Last fall, around 20 students sat-in for five days to demand concrete action on institutional anti-Black racism at the University of Ottawa. Similar actions took place at the University of Windsor where two groups, ExposeUWindsor and At UWindsor, started social media campaigns to reveal institutional racism. To do this they exposed Facebook messages that contained racist slurs, homophobic language and lynching threats from members of the Delta Chi fraternity connected to the university.
The protests are a symptom of the well-documented systemic racism across Canadian universities. Examples include discriminatory treatment during adjudication proceedings and professors cavalierly using racial slurs in their lectures. In 2019, a white supremacist professor published anti-Black, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
This explicit climate of racist hostility across Canadian universities endangers our collective commitment to human rights, and it is students who have assumed the burden of exposing it and demanding accountability from university administrations.
Students carry the burden
Students expose this racism at great risk to their future educational and career prospects. While managing assignments, lectures and group projects during an already stressful and isolating time, they have taken to social media to organize protests and initiate letter campaigns to administrators.
This public exposure has attracted personal threats and hate messages to these students as well as faculty. The continuous emotional toll of this racism on their mental health is enormous. University of Windsor student Ruth Bisrat told the Windsor Star: “This is something I would literally have nightmares about ….”
Administrators must act
In response, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) Chief Commissioner Ena Chadha wrote a letter to university administrators. She said:
“It is problematic that students have felt the need to independently seek OHRC support, when the primary responsibility for addressing human rights issues at their institutions does not rest with them …. Instead, the legal and practical responsibility to examine the conditions, challenges and impediments to a respectful learning environment is in the hands of the ‘directing minds’ of universities, namely senior administrators and their human rights advisers.”
University administrations have convened task forces over multiple decades, and each has issued a report recommending action. These recommendations are remarkably similar across time and institution. A consolidation of the findings of the anti-racism working groups of 10 Canadian universities indicates that the reports overlap almost entirely and have said largely the same things since the mid-1990s.
However, each represents countless hours of work by students, faculty and staff who are effectively volunteering. They have a genuine hope that their work would lead to an end to racism on their campus.
Here are some of the recommendations drawn from a number of reports from Canadian universities over 10 years:
Build (through targeted recruitment) and retain (through active intervention) a diverse community in which students of all races are represented in proportion to the community, and all cultures are respected.
Increase hiring and promotion of racialized community members, so that faculty and administration, particularly, reflect the communities their universities serve.
Systematically collect race-based data to facilitate the benchmarking of equity goals.
Support research curricula, centres and funding around racialization.
Create a clear and cogent anti-racist policy that streamlines the human rights process for those experiencing racism at the university.
Build, staff, resource, and empower a human rights or equity diversity and inclusion office with a mandate to train for and administer an equitable community in which to work and learn.
Create a mentorship program to facilitate the success of students, staff and faculty.
These communities have collectively invested our university communities’ time, energy and expertise in determining what the problems are, how damaging they are to our communities and what should be done to mitigate them.
Students continue to mobilize, demonstrating that the esteem to which universities are held is in the balance. Faculty, staff and community stakeholders have demanded an end to the scandals at the universities we have all worked to build.
Given this evidence of historical work, administrators can no longer claim to lack the knowledge of what needs to be done. What they perhaps lack is the will to carry the recommendations out.
Enough with the feigned ignorance and helplessness: university administrators must do the things we know we must do to meet our human rights obligations to all university community members, irrespective of race.
Ayesha Mian Akram receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) for her doctoral research.
Jane Ku receives funding from Social Sciences Humanities and Research Council.
Natalie Delia Deckard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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