University job postings seldom get noticed by the public. But this spring, Quebec politicians, the National Post and even Fox News took umbrage at advertisements for Canada Research Chair (CRC) positions at Université Laval, the University of Toronto and others that stipulated only women, visible minorities, Indigenous people and people with disabilities should apply.
A Queen’s University posting for an engineering chair that was open only to women; a University of Waterloo faculty of environment position for someone who identifies as a woman, transgender, non-binary, or two-spirit; and a Western University ad for a Tier 1 CRC job for a person with a disability “in any area of research across Western’s eleven faculties” have similarly been drawing attention.
All of these institutions were following guidance and diversity targets laid out by the Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat, which is the government body responsible for administering the CRC program. Amid these small-scale controversies, the secretariat’s directives may be transforming diversity mandates at Canadian universities. “What we’ve heard from many faculty and institutions is that our work to promote equity, diversity and inclusion has increased discussions and actions within institutions, and the research ecosystem more broadly,” said Marie-Lynne Boudreau, the secretariat’s director.
The CRC targets are based on the 2016 census and will ramp up, by 2029, to see 50 per cent women, 22 per cent racialized minorities, 4.9 per cent Indigenous peoples and 7.5 per cent persons with disabilities holding chair appointments. As of October 2021, women held 40.9 per cent of these prestigious research jobs, visible minorities 22.8 per cent, Indigenous peoples 3.4 per cent, and people with disabilities 5.8 per cent.
Universities are required to reach interim targets by December 2022. If they’re unable to, they can only hire new chairs from the four designated equity groups and, by 2029, their allocation of chairs will be reduced (although by how much has not yet been stipulated). Universities that fail to meet reporting obligations will face sanctions. Hence the targeted job ads.
“These are proactive measures to ameliorate inequities,” said Malinda Smith, vice-provost of equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of Calgary. “We know that human rights codes allow for these kinds of efforts. These ads are being written to do exactly what has long been permitted.” Indeed, the Ontario Human Rights Code allows for “special programs” to address inequities. Institutions in some other provinces have taken a different approach. The University of British Columbia, for instance, has applied to B.C.’s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner for a special program to permit the wording of targeted CRC job ads.
The CRC program was launched in 2000 to fund 2,000 research chairs (although there are now 2,285) to attract and keep top academics in Canada. Tier 2 chairs are for five-year terms worth $100,000 in annual federal funding, and are awarded to emerging researchers. Tier 1 chairs reward world-leading academics with $200,000 annually over seven years.
In 2001, just 14 per cent of CRC appointments went to women, while the CRC secretariat was collecting no other diversity data. In 2003, a group of eight women academics across the country filed a complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, alleging systemic discrimination. The Tri-Councils (SSHRC, NSERC, CIHR) agreed in 2006 to measure diversity and set targets, but few universities met them. Then in 2016, another professor launched a race-based human rights challenge, against the CRC program. Three years later, the original complainants signed an addendum to the 2006 settlement agreement that required more ambitious targets and tangible consequences if institutions fail to meet them.
With the 2022 deadline looming, universities are acting on their EDI plans. UBC — which has 199 chairs — has filled 60 CRC positions since 2020. “They’ve all been targeted hires,” said Moura Quayle, vice-provost and associate vice-president of academic affairs. “We’ve been more than successful with white women, we’re now over that target. But we need to work on finding people with disabilities.”
UBC is working on a preferential hiring strategy for people with disabilities for the school overall, and is testing better ways to attract and evaluate candidates. (It now does interviews over a two-day period, for instance.) Dr. Quayle said the school has received just one complaint from an outside candidate since 2021 for its CRC hiring approach.
But the subject appears to be a touchy one for many institutions. ULaval and Queen’s declined to comment for this story, and the University of Regina said it was unable to find a spokesperson. Three others offered written statements.
Western’s vice-provost of academic planning, policy and faculty, Margaret McGlynn, said the institution’s special program to recruit three Indigenous CRCs and a chair with a disability are in compliance with the Ontario Human Rights Code. “This recruitment is critical to building a culture of inclusivity and to integrating expertise and experiences of equity-deserving groups into curricular offerings, research and scholarly activities, teaching and service.”
A spokesperson for the U of Waterloo offered a statement saying: “Our ongoing work to hire from the under-represented groups will help us work towards these targets,” which requires “a continuous process.”
The U of T, which has the most chairs in the country at 315, said to meet the targets and “address persistent systemic barriers faced by underrepresented groups, the university currently limits chair opportunities to those candidates who self-identify in one or more of the four designated groups. These efforts are complemented by institutional efforts to increase the diversity of the broader research community.”
‘Academia is still so homogenous’
The apparent reluctance on the part of many universities to speak publicly about the subject does not surprise Momin Rahman, a professor of sociology at Trent University and the outgoing co-chair of the equity committee at the Canadian Association of University Teachers. “They’re not confident enough in their own reasons for doing this to form a positive point of view,” he said. “The actual intellectual explanation for why they’re doing this, I think, is not very strong.”
Dr. Rahman also sees the initiative happening in isolation. “The CRC program is mostly run by senior management. I don’t get the sense that they’ve been educating their faculties about what they’ve been doing and why. Very few universities have taken that information and literacy and applied it throughout the whole hiring ecosystem.”
For instance, he said few people at Trent know that in 2020, the institution was ordered to hire only from the four designed groups because its equity plan did not pass a review process. (The same thing happened to Laurentian University, the Royal Military College of Canada and the University of Northern British Columbia.)
Dr. Smith, meanwhile, has her own theory of why few institutions want to talk. “There continues to be discomfort with speaking publicly as to why this is important, and how it’s important. This rests on the assumption that if you say you’re contributing to diversity somehow you’re going to be trading off with excellence,” she said, “or that somehow you are not objective.”
That myth is perpetuated in how academics are assessed during hiring and promotion, said Bibiana Pulido, a Montreal-based expert in EDI. “We need to value different competencies than publishing in high-impact journals,” she said. Community work, teaching, mentoring, activism and administrative work are undervalued. Yet, innovation in academia may lie in these areas. “We need diverse research, diverse knowledge. Academia is still so homogenous.”
Ms. Pulido is concerned that universities may meet their targets but won’t have the resources in place to support their new hires. “It’s not only about the representation of diversity, but how schools manage to keep these people,” she said. “The problem is that it’s tokenism…. Their expertise and their knowledge are not well valued and acknowledged.”
As the CRC equity targets ramp up in the coming years, institutions will need to both hire emerging Tier 2 talents — which they can pluck out of the more diverse pool of PhDs, postdocs and contract faculty — and build up a stronger pipeline of potential Tier 1 chairs. Those tasks could become more challenging depending on how the targets evolve. Dr. Rahman noted that the visible-minority target could change to match Canada’s 2021 census numbers, for instance.
“This is a moment that does require some courage,” said Dr. Smith, who sees the changes underway as a means to help more Canadian universities operate at a world-class level. “The research chairs are Canada’s effort to recruit top talent from around the world and enhance our competitiveness. We need more than one demographic group, or two groups, to do that.”