by I.J. Makan
During the summer of 2017, the University of Victoria (UVic) in British Columbia invited applications for a tenure-track position in “the area of social psychology.” The advertisement sounded like a great opportunity for freshly minted scholars who wanted to find an institution they could call home–at least until someone offers them a bigger home. However, there was a catch. The position seemed to be only open for “visible minorities and Indigenous persons.” As the third paragraph from the advertisement states, “…the selection for this position will be limited to members of visible minorities and Indigenous persons.”
It was here that the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), an organisation dedicated to defending academic freedom and promoting academic excellence in Canada, wrote a letter criticising UVic. The following is the letter from SAFS:
29 August 2017
Chair of the Search Committee
Department of Psychology
Faculty of Social Sciences
University of Victoria
3800 Finnerty Road (Ring Road)
Victoria, BC V8P 5C2
Dear Dr Grouzet,
I am writing as president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), an organization of university faculty members and others dedicated to the defense of academic freedom and the merit principle in higher education. (For further information, please see our website at www.safs.ca.)
I am writing to you because it has come to our attention that a recent advertisement for a tenure-track appointment in your department states that “the selection for this position will be limited to members of visible minorities and Indigenous persons.”
Hiring according to race, ethnicity, or cultural affiliation is a violation of the merit principle, the principle according to which academic decisions should be made on academic grounds only. It is also wrongfully discriminatory.
The job advertisement says that the psychology department would “like a scholar who can bring the perspective from a visible minority or indigenous person to their teaching and research.” This phrase would seem to imply that minority or indigenous scholars will have a particular perspective, a perspective that other scholars cannot share. Now it is perfectly fine for a department to consider the perspective a candidate will bring to teaching and research, but if the department is seeking to enlarge the range of perspectives among its members, it would be best for it to invite all qualified people to apply so that it would have available to it the largest range of perspectives.
Discriminatory hiring is sometimes said to be warranted on academic grounds by the need for role models and mentors for minority or indigenous students. But whatever qualities make for good and inspiring teachers, those qualities are present or absent in individual scholars, not in scholars considered as members of ethnic groups. Students are best served by hiring committees that look at the teaching skills of individual candidates.
Your ad mentions Section 42 of the BC Human Rights code as justification for discriminating on grounds of race, ethnicity, or cultural affiliation. Section 42, though, says that discrimination is not wrongful when it “has as its objective the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups.” It is hard to see how your intention to hire only a minority or indigenous scholar will ameliorate the condition of disadvantaged people. Minority and indigenous job candidates are not being discriminated against by universities or psychology programs. Hiring committees do not need to exclude qualified candidates in order to treat qualified minority or indigenous candidates fairly.
Indeed, hiring on the basis of race, ethnicity, or cultural affiliation might have the effect of harming individual minority or indigenous scholars, because it may lead others to see them in stereotypical ways. It is conceivable that qualified minority or aboriginal scholars will not apply for your position, wanting to be valued for the quality of their work rather than for their skin colour. Universities best serve the interests of discovery, students, and the community at large when they seek to hire the candidate who combines research and teaching ability to the highest degree. To find that candidate, universities must not exclude any qualified applicant. We ask that you remove the discriminatory intention from your job ad and consider all qualified candidates on their merits.
We respectfully ask that you respond to our letter. With your permission, we will post your response along with this letter on our website.
Mark Mercer, PhD
President, Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS)
PO Box 33056 Quinpool Centre
Halifax, NS B3L 4T6
Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy
Saint Mary’s University
923 Robie Street
Halifax, NS B3H 3C3
Cc: Ulrich Miller, Chair, Department of Psychology email@example.com
Catherine Krull, Dean of Social Sciences firstname.lastname@example.org
Valerie S. Kuehne, Vice President Academic and Provost email@example.com
Jamie Cassels, President firstname.lastname@example.org
The following is UVic’s response to SAFS letter denouncing discriminatory hiring:
September 12, 2017
Dr. Mark Mercer
President, Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship
PO Box 33056 Quinpool Centre
Halifax, NS B3L 4T6
Dear Dr. Mercer;
We are responding on behalf of the University of Victoria to your letter of August 29th, 2017. Feel free to convey this response to your members as you deem appropriate.
The University of Victoria is committed to a hiring policy that seeks excellence and equity, gender and racial diversity. We understand that drawing on diverse perspectives and experiences is essential if we wish to enrich our campus cultural mosaic, achieve excellence in research and teaching, provide mentors for our students, and bring complex learning perspectives to our community. We also recognize that in order to achieve equality it is sometimes necessary to treat people differently. Within the Faculty of Social Sciences our commitment to diversity is deeply rooted in our understanding of discrimination-free hiring and what our students need in order to excel in a globally-connected world.
UVic’s values are expressed through our Employment Equity Plan, approved under s. 42 of the BC Human Rights Code, and the diverse materials we offer in support of integrating perspectives of all employees into our campus. Our multi-stage faculty hiring processes start with setting rigorous criteria which accord with the collective agreement and ensure that all potential candidates meet standards of excellence as a baseline. The omnipresence of bias in hiring and evaluation is shown across the literature in social sciences, and we are not yet where we want to be with respect to hiring of members of visible minorities and Indigenous Peoples. Currently within the Faculty of Social Sciences, 11.6% of our faculty identify as a member of a visible minority (compared with 19.9% national availability) and the numbers for Indigenous faculty are so small that we report them as <5 for privacy reasons. Amongst UVic’s students, 32% identify as a member of a visible minority and 5% identify as Indigenous. UVic selectively uses preferential or limited hiring pursuant to section 42 of the BC Human Rights Code as a tool when it is recognized that specialist diversity knowledge is a gap in a particular area. We welcome the chance to use these tools to bring in highly qualified candidates who might otherwise be overlooked and to move our institution close to excellence.
We want to address specifically one statement from your letter: “It is hard to see how your intention to hire only a minority or indigenous scholar will ameliorate the conditions of disadvantaged people.” 2 We know that such hires can have a significant impact. When a racialized student sees a person of colour standing at the front of the class, they can see a role model. They may find hope that they too, as someone marginalized by colonial attitudes and white privilege, can learn, achieve and find a pathway to success in the world. It means that as a minority individual, they can see somebody who has overcome similar obstacles. It builds confidence that they can knowingly share their experiences with someone of kinship, who understands the challenges of discrimination, bias and racism from personal encounters. If a racialized scholar brings their own life experience to their research and teaching they have a chance to expand collective knowledge as they explore topics and address perspectives that have been overlooked or misunderstood in an environment dominated by majority perspectives. And when a student who identifies as a member of the majority engages with a scholar from a marginalized background, they can gain insight into new ways of viewing the world, an appreciation of how minorities are dispossessed by mainstream cultural attitudes and assumptions, and the opportunity to learn from difference.
While we recognize that each faculty member is an individual and will have their own approach to engaging with their personal background and discipline, these are a few of the ways that a minority or Indigenous scholar can ameliorate the conditions of disadvantaged people in ways that are not open to majority scholars.
Catherine Krull, PhD, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences
Cassbreea Dewis, Acting Director, Equity and Human Rights
Cc: President Jamie Cassels, QC
Dr. Valerie S. Kuehne, Vice-President Academic and Provost
Dr. Frederick Grouzet, Chair, search committee
Pamela Richards, Director, Faculty Relations and Academic Administration
What are your thoughts on preferential hiring?