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In my opinion

Rethinking university scholarships to improve equity, diversity and inclusion among winners

The decisions that professors make around evaluation and review – as well as in teaching and scholarly inquiry – are a product of their own interpretation of “excellence.”

BY MIRJAM FINES-NEUSCHILD & BIBIANA PULIDO | JAN 12 2021

Ten years after Michèle Lamont detailed the process by which funding applications are evaluated in the university setting, this topic remains as relevant as ever. As Canadian universities and granting agencies move to increase equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), how can we reconcile these new institutional values with the notion of academic excellence in the evaluation of scholarship applications? How can we define a conception of excellence that is inclusive for everyone? How can we put these intentions into practice? As members of the Quebec Interuniversity Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Network (RIQEDI) and the working group on issues facing the student community, we find that there is a need to highlight certain issues relating to how scholarship applications are evaluated in universities.

First, let us note the importance of university professors in the application of EDI principles. They adapt to the university climate and colour it through their teaching (notably their curriculum and pedagogical practices) and scholarly inquiry (through the research topics the choose as well as the peer review and mentorship they engage in). Instructors also influence the future of their disciplines through candidate evaluations (for scholarships and hiring). The decisions that professors make in their choices around teaching, scholarly inquiry and evaluation emerge from their individual conception of “excellence.” In academia, excellence is a polymorphous term; that is, its definition (and the means of achieving it) is rooted in the context of each discipline. Nevertheless, in its current and broadest usage, excellence favours a particular type of profile: a privileged person, typically male, with no gaps in his career, who has publications in prestigious journals and multiple funding options. If we hope to make excellence inclusive, we must reveal inequities and consequently encourage the creation of opportunities and teaching practices that will allow marginalized individuals to enjoy equal participation and success.

After reviewing the university EDI plans of the Canada Research Chairs, we make two observations. First, the task of evaluating scholarship applications – often considered as just one more administrative chore – is essential to developing a diverse pool of young scientific talent and deserves to be valued more highly in academia. While the status quo is not an option, it’s not enough to persuade a person from one of the groups targeted by federal and provincial granting agencies (women, visible minorities, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and LGBTQ2+ people) to sit on the review committee as a “diversity representative.” Given their lack of representation, instructors from these target groups are disproportionately called upon to participate in such committees, making it more difficult  for them to accomplish tasks like research and publication, which are more highly valued in universities. For one thing, participation in a funding- or hiring-review committee should not be a burden and, more importantly, should not perpetuate an already precarious situation. In addition, encouraging participation in such committees should never be a form of tokenism.

Secondly, despite mandatory training sessions to reduce biases in how applications are evaluated, selection criteria based on excellence mainly favour a candidate profile with a homogeneous and linear career path (e.g. a male student from the upper middle class, born in Canada and without children). Consider the following situation: If there is a person on the committee who values excellence based on typical career paths, it will be almost impossible to focus attention on student applications that reflect alternative paths. Accordingly, if the person who values these alternative paths has a bad experience with peers in scholarship-granting deliberations, he or she would be quite likely to refuse to join such committees in the future. As a result, the vicious cycle will be perpetuated as homogeneous and dominant groups continue to participate in these committees, and therefore to privilege certain categories of student.

In conclusion, we believe that in order to develop an equitable system for evaluating scholarship applications, we will have to reinterpret the notion of excellence and seek a more inclusive definition for the concept. To do this, we propose recognizing the value of the task of evaluating applications and re-evaluating the selection criteria. As EDI values are integral to these discussions, it is important to provide spaces for feedback and consultation, particularly with individuals targeted by EDI policies. And because this is an ongoing effort, we believe that structures such as EDI committees are necessary to sustain its ongoing implementation.

Paths toward potential solutions

At present, we see that the functioning of university practices such as search committees is being called into question, and we are currently in a historic period in which the university community is calling for a real change in practices to promote EDI. There are no miracle cures, but our most important recommendation for you is to question yourselves and take certain suggestions into consideration.

For faculty:

  • Value participation in evaluation committees. To ensure everyone’s contribution, offer reduced workloads (committees, administrative aspects, teaching, etc.) and avoid tokenism.
  • Reinterpret the notion of excellence. A more inclusive notion of excellence values a range of skills and acknowledges alternative (non-linear or atypical) career paths, commitments outside of academia, and the balance between academic and personal life.
  • Find opportunities for thoughtful exchange on EDI. Develop spaces to discuss EDI (seminars, training sessions, informal document sharing), create committees to ensure the sustainability of these processes, and take inspiration from non-university organizations like community groups.

For funding organizations:

  • Offer examples of what is sought in the application form. Clear standards provide fair conditions for candidates, regardless of their access to resources (help with application preparation, sample files of successful candidates, etc.). If the application includes a section to outline special circumstances, clarify what information is expected.
  • Broaden the scope of what is considered academic or research experience. Offer candidates the opportunity to explain how these alternative experiences develop professional skills. This gives people who have done this type of work (by choice or by necessity) a chance to capitalize on these experiences.
  • Reflect on how to take international experiences into account. Acknowledge expertise gained from study-abroad experiences, especially those conducted outside of English-speaking and European countries. Ensure international students are included for consideration.

Mirjam Fines-Neuschild, a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, is pursuing individualized studies in physics and communications. She founded the Diversité Physique committee and the Parité Physique project. She is a member of the Quebec Interuniversity Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Network (RIQEDI). Bibiana Pulido is the co-founder and executive director of RIQEDI. She currently serves as Assistant Director of the Institut Équité Diversité Inclusion Intersectionnalité (Institut EDI2).

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