Skip navigation
IN MY OPINION

Equal opportunities bring excellent outcomes: A response to Margaret Wente

Taking steps to ensure that conscious and unconscious bias do not play a role in hiring and promotion does not mean that excellence cannot exist.

By VIANNE TIMMONS | NOV 17 2017

In her November 4 column in the Globe and Mail, “Equal outcomes have replaced equality of opportunity,” Margaret Wente argues that diversity and excellence cannot exist together at Canadian universities. I strongly disagree.

Diversity and excellence are not at odds in our universities. Nor are they at odds in the seven principles on equity, diversity and inclusion to which Universities Canada has committed, and with which Ms. Wente takes issue.

One of these principles, for example, states that, “We will work with our faculty and staff, search firms, and our governing boards to ensure that candidates from all backgrounds are provided support in their career progress and success in senior leadership positions at our institutions.” This is a commitment to equal opportunity and to removing barriers for underrepresented groups, not a lessening of standards for excellence.

Why is it so important to make this commitment? For one thing, diversity brings different lived experiences to discussions and decision-making, and brings rich and nuanced perspectives to our teaching and research. Listening to and respecting a variety of perspectives is critical in a society where people can choose to live inside an “echo chamber” that simply justifies rather than meaningfully challenges their worldview.

Ms. Wente writes that, “These days, hardly anyone argues that the current disparities in certain fields are caused by overt acts of sexism and racism. Instead, the problems are said to be systemic. They are invisible, pervasive and impossible to resolve until the ruling classes admit their hidden biases and privilege.”

Contrary to her point of view, we should not ignore the possibility that we hold the sort of unconscious biases that she disparagingly says “are said to be systemic.” Universities have for many decades provided opportunities for academics to achieve excellence in their work. An unintended outcome of our traditional hiring, tenure and promotion processes, however, is that we have long mentored and supported a homogeneous type of academic – members of an elite group who tend to support and cite other academics who are similar to them.

Ms. Wente’s implication that we cannot achieve excellence by committing to equity for groups such as women, Indigenous people, and persons with disabilities is ludicrous. As she notes, overt racism and bias still exist in many workplaces, including universities. But as a woman with four children, I know that I have also faced unconscious bias in my career – an experience that is only magnified for members of marginalized groups. Taking steps to ensure that conscious and unconscious bias do not play a role in hiring and promotion does not mean that excellence cannot exist in universities and other institutions.

A commitment to diversity also does not mean you aren’t hiring the best person for the job. Rather, it means you see the leadership, value and potential in people who come from a variety of backgrounds. And for universities in particular, it means we are developing an academic workforce that allows all students to potentially see themselves in academic roles, and provides them with diverse role models for their future success.

Having spent more than three decades in academia, I understand that there are flaws in our system. I have seen over and over again the need to re-evaluate how we define, measure and achieve excellence. And right now, I also see the need to re-evaluate who among us actually has the opportunity to define, measure and achieve it.

This re-evaluation is more important than ever in light of our national commitment to truth and reconciliation and our growing awareness of the barriers faced by underrepresented groups in Canada. The process of understanding these barriers and working to overcome them is not a threat to excellence or a way of undermining it. It is quite the opposite; it is a recognition that excellence can and should be achieved by people from all backgrounds in our society.

Diversity is not at odds with excellence. Diversity helps build open, comprehensive societies and institutions that welcome new ideas and approaches which help us move forward together. Universities should always help to lead the way in this regard, and I am glad that Universities Canada is doing so by committing to principles on equity, diversity and inclusion.

Vianne Timmons is president and vice-chancellor of the University of Regina.

COMMENTS
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Tracey King / November 20, 2017 at 10:26 am

    The higher education industry must be accessible to everyone. As an Aboriginal/Indigenous Human Resources Consultant, alarmingly this industry has shown low accessibility to our Aboriginal faculty and staff composition between 1% to 2% nationwide. In turn, this pattern ultimately impacts existing and future Aboriginal student recruitment and retention. When marginalized groups for many reasons are not considered in the equation, the communities on/off campus, the industry, academic research and scholarship, and the Canadian economy loses. Miigwetch, Essinhs Kwe

  2. Stephen Rader / November 22, 2017 at 1:41 pm

    Hear, hear! Well put, Ms. Timmons.

    One point that rarely seems to make it into these discussions is that it is patently false to suggest, first, that there is a limited supply of excellent candidates for any particular position, and, second, that we know how to recognize excellence ahead of time. As a grant reviewer and member of hiring committees, I am painfully aware that there is no objective way to distinguish people’s records, far less to predict their future performance. To suggest that in faculty hiring we can tell ahead of time who will succeed is absurd.

    I understand that the idea of pitting excellence against diversity is a useful canard with which to beat promoters of diversity, but in practice our view of what constitutes “excellence” is limited to the small range of traditional metrics and situations with which we have experience, and blind to the actual challenges any candidate will face.

    Stephen Rader
    UNBC

  3. chris o / November 22, 2017 at 3:37 pm

    Well said, Dr. Timmons! “Diversity is not at odds with excellence” might just become my new mantra in my work with prospective university students.

  4. Ace F. / November 23, 2017 at 6:34 am

    ________This probably won’t be published but…

    “Universities should always help to lead the way in this regard, and I am glad that Universities Canada is doing so by committing to principles on equity, diversity and inclusion.”

    Thanks to Lindsay Shepherd we all now know what ‘committing to principles on equity, diversity and inclusion’ looks like behind the scenes. Think about that! While you’re at it how about committing to the pursuit of truth and excellence?

    “The process of understanding these barriers and working to overcome them is not a threat to excellence or a way of undermining it. It is quite the opposite; it is a recognition that excellence can and should be achieved by people from all backgrounds in our society.” – You can’t bend the world into a shape that will make some people feel comfortable without breaking it for the rest of the people. Again, thanks to Lindsay, we now see the tactics used by the universities to achieve the above quote. It’s unacceptable. It doesn’t matter how good your intentions may be for minorities, what was done to Lindsay in that meeting is disgusting those three ppl should be fired immediately and allowed near a college again! They have no idea where those tactics will take a society given enough time. Just a few generations is plenty! They really, really need to study the last century. It’s like they don’t know anything that happened before they were born.

    Odds of Moderators protecting my freedom of expression, to share controversial views like this…will they censure me and not publish this comment so no one converses with me? IDK. I guess we’ll find out shortly how much integrity the Mods have.

  5. Stuart Chambers, Ph.D. / November 26, 2017 at 9:11 am

    This has always been a tricky debate. Take part-time professors as an example. You could give many previously disadvantaged cohorts “equal opportunity” to enter a Ph.D. program, and then a committee could hire part-time professors who attained a Ph.D. from these cohorts who also came from different backgrounds based on gender, disability, sexual orientation, cultural affiliation, etc., but they could all turn out to be very poor instructors–disorganized, uninspiring, poor work ethic. Different backgrounds do not automatically lead to “excellent outcomes,” as the article suggests. Diversity programs provide more opportunity for a variety of candidates, but “excellent outcomes” is another matter. Talent has nothing to do with being a minority. A sense of excellence is developed over time through hard work, and an instructor’s future talent cannot be predetermined by a previous background characteristic that a committee prefers. Life is more complicated than that.

« »
--ph--