Canadian Universities Band Together to Improve Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education

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In October 2017, the presidents of 96 universities throughout Canada unanimously endorsed a set of priorities — known as the Inclusive Excellence Principles — that serve as a definitive commitment from each institution to work toward becoming more equitable for students and employees. The action comes at a time when the country’s population is becoming increasingly diverse and reflects a greater push by the Canadian public to improve equity and inclusion nationwide. 

Pari Johnson
Pari Johnson

Universities Canada, as this coalition of institutions is called, introduced the principles as a means to formally unite its members in creating a system of higher education where administrators, faculty, staff, and students are more representative of the demographics of overall Canadian society, says Pari Johnson, vice president of policy and public affairs for the organization. 

The principles include both broad and definitive goals, from pledging to become more equitable and inclusive institutions to increasing the number of people from specific underrepresented groups in faculty and leadership positions. Universities Canada also approved a five-year plan — the Action Plan for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion — that outlines 10 steps for fulfilling these objectives. The plan is divided into four categories: capacity-building and culture change, measurable progress, policy development, and federal investment. 

Students participate in the annual Glen Anaquod Memorial Tipi Raising Competition on UR’s campus in Regina, Saskatchewan.
Students participate in the annual Glen Anaquod Memorial Tipi Raising Competition on UR’s campus in Regina, Saskatchewan.

“The action plan is really our commitment … to ensure that we are measuring progress, that the principles don’t just sit on a piece of paper and don’t just represent symbolic action,” says Johnson. Over the next five years, Universities Canada staff will be responsible for working with member institutions to develop workshops and training tools, creating an online platform to share best practices, and surveying schools to track their progress. 

While the new principles and action plan allow for a cohesive, formalized approach to improving diversity and inclusion, the values they espouse have long been an integral part of the mission of many Canadian universities, Johnson says.

In recent years, these ideals have manifested in two distinct areas: creating accessible, inclusive campuses for Canada’s indigenous population and increasing the number of women in leadership positions. According to Johnson, the support and direction provided by Universities Canada will enable each member institution to strengthen and expand upon these efforts to include other underrepresented groups.

“This work has been going on for a while, but more recently, we felt it was important to broaden our scope to include diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes … across the campus [in regard] to students, faculty, and staff,” says Johnson. 

Because Universities Canada is not an accrediting agency, it cannot require member institutions to reach certain quotas or benchmarks around diversity. However, Johnson says that by endorsing the Inclusive Excellence Principles, each university president has implicitly agreed to move his or her institution toward achieving this vision.

Melanie Humphreys
Melanie Humphreys

Furthermore, the organization’s unified approach is essential to creating change on a national scale, as there is no federal higher education system in Canada. “One of the things that is different between the U.S. and Canada in this context is that higher education in Canada is totally organized by province,” says Melanie Humphreys, PhD, president of King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta. 

“Universities Canada allows us to take a federal view, … to set the bar in terms of expectations for our universities,” adds Humphreys. She says that by establishing diversity and inclusion as a top priority, the organization is sending the message to the Canadian public that the country’s higher education system is expected to embody and uphold the values of equity and inclusion.

This focus by many Canadian universities is largely representative of the Canadian government’s push to improve diversity and inclusion nationwide. This is especially true following the 2015 election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose cabinet consists of an equal number of women and men and is inclusive of people with disabilities and those from different ethnic groups. According to Humphreys, this effort set the stage for the rest of the government — at federal, provincial, and local levels — to follow suit.

The recent actions by Universities Canada, however, are not the first time Canadian university presidents have come together to address these issues. In 2015, the organization adopted a set of 13 principles regarding indigenous education as well as a five-point action plan to increase access to higher education for indigenous youth and integrate indigenous culture and history into campus values and curricula. The decision reflected nationwide efforts, led by the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to improve relations with and support for the country’s indigenous populations.   

Vianne Timmons
Vianne Timmons

Since then, Universities Canada member institutions have made indigenous student support one of their primary goals, says Vianne Timmons, PhD, president of the University of Regina (UR) in Regina, Saskatchewan. 

In Regina, nearly 10 percent of the population is indigenous, and UR has worked for the last decade to become more inclusive of this culture and to improve access for these students. This effort has included translating the UR action plan into the Cree language, renaming campus buildings and streets with indigenous names, and increasing the recruitment of indigenous students, faculty, and staff, Timmons says. With the creation of the 13 principles in 2015, UR was able to connect and collaborate with other universities to share best practices for achieving equity for these communities.

“Universities Canada’s principles on indigenization were so well-received and brought so much action that almost every university in Canada now has an indigenization initiative,” explains Timmons. She says that the additional seven principles approved in October will help expand these efforts to other underrepresented groups and will include a focus on improving gender equity in leadership.— an ongoing concern that became a higher priority following Trudeau’s election, according to Humphreys.

“We know we have large numbers of women participating in undergraduate education and academic careers, but not many find their way up the ranks to senior leadership or presidential roles,” she says. “For a long time, women [made up only] 20 percent of university presidents, but thanks to recent efforts, [that figure] has edged up to nearly 25 percent because it’s something that Universities Canada is paying attention to.” 

The organization’s new Advisory Committee on Women’s Leadership has helped propel these efforts by holding awareness events and conferences as well as sharing best practices, such as ensuring that search committees include female candidates when selecting for leadership positions. Additionally, several of the Inclusive Excellence Principles emphasize the consideration of other aspects of diversity in institutional leadership positions through similar methods.

As the Action Plan on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is still in its first year, member institutions are in the process of developing precise steps to accomplish the principles’ objectives. Currently, the organization is working to identify universities that have established successful diversity policies, programs, and initiatives that can be used as a model for others. In March, it hosted a conference that included a series of workshops on attracting and supporting indigenous students, which, Johnson says, was led by members whose institutions have achieved success in those areas.

To support its efforts, Universities Canada is developing methods for gathering diversity data for each university in order to measure progress. Johnson says this is a way to hold both the overall organization and individual members accountable. 

“There is a real interest in ensuring that we are walking the walk instead of just symbolically talking about principles that do not have any real effort behind them,” she says. “There is a real appetite to support what we are doing by the public and our members and some good questions [being asked] about how we are going to demonstrate progress.”●

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our June 2018 issue.