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Equal opportunities bring excellent outcomes: A response to Margaret Wente

University Affairs by Vianne Timmons 17 November 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.