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Post-Secondary Institutions Under Attack for DEI Commitments

It is hard to miss the headlines that accuse universities in Canada and the US for peddling a political agenda at the cost of science and truth.  It all began with several accusations in both the US and Canada that universities weren’t doing enough to stem antisemitic sentiments on campus.  Recently, 5 Liberal MPs asked all Canadian university presidents to explain whether calling for the genocide of Jews is a breach of university codes [1].  More recently, a class action lawsuit was launched in Canada against three universities alleging negligence in addressing anit-Semitic incidents on their campuses [2].  Presidents of two relatively unknown universities, wink wink (Harvard and University of Pennsylvania) resigned after testimony in response to questions related to the school’s policies around antisemitic behaviour on campus.

No doubt the level of tension over the horrible events in the Middle East has unleashed some very aggressive sentiments across the political spectrum.  But what is interesting is that these unfortunate events have morphed into a broader criticism of post-secondary institutions in pushing for greater diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).  DEI is a concept that emerged in popularity after the MeToo movement, the death of George Floyd, and the deplorable realities of residential schools that emerged specifically in Canada in recent years.  While these events triggered a more overt commitment to DEI by both private and public institutions, they build on a mountain of evidence that has existed for decades about the systemic nature of discrimination in our society towards a variety of groups. 

Yet, in Florida, legislators passed a law that prohibits teaching about systemic reasons for inequality while banning public institutions from spending on diversity initiatives, resulting in what many sources refer to a brain drain as academics leave Florida in droves.  While the events in Florida are extreme, we see remnants of this reaction here in Canada and in other parts of the US where any effort on the part of a private or public institution to address chronic inequalities is responded to with accusations of woke culture.  The resignation of the above two university presidents, although framed as an issue with their response to political protest on their campuses, is perhaps more accurately based on accusations that their universities have prioritized political interests of DEI over knowledge creation and dissemination. 

This is insane!

At home, even more left leaning news outlets are criticizing the DEI movement.  For instance, see this rather bizarre and completely incoherent article by Globe and Mail’s Tony Keller.  How does this get passed any legitimate editorial review process? I still can't figure out what Tony is trying to say.

I am an academic at a business school.  Of all the faculties at a university, the business school is arguably most immune to accusations of peddling left-leaning ideologies.  Yet within this business school context, I lead the teaching of all courses on the topic of sustainability or ESG (Environment, Social, and Governance) in our management programs.  As a key topic under the umbrella of ESG, DEI is an essential topic in these courses.  These are mandatory courses, meaning that all students getting a management degree from Schulich will be exposed and accountable to this content. 

The impact of this misleading and completely unwarranted concern that DEI and ESG are part of a political agenda is playing out increasingly in the classroom where students are pushing back against the role of business in committing to DEI.  For example, in one class we discuss the extreme inequity and lack of diversity in Hollywood films and online streaming.  While the evidence is clear that lead actors we see on screen are largely Caucasian and male, some students remain concerned that pushing filmmakers to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive is part of a political agenda and does not reflect what consumers actually want to see on the screen.

Claims that DEI is political supports the very flawed misconception that today's inequality is a result of a natural course of events independent of decisions made by those in power over centuries, if not millennia.

Let's set the record straight: The commitment of universities/colleges, not-for-profits and businesses to DEI is not a political movement but a science-based movement.  The science is clear: our society is incredibly exclusive and inequitable and the make up of those who make important decisions that influence are society is not diverse. 

Do I really need to list some of the below?

  1. Women hold just one in five board positions [3]

  2. Women executives earned 56% less than men executives [4]

  3. 4.8% of the time, the CEO of a company listed on the TSX is a woman

  4. The number of Canadian public companies with a board position filled with a person with a disability was 9

  5. The number of Canadian public company board positions filled by an indigenous person is 8

  6. The percentage of Canadian public company board seats filled by a visible minority is 4.8% [5]

  7. Black and Latino faculty are severely underrepresented at most public, four-year colleges and universities [6]

Perhaps a more poignant way to really push the point here is to consider the Bechtel test.  The test measures the representation of women in film and other fiction.  Film and fiction are useful here because, in some ways, they represent a mirror to what accept as true in our society . The test specifically asks “whether a work features at least two female characters who have a conversation about something other than a man”. [7]

Most forms of fiction do not pass this test! 

If this is where we’re at right now, we have a problem. 

So, if you’re reading this and have a concern that we academics at universities pushing for greater DEI are simply pushing a biased political agenda, you might be living in an alternate universe!  The push by universities and colleges, not to mention some of the most profit-oriented businesses in the world, to address this issue is because it IS an issue, based on reams and reams of evidence that the systemic nature of this discrimination is no accident.








  7. Raalte, Christa van (2015). "1. No Small-Talk in Paradise: Why Elysium Fails the Bechdel Test, and Why We Should Care". In Savigny, Heather; Thorsen, Einar; Jackson, Daniel; Alexander, Jenny (eds.). Media, Margins and Popular Culture. Springer. ISBN 9781137512819. Retrieved June 10, 2018.

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