forward efficiently . . . without reinventing the wheel every time.”
She and a U.S. colleague, Carney Strange of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, are editing a book with the working title “Serving Diverse Students.” It will draw on the experience of student-services professionals to document the current situation in Canadian universities and offer direction for the future.
Dr. Hardy Cox points out that there’s still a long way to go: so far, only one Canadian university (Memorial) offers a master’s program in student services administration, while the United States has had many programs available for years. She hopes Canadian universities will develop more programs, with their graduates going on to use their knowledge and skills to enhance the quality and type of services provided.
In the area of services for people with disabilities, she applauds the presence of a national association of administrators who, being organized, are in a strong position to lobby for resources in this specific field. She says the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities at Carleton University remains the gold standard for ensuring campus accessibility and appropriate services, but many other universities are following suit. A recent March of Dimes survey of Ontario universities and colleges concluded that the majority are taking steps to comply with government legislation to ensure accessibility for students with disabilities at postsecondary institutions.
Muslim prayer rooms
The issue of providing space for Muslim prayer rooms is still a challenge for many universities, with continuing conflict.
Compared with 1998, more institutions have accommodated the prayer requirements of their Muslim communities, and in different ways. For example, the University of Ottawa set aside a room in the university centre as a prayer room for Muslim students, faculty and staff. Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and Mount Allison University in New Brunswick both give Muslim students use of the chapel for quiet reflection and prayer.
Some universities don’t provide prayer space, sometimes on principle. This year, Muslim students at McGill University objected when a room they had used for prayer was claimed back as lab space. McGill’s position is that as a non-denominational institution which doesn’t offer religious space to any campus group, it isn’t obligated to meet students’ religious needs. Jennifer Robinson, associate vice-principal, communications, says the prayer-room arrangement had always been understood to be temporary and that the university had formed a committee with Muslim students to help find suitable permanent space near campus. While some students are still participating in that process, others have opted out and, with support from the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations, expect to file a complaint against the university with the Quebec human rights commission.
McGill is not alone. Université de Montréal has taken the same stance, and a complaint against École de technologie supérieure for not providing prayer space is also before the Quebec human rights commission.
In 1998, we featured a photograph of David Rayside, a political science professor and gay rights activist at the University of Toronto, standing in Varsity Stadium beside a rainbow-coloured triangle – then a relatively new symbol of gay-friendly space – embedded at centre ice.
Today, what began as a “little idea” to raise the visibility and acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered people on campus “has spread to an enormous number of universities and colleges,” says Professor Rayside, who’s now director of the new interdisciplinary Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at U of T.
“There’s significant support for an inclusive atmosphere,” says Professor Rayside, adding that most universities have done basic policy work to eradicate discrimination in employment practices.
But changes in curriculum are slower and harder to chart. In a decentralized institution, there can be “spectacular variations” in awareness and sensitivity to the issue across faculties, he explains. At U of T, the interdisciplinary undergraduate program allows students to choose a major in sexual diversity with courses covering the gamut from political science to social work and English to criminology. The faculties of education at the University of Alberta and University of Regina offer courses dealing with issues of sexual diversity. But these remain small parts of overall curricula. “If you pick up texts of political science today, how many even mention sexual difference or diversity?” says Professor Rayside. “Not many.”
Seven years ago, he was heartened to feel the climate warming for gays on campus, but he warned that you could never take acceptance for granted. That appears to be as true today as it was then: the Quebec City daily Le Soleil reported in March on incidents of vandalism and hate messages received on the voicemail system at the offices of Le Groupe gai de l’Universite Laval.
Such incidents are, fortunately, relatively rare on campus. “Respecting others is one of our core values,” says Ms. Robinson of McGill, and that sentiment is echoed by administrators, faculty and students across the country. Vigilance, however, is always wise.