On the 7th of September 2021 Mark Mercer, in his role as President of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), sent a letter to Dr. Petra Hauf, the Vice-President of the University of New Brunswick (UNB) Saint John. The motivation for this contact appears in the second paragraph of Mark’s letter:
“UNB Saint John is inviting applications for a NSERC Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Data Science and Modelling for Coastal Ecosystems.” The advertisement for the position stipulates that “only applicants who self-identify as a woman will be considered for this opportunity.”
I am a member of one of the two departments that the lucky candidate will work for, and because of this, I have some observations to add coming from an ‘insider’.
First, I should own up to my initial reaction after discovering the content of the ad. Although there was opportunity, I failed to look at the job advertisement as it was being drafted over the summer of 2021, and only became aware of the ‘women only’ restriction much later during a department meeting. I remember clearly thinking at the time about discussing the prejudicial restriction with my colleagues and department chair, but then had the subsequent thought, ‘Why bother, this kind of stuff is everywhere now and to argue against it is a waste of time’. As a member of SAFS I’m not proud of having such a resigned attitude, but that was how I felt on that day: I shrugged my shoulders and never said a word.
Then in September I became aware of the SAFS letter. Its content was magnificent: an unassailable polemic on why restricting the hiring to only those who self-identify as a woman is wrong.
Re-energized, at the next departmental meeting I was ready to talk about the job advertisement. I began by asking our department chair if she had received and read the letter from SAFS. She responded positive to both questions and added further that there was no plan from our Vice-President to respond to Mark. From this exchange, along with a conversation from one other cc’d on the SAFS letter, I developed the impression that the communication from SAFS was viewed by our Vice-President as a type of perfunctory gesture, and not of a serious nature worthy of a response. Our Vice-President’s attitude seemed in part to be influenced by the knowledge that SAFS sent out many such letters, with few institutions bothering to submit a reply.
As the conversation evolved, several department members asked to see the letter and inquired about SAFS because they had never heard of the organization. (The letter was later sent to all department members.) One professor asked what I thought was an interesting question. What kind of stick did SAFS carry? In other words, could SAFS force change? My response was that SAFS has the power of a good argument, but that that was it.
It was interesting to witness the reaction to the sex specific hiring requirement for this job. No reaction, that I am aware of, was the reaction from our faculty of 20 people. Beyond the brief discussion outlined above, I witnessed no push back. When I asked our chair about the merit principle, she responded that it will be applied, but applied only to this subset of people.
Recognizing that SAFS was unlikely to receive a reply to their letter, I sent one of my own to our Vice-President. I said the following,
“I find Dr. Mercer’s arguments to be unassailable, but if lacking in clarity of thought on the issue I welcome hearing a different perspective…….”. And,
“Further, I think a response letter is necessary to defend against what some – myself included – will perceive as hypocrisy. I struggle understanding how a progressive institution like UNB, committed to moving society beyond decades – centuries – of injustices base on racial and sex differences, that relentlessly champions equity, diversity, and inclusion, has concluded that an appropriate course forward is an implementation of this exact disgusting tool of sexism. How have we reached the point where we believe two wrongs make a right!”
I have not received a reply from Dr. Hauf.
Over these past months I have reflected often on two things: my department’s indifference to the hiring restriction, and my view that such discrimination is unacceptable. Why do others – purportedly autonomous academic thinkers – find this restricted ‘only women need apply’ condition acceptable? Am I, is SAFS, missing something? Is our judgement flawed?
I went searching for information.
Having recalled how these Tier 1 research chair positions are funded, and suspecting that the ad language was not completely a UNB idea, I discovered this 2017 NSERC publication: ‘Guide for Applicants: Considering equity, diversity and inclusion in your application.’ The first paragraph reads,
“The Evidence is clear. Equity, diversity, and inclusion strengthen the scientific and engineering communities and the quality, social relevance and impact of research. Increasing diversity and gender equity in the research enterprise are key priorities for NSERC and for the Government of Canada.”
Further along in the publication equity is defined, and in part reads as follows.
‘Equity means fairness; people of all identities being treated fairly. It means ensuring that the processes for allocating resources and decision-making are fair to all and do not discriminate on the basis of identity.’
I think it is fair to conclude that the flawed judgement falls at the feet of the Government of Canada and UNB, and not with SAFS or myself.