Algoma University has shared the results of its first-ever equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) survey. While the results, collected from students and employees, were generally encouraging –most members of the Algoma community feel a sense of belonging and support – there are certain areas of improvement that have been identified among specific demographic groups.
The survey had a 12 per cent response rate for students and a 47 per cent response rate for employees. While student participation was low, it is consistent with that of other universities’ EDI surveys, according to a report shared with Algoma’s board of governors.
Thirteen per cent of students reported that they had experienced unacceptable conduct, which was defined in the survey as “having experienced exclusionary, intimidating, offensive or hostile conduct.” These experiences were reported more frequently by students who have disabilities, are Indigenous or identify as non-cisgendered.
Among employees, 33 per cent indicated they had experienced unacceptable conduct, with 65 per cent of that group reporting they had been intimidated or bullied and 57 per cent saying they had experienced a hostile work environment. These incidents were more common among women, trans and non-cisgendered employees.
Vivian Jiménez Estrada, a faculty member and the university’s EDI academic lead, said that such findings are not unique to Algoma. “They exist across the postsecondary sector, especially in the EDI context.”
The process and moving forward
The university tapped the consultancy firm Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) to conduct the survey, which is part of a larger project launched in 2021 called the EDI Climate Study. The purpose of the project is to generate a demographic profile of employee and student populations, identify equity gaps and improve barriers in employment and student success.
EDI was adopted as a pillar of Algoma’s strategic plan in June of 2021 – which is recent relative to some other Canadian universities. But the work of Dr. Jiménez Estrada began in the year prior, when she and the university’s EDI manager, Jane Omollo, assumed their new positions and critically examined Algoma’s existing framework and policies. At the time, it was clear that EDI had never been a standalone strategic priority in the history of the university, according to Dr. Jiménez Estrada.
Through work with the EDI committee and other university stakeholders, they developed a new charter and mandate, the latter of which was adopted by the board of governors as an accountability measure for university leadership. “Our work was meant to go beyond the human rights framework, to signal a need to comply with the law but to also address oppression and racism and measure inequities,” she said.
But inequities – including racism, microaggressions and other elements that comprise an unsafe climate – are hard to measure. “We didn’t have any data to base our work on,” said Ms. Omollo. By commissioning a third-party consultant, the university was better able to collect that data while providing a much-needed an objective perspective and understanding of best practices within the sector. Ms. Omollo described that decision as a “bold step” by the university. “It’s easier to be told what’s wrong or right with what you’re doing by somebody else, than trying to criticize yourself from the inside,” she said.
HESA provided the university with 51 recommendations for improving its EDI climate, such as establishing an institutional employment equity policy as well as a teaching and learning centre to advance EDI within the student population. The next step will be for the university to engage stakeholders within and outside of its campus to build those recommendations into a wide-reaching strategy. “Engagement is going to bring so much to light, because the only people who can give directive in terms of how to improve our climate are those who have been impacted,” said Dr. Jiménez Estrada.
Great, but 12% student participation seems too low to translate into actions without assurance of the sample group’s own accuracy in representation or without further understanding of why participation was so low as a context.