In Exploring Equity, Professor Angela Hildyard, vice-president (human resources and equity), apparently takes pride in our accumulation of no less than 13 equity officers (Forum, Jan. 23). But to others, who have witnessed the consequences of seemingly endless annual budget cuts, this raises troubling questions. Assuming an average salary of $70,000, and allowing for fringe benefits and overheads, suggests that the annual equity budget exceeds $1.7 million. But this estimate is conservative; a decade ago one of us, who served on Academic Board, was (reluctantly, it must be said) quoted $1.5 million. A more recent quoted estimate was $3.5 million. This is huge sum to assign to activities most of which are – at best – controversial.
Professor Hildyard’s rationale for this expenditure is “systemic discrimination.” To justify such a claim, advocates repeatedly point to “equity-seeking” groups’ lack of proportionality to some allegedly representative population. They usually ignore the implications of demographic trends and rarely cite evidence such as outdated employment criteria. Over three decades ago, in her analysis of gender differences in employment patterns, University of Oxford psychologist Corinne Hutt concluded that, even then, the differences could be largely ascribed to non-discriminatory factors and observed that, in the absence of evidence, proportionality arguments reduce the notion of systemic discrimination to a meaningless tautology.
The ongoing brouhaha over the Canada Research Chairs is a textbook example. A paucity of female and “visible minority” appointments in the disciplines deemed important by Industry Canada has led to a Canadian Human Rights Commission investigation. While current discipline representations may reflect past discriminatory practices, given the heightened sensitivity to this issue, it seems incredible to assert that there is ongoing discrimination, direct or otherwise. Yet the Canadian Association of University Teachers demands quotas, thus simultaneously attacking academic excellence and subverting responsible government.
Debates over such issues are muddied by advocates who, imbued with an overweening sense of moral superiority, display a penchant for abusive, ad hominen charges. An ugly example is the reaction to Harvard president Lawrence Summers’ exploration of possible reasons for the low number of women in certain mathematically based disciplines. Yet, as anyone familiar with the literature on sex and cognition knows, Summers’ suggested explanations cannot be so easily dismissed.
Another concern is that the job security of equity officers depends on finding problems: their position parallels that of the Spanish Inquisition, which survived by confiscating the assets of its victims. None if this is to deny that there are issues that need to be addressed, or individual problems to be rectified. But we nevertheless believe that our current equity program is mostly against the university’s academic interests — and a waste of taxpayers’ money. In these respects, our search for excellence requires departments and divisions to be regularly reviewed as part of the administrative appointment process. It is high time that our equity apparatus be subject to an equivalent detached review.