Differential equity: Rocks and other hard places

March 12, 2010


Donna Palmateer Pennee, University of Western Ontario
Guest Contributor

As a dean and as a researcher and teacher, I have a personal commitment to equity that is focused on not losing ground for those whose rights have improved significantly, while also working to change the demographic of faculty and students.  That means working for equity for those federally designated groups in addition to women whose rights to access have been shortchanged in the academy, and most recently under neoliberalism.

But I find myself hemmed in on one side by the limits of public funding and support for universities and on the other by the disappearance of mandatory retirement and most faculty associations’ focus on salary increases.  I am not saying that mandatory retirement was a good or a bad thing, nor am I saying that faculty members should be paid less.  What I am saying is that I do not have any sense that the academic community at present has a shared understanding of the full range of equity issues that have yet to be heard or addressed.

CAUT says it can’t really be sure (beyond “anecdotally”) if some people – “visible minorities, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered” – are underrepresented in the academy because Statistics Canada doesn’t collect the data that we need to be sure.  Do we really need statistics to tell us that progress is very, very slow in hiring people from all but one (women) of the federally designated groups? 

To be sure, statistics help to make arguments when you’re up against a culture of quantitative measurement.  But also to be sure, the absence of statistics should not stop us from making the argument that progress is too slow, should not stop us from finding and using qualitative measures, should not stop us from continued advocacy and action.

Some days I feel as if too many members of the academic community are still living in the 1970s: no, the battle for women’s rights is not over, particularly when it comes to pay equity in many sectors, but women have come a long way, especially those of us in the academy who are white and able-bodied.  The recent CBC radio and national newspaper backlash against Women’s Studies programs and feminism in general may well, I fear, have helped to turn back the clock on all the other equity issues that haven’t yet been normalized.   As signs of unfinished business where gender matters are concerned, that backlash merits our attention, but let’s not allow it to be a distraction from a bundle of unfinished business of equity issues that are being treated differentially.

Other days I feel as if those who are most vocal in faculty associations across the country have turned the clock all the way back to the 19th century, as if tenured faculty members are being sent down unsafe mineshafts for a pittance a day and a shortened life.  (Contractually limited academic workers are a different matter not addressed here.) Are we tenured workers really so poorly paid? Are our working conditions that dreadful? And do we really believe that university administrators are stealing from us?  Yes, I know:  it isn’t that simple.  But there is much more on the equity table that isn’t that simple, and, yes, I do believe increases in pay for those with job security is just not all that important right now.

This is not about me being an evil and corrupt administrator (though my saying so won’t change the mind of anyone who continues to assume in advance that those adjectives must always already go with that job title), anymore than this is about all tenured faculty members being impeccable workers and managers of public funds (we all know that not everyone is so).  I felt this way about equity issues before I became an administrator; I would feel this way if I stepped back into a faculty office tomorrow, and some faculty also feel this way: equity  groups other than women are definitely getting short shrift in these recessionary times.  Equity issues for some groups always get pushed down the list of priorities when money or other precious resources are scarce.

Doors close in the academy for access for those who are least represented among the population, just as borders have closed in the past to those with different birthplaces and histories and skin colour and income or property holdings.  The history of immigration policies and practices in Canada is just the most obvious analogue for what I see from where I sit in the academy at this time.

What would happen if, instead of limiting the opportunities to fewer of us when resources are scarce, we decided to share what we have with those who have not?  What would happen if tenured members said to faculty association leaders in this climate:  we don’t need salary increases right now, we need more tenurable faculty who are not just like us, and we need to provide leadership through our positions in the academy and in society for recovering public funding and public support for an enriched and enriching and socially just society. What would happen?

What would happen if tenured members told their faculty association leaders:  we want to put our considerable bargaining power behind insisting that our administrators flow financial resources into hiring more qualified people from the full spectrum of federally designated groups, because their presence in the academy in greater numbers will improve the futures for the academy by also improving the futures for a changed and changing demographic?

What would we (tenured academic workers) lose if we did that?  Would we lose tenure? Would we lose humanity? What would we lose?

Dr. Donna Palmateer Pennee is Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of Western Ontario.