Of Tokens And Tantrums

September 2018

In the autumn of 2013, in my capacity as Acting Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Saint Mary’s University, I attended two meetings of the Arts Executive, which comprises the Dean and Associate Dean of Arts, along with all of the department chairs and program coordinators in the Faculty of Arts.

Ordinarily, the Dean presides over these meetings, but on September 17th, the morning of the first of the two occasions in question, the floor was surrendered to the University’s Senior Director of Human Resources. She advised us that, although the Federal Government’s Employment Equity and Federal Contractors Program had been discontinued, Saint Mary’s remained committed to employment equity and would henceforth be conducting among its workforce a “self-identification survey” in an effort to determine if the number of members of “designated groups” was acceptable. In spite of the University’s efforts over a period of several years, certain groups, she announced, remained “underrepresented,” the solution to which was an even more ardent commitment to “positive action,” which did not mean, she insisted, “hiring unqualified people.”

Language of this sort does not so much beg, as bury, many questions, which, if anyone bothered to ask, are, “underrepresented with respect to what?”, “positive for whom?”, and, “qualifications of what kind?” But this was hardly the place to address such matters; we had a “strategy” to implement. In any case, she grinned, hiring on the basis of race, ethnicity, and disability “benefits everyone.”

According to the Senior Director, Saint Mary’s had identified “numerical goals” at the University and Faculty level for certain “occupational groups,” adding that “numerical goals are not quotas.” I challenged this claim. True, goals aren’t quotas, but hiring expressly to meet those goals emphatically is. Rejecting this interpretation, the Senior Director proceeded to review statistics that illustrated the challenges confronting the University’s campaign of “positive action.” Among members of the Arts Faculty, for instance, none was “aboriginal,” whereas “labour market expectations” dictated that there should be one. “So we are short by one,” she said. Meanwhile, three were visible minorities, whereas labour market expectations dictated that we should have sixteen, “so we’re short there.” Once more, I challenged her denial that she was simply promoting quota-hiring, but she continued to resist the characterization. That bureaucrats advocating quota-hiring remain so squeamish about calling it by its real name suggests that, even for them, something distasteful is afoot.

What we might call organic or de facto diversity, the fact that Canada comprises individuals from the widest array of cultural backgrounds, is one of the great glories of this country. But diversity of this sort is hardly what university functionaries, and an increasing numbers of academics themselves, have in mind. For them, when procedures are followed but results disappoint, and their idea of enlightened social policy frustrated, diversity must be engineered, and results guaranteed. While it would have been naïve of me to be surprised by the virtually unanimous enthusiasm for the Senior Director’s cause, what was remarkable was, first, how stipulations in our Collective Agreement concerning academic merit in hiring were treated as obstacles to what the Senior Director insisted were desirable results and, second, how our unified and enlightened aim was presumed to be that of finding creative ways around them. To this end, the then-Dean introduced the then-Chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology as an exemplar of diversiphile savvy. For, as he proceeded to report, he had learned during his time at York University that one sure-fire way to hire members of “designated groups” was to doctor job ads, the terms of which dictate to a considerable degree what subsequently counts as proper hiring procedure. Evidently, this had become common practice in Sociology, and perhaps in other departments, at Saint Mary’s.

And so, roughly a year and a half later, on February 20, 2015, an ad was posted on the University’s web site for a tenure-track position at the rank of assistant professor in Indigenous Literature. Assuming that no other need in the Department of English was more pressing, this was, or certainly could have been, a fine thing. But what the engineers of positive action can neither risk nor abide is hiring someone, no matter how accomplished, no matter how superior to other candidates, who doesn’t belong to what has been identified ahead of time as the relevant “designated group.” Therefore, in addition to the usual requirements that the successful applicant hold a Ph.D., and have an established record of research and teaching effectiveness, a requirement was added that he or she also have “a strong background in Indigenous knowledge and methodologies,” including, significantly, “the qualification of lived experience.” Anyone who cares about the quality of the higher education for which they are paying, about fairness in academic hiring, and what we used to call the life of the mind should be alert to this tawdry and telling phrase. There are two things in particular to note about it: first, instead of just listing “lived experience” along with other requirements, those who composed the Saint Mary’s ad referred to it, with suspicious insistence, as a “qualification,” just in case we, and perhaps they themselves, needed convincing. And, second, once persuaded that a confection like “lived experience” amounts to an academic qualification, functionaries can claim that, in striving to meet quota, they can hardly be accused of hiring un- or underqualified candidates.

The job in question was filled by Dr. Sandra Muse Isaacs, who, three and a half years later, was the subject of a profile published by Brett Bundale in the National Post (July 22, 2018). In her brief time at Saint Mary’s, Dr. Muse Isaacs and I never met, but friends of mine spoke well of her. They also mentioned how frustrated she had become by what she took to be the University’s tokenism on indigenous matters. Although my friends were sympathetic, I was bemused. Like all universities, Saint Mary’s is guilty of its fair share of cloying tokenism, but that includes its commitment to “positive action,” as reflected in the posting of the job ad for which Dr. Muse Isaacs applied, as well as her subsequent appointment. In fact, as Bundale’s article inadvertently confirms, Dr. Muse Isaacs isn’t terribly bothered by tokenism at all. Indeed, she wants much more of it. Bundale gets things wrong from the start, when she claims that Dr. Muse Isaacs resigned her position at Saint Mary’s “in protest,” portraying her as a flinty contrarian determined to take a principled stand at all costs. For there were no costs. In the University of Windsor, which, according to Bundale, has designated a number of faculty positions expressly for indigenous applicants, Dr. Muse Isaacs has found an employer more unapologetically committed to quota-hiring than Saint Mary’s. Accordingly, thanks to the tokenism she pretends to abhor, she is free to sashay from one pampered sinecure to another, and be back home in Hamilton, where she was raised and has family, to boot.

I am reminded of Sven Birkerts’s observation that what is most striking about the brisk pronouncements of advocates of digitized innovation in and outside the academy is “the assumptive manner, the confidence. It’s a tone we often hear in the voices of those who believe their historical moment has come. It dares a mocking intonation, a casual dismissiveness.” (Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age, p. 63.) Unlike even the most gifted scholars in the country, Sandra Muse Isaacs knows that, if she leaves one university, another will be waiting with open arms and a quota to fill. She knows that, when summoned, a reporter like Brett Bundale will materialize, photographer in tow, to cast her as an avenging angel. She knows that faculty unions, justly critical of the bloated administrations of modern universities, will not just tolerate, but applaud, the swelling bureaucracy required for “positive action.” And she knows, above all, that administrators will continue to pay cringing obeisance to an array of faddish pieties, none of which even so much as nods in the direction of the scholarly integrity of their institutions. Dr. Muse Isaacs’s staged tantrum suggests rank opportunism, not scorned martyrdom.