The member universities of Universities Canada have approved a new bylaw that the organization says will ensure that their institutions’ policies are not discriminatory.
Members were asked to support a requirement that their institutions commit to “equal treatment of all persons without discrimination” on the basis of a series of “protected grounds.” It means members cannot have policies, processes or codes of conduct that discriminate against race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical or mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, family status, sex, sexual orientation, or any other grounds identified in applicable human rights laws.
The proposal was approved by Universities Canada’s board of directors back in September and was put to a vote by all Universities Canada members at their fall membership meeting in Ottawa on October 26. It received the required approval by more than two-thirds of members present at the meeting to pass.
“We acknowledge that this is a really complex and difficult issue,” said Pari Johnston, vice-president for policy and public affairs at Universities Canada. “It has been the subject of very careful and thoughtful consideration by the governance committee of our board, our board of directors and the entire membership over the past six years.”
The issue has been a developing one for the Universities Canada membership, as university campuses gain more awareness and face new horizons in the bid for inclusion of all people, said Ramona Lumpkin, president of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and a member of the Universities Canada board’s governance committee.
“We’ve seen that evolution in our society and the increasing importance of opening the door wider and wider to make sure that we have equitable practices for all,” said Dr. Lumpkin. “I think the time had come to take this step. We felt we were ready and that it was very important to take it.”
A board policy accompanying the bylaw states that a member institution’s hiring criteria could not have the effect of discriminating on the basis of the protected categories, except for legitimate – “bona fide” in legal parlance – job requirements allowed under applicable human rights legislation. It further states the policy would not stop universities from having programs or hiring protocols dedicated to improving conditions for disadvantaged groups, or prevent membership of universities with a particular mission to serve students covered by a protected category, such as a francophone, indigenous or faith-based university.
Since it is a member-governed organization which is voluntary to belong to, Universities Canada is free to set its own membership criteria. Those criteria have developed over time, said Ms. Johnston, and reflect “what are the shared characteristics of universities in Canada today.” Universities Canada is not an accrediting body and universities do not have to belong to it to grant degrees – a power given to them by provincial governments – or to access research funding.
The bylaw change could affect some universities that have a code of conduct or covenant which has been criticized as discriminatory against LGBTQ people. Under the new bylaw, member institutions would not be permitted to treat LGBTQ students, faculty or staff differently from anyone else, Ms. Johnston said.
The new requirement applies immediately to any institution seeking to join Universities Canada for the first time. Existing members have until 2020 to meet the criterion. That date coincides with Universities Canada’s five-year cycle when existing members must reaffirm that they meet the organization’s membership criteria. Any concerns raised about a member university not meeting the criteria would be subject to an assessment by Universities Canada’s board of directors under its institutional review policy. A decision to ultimately disqualify a member institution must be approved by both the Universities Canada board and the membership.
While Dr. Lumpkin acknowledged that there may be members affected by the new bylaw, she believed that Universities Canada will continue to represent a diversity of universities and that some who have had to wrestle with discrimination issues internally “are possibly starting to consider some alternatives to past practice with this debate.”
In preparation for October’s vote, Universities Canada invited members to make written submissions and held a series of interactive online presentations for members to hear more information about the proposal and share views about it. In 2014, Universities Canada also held a meeting of its full membership to discuss the issue, chaired by Frank Iacobucci, a former Supreme Court justice and former dean of law at the University of Toronto.
This is a short sighted move with troubling long term societal consequences – the minority view shifts from generation to generation, but there is danger in the “well-intentioned majority” trying to snuff it out – in the recent words of the BC Court of Appeal:
“A society that does not admit of and accommodate differences cannot be a free and democratic society — one in which its citizens are free to think, to disagree, to debate and to challenge the accepted view without fear of reprisal…a well-intentioned majority acting in the name of tolerance and liberalism, can, if unchecked, impose its views on the minority in a manner that is in itself intolerant and illiberal.”