When universities invite me to speak about equity, diversity and inclusion, one message I try to emphasize is that addressing systemic barriers is a largely personal process.
Each of us must ask hard questions about our biases, beliefs and perspectives. Are we creating the conditions for people of all backgrounds and identities to thrive? Are we ensuring they feel that they matter and belong? Are we doing our part to change the complexion of our teams?
Without this kind of reflection, broad-based efforts will fall short of genuine change. What’s more, efforts to promote equity and inclusion — ranging from conferences like the ones I speak at, to all of us wearing orange shirts in support of truth and reconciliation — will be lip service.
A primary example of what I mean is the concept of “differently prepared,” which refers to the fact that how individuals from historically underrepresented groups come up through the system often differs from what has traditionally been viewed as suitable preparation.
For our faculties, units, departments and institutions to become more diverse, we must each expand our thinking about what it takes to excel in a university community. We have to get under the hood and tinker with our individual views on hiring, qualifications and the links between background and success.
As someone who identifies as a Black man, is a child of immigrants, and got his academic qualifications while raising a young family and working full time to support them, I know all too well how important this shift can be.
I’ll give you two examples.
The first came when I offered to teach an undergraduate course on the psychology of success — for free. At the time, I was an assistant professor, had a PhD in sports psychology and had coached a national championship team. I was also an in-demand speaker on the topics of confidence, motivation and high performance and an advisor to several Olympic teams. What’s more, the institution in question had been actively promoting the importance of diversifying its faculty.
When I approached a senior leader about teaching, the response was immediate. “You don’t have a research agenda. Your degree was partly taken online. You would not be a suitable instructor.”
At first, I went away believing I wasn’t qualified. Then, with the help of those close to me, I saw the response for what it was — an effort to protect the jobs of those who have come from a certain kind of background.
Years later, when I was interviewing for jobs at the vice-provost level, I had a similar experience.
In the late stages of an interview process, when I was in final negotiations with the senior leadership of a U15 university, an administrator said to me, “You cannot call yourself Doctor. Not with your degree. It’s not appropriate.” I’ll never forget him sitting there beneath his degrees from an American Ivy League school looking down at me and my qualifications. Needless to say, I didn’t take the job when they offered it.
Those two individuals were locked in a particular view of my qualifications, background and ability to contribute. They could not see that being differently prepared might mean being uniquely qualified to add value in new ways.
At best, rigid adherence to historical perspectives about qualifications is snobbery. At worst, it is an active attempt to keep individuals from historically underrepresented groups on the outside looking in.
Doing your part to make differently prepared a norm in universities matters well beyond your institution. It matters to the society and economy at large. Universities should be the vanguard of social change. We ought to be the progressive edge. We need to be models of equity and inclusion. And we should be able to demonstrate that large institutions really can change.
Fortunately, there is increasing awareness and acceptance that adequate representation among staff and faculty at universities is among the most important changes we need to achieve. Everything we do, from our research agenda to the experience we offer our students, relies on building teams that reflect the diversity of our communities.
What isn’t widely understood yet, and where we as individuals can be catalysts for change, is that the drive toward representation requires rethinking our views on qualifications.
My career trajectory has been possible because of visionary leaders who understood what it means to be differently prepared. Have I worked hard? Sure. Am I passionate about what I do? Absolutely. But none of it would have been possible if the people who hired me had not been completely clear about the impact I could have. They didn’t see my different background as a limitation. They saw it as an opportunity.