The Canadian University Diversity Program

Commentary, Education, Brian Giesbrecht

The Federal Liberal government is determined to implement a new program called “Dimensions: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” on all Canadian universities. This program includes a “Charter”—a document to be signed by university presidents or other senior official that will commit universities to advancing institutional equity, diversity and inclusion. What goes unsaid, of course, is how this new program would undervalue the old program based on merit and proficiency.

The federal government is pressuring universities to include diversity as a key criterion for the hiring and promotion of employees. Under this program, prospective employees will be judged, at least in part, by the colour of their skin and their sexual orientations rather than by the quality of their work.

To ensure that presidents take the directive seriously, the Federal Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan, in cooperation with the major funding councils, the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), the National Science and Engineering Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), has set up grants specifically for universities that comply with the employment and promotion Charter.

The Federal government unabashedly asserts that “evidence clearly shows” how increasing equity, diversity, and inclusion enhances excellence, innovation, and creativity in research. However, the government failed to provide a reference to such evidence. 

This is not surprising because there is no credible scientific support to back up this claim. At best, it is conjecture. 

What will happen when the policy is endorsed?

Ultimately, the percentage of faculty members and administrators should reflect the percentage of various groups in the Canadian population. It is unclear, however, which population will serve as the reference— will it be the national, provincial, or the local populations?

Nevertheless, the assumption behind this directive is that groups have similar professional aspirations and talent. If groups are not equally represented as university employees, the thinking of this program presupposes that “systemic discrimination” must be at fault. No differences in representation, it is believed, can be explained by interests, abilities, or dedication.

Imagine if the federal government gave a similar directive to professional sports teams. Clearly, members of sports teams are not mirror-images of the racial and sexual dispersion of either the local or the national populations.

There is no “diversity” on the Toronto Raptors. Players are chosen on merit alone: their aptitude and skills are the only distinguishing criteria defining their professional success. And that is why they win. A team that abandons merit as the key criteria for choosing players will be a losing team.

Beyond that, however, is a high degree of discrimination in disguise if the directive is to be implemented. This is seen clearly in sports, to take just one example. Embracing the Charter in this field would, for example, entail replacing those dominating sports such as basketball and Canadian football, predominantly African-Americans, by athletes of other racial groups. And that is, of course, discrimination in its essence.

As such, the federal diversity program for universities is discriminatory against talent and merit. In this context, no one seems to remember Martin Luther King’s dream that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

If diversity is a value, what Canadian universities need more than anything else is diversity of ideas. But at present, universities are substantially less diverse in ideas than the Canadian population. 

Both the federal government and universities themselves would do much better if they chose to focus on obtaining the best faculty members and administrators and making sure that they are tenured and promoted on the basis of their competence and aptitude and not on the basis of their race or any other characteristic irrelevant to their performances.