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Study finds equity, diversity and inclusion policies off to a “strong start” at research-intensive universities

An analysis of institutions’ strategic policy documents suggests U15 institutions are actively addressing equity, diversity and inclusion, though most struggle to define the issues.

BY LAURA BEAULNE-STUEBING | MAR 11 2020

Contrary to criticism that universities’ efforts to address equity, diversity and inclusion issues may be well-intentioned but in practice reinforce status quo, a new report from researchers at the University of Manitoba suggests EDI has become a policy priority for institutions. The study, conducted and written by Merli Tamtik and undergraduate researcher Melissa Guenter, is a deep dive into 50 policy documents from Canadian research-intensive universities, known collectively as U15.

“All of [the U15 universities] have updated their documents very recently. It seems like there’s a new wave of activities and attention paid to EDI,” says Dr. Tamtik, an assistant professor of educational administration. “Equity and diversity had been topics that universities have been grappling with for decades, but now we’re seeing this policy momentum emerging.”

The two didn’t start their research of universities’ strategic policy documents thinking about EDI. In fact, Dr. Tamtik says, Ms. Guenter won a U of M undergraduate research award to look at what those documents say about internationalization – a topic of interest that felt personal to both Dr. Tamtik, who is from Estonia, and Ms. Guenter, who is from Germany. “Pretty soon we caught on to a development or trend that internationalization is part of a bigger conversation around equity, diversity and inclusion,” Dr. Tamtik explains. “And so we decided to switch our focus a little bit and make it much broader and maybe much more relevant.”


Read also: Most universities report having equity, diversity and inclusion plans, but challenges remain


The analysis consisted of looking at documents like strategic plans, annual performance measurements and federally mandated Canada Research Chair EDI action plans to see how EDI was addressed and framed in them as well as institutional initiatives that had been proposed and adopted. They also analysed the content that addressed the institutional approach, goals and activities related to EDI. While their research revealed that each of the 15 universities studied specifically addressed EDI in their strategic policy documents, most used broad and vague language when discussing EDI and only five universities included a formal definitions of EDI.

Their analysis also shed light on what changes are taking place on campuses and categorized those changes into five approaches: political commitment; recruitment of equity-seeking students; supports for students in the form of scholarships, bursaries, services and curriculum adaptations; assistance for equity-seeking faculty with research grants and strengthening research areas that focus on topics related to EDI; and celebrating EDI as part of the institutional culture.

Dr. Tamtik says there may be many explanations for the growth of EDI initiatives and policy momentum, including competition among universities to maintain or increase enrolment, which leads to pressure to create better learning experiences for students in diverse groups so they’ll choose one institution over another. The recently announced Canada Research Chairs equity targets, which aim to increase representation of women, persons with disabilities, Indigenous people and visible minorities, have also added political pressure for universities to do something about EDI. She adds that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its calls to action can also explain the momentum and rationale for universities to change.

While the report shows there is greater attention being paid to EDI, it also states that universities face “criticism regarding tokenistic slogans … used to enhance equity, diversity and inclusion strategies, and rightfully so.” Ms. Guenter says the work she did with Dr. Tamtik doesn’t explain why changes taking place at the highest levels of the university may not yet be felt by equity-seeking students and faculty. “We only really looked at the policy documents,” she says. “It would be neat … to interview the staff and students and [see] what their experiences are like.”

In Dr. Tamtik’s eyes, there may be a discrepancy between initiatives outlined in policy documents and what students, faculty and staff experience because change takes time. “Policy drives practice. And if you have that high-level strategic document, you are actually going to see some change on the ground as well,” she says. “We’re not there 100 percent yet … but I think there has been a very strong start for sure.”

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