This November, students on campuses across North America protested in solidarity with Black students who had been targets of racism at universities in the United States. These students presented a set of demands to their respective schools in order to address systemic racism. At U of T, the Black Liberation Collective asked the administration to commit to increasing Black faculty and student representation in order to better reflect Toronto’s population.
Commendably, our administration has made a small stride in education equity by deciding to collect race-related data on campus. While the exact commitments are unclear at this moment, the broader policy of tracking quantitative information about racial representation in our faculty and student populace is a very welcome step in achieving educational equity.
As a person of colour, I am acutely aware of the underrepresentation of racialized faculty and students. Some have the privilege of not seeing this reality. It can take less than a semester of classes for someone to note that we have a low number of Black and other racialized students in leadership positions. Without statistical data, however, students have long had trouble proving the problem exists. The collection of race-related data can help bolster causes for equity by simply providing evidence of an issue that students know anecdotally to be true.
It is not hard to find instances in which similar initiatives provided an impetus for positive social change. Back in 2004, for instance, the Toronto District School Board — the largest school board in Canada — acknowledged the benefits of a census similar to the one our university may implement. They accounted for the race and socio-economic backgrounds of their students in order to “identify and eliminate systemic barriers to student achievement.” With the data collected, the TDSB was able to quantify a considerable gap between economically marginalized and racialized students. With this information, a problem was identified and a solution more easily and meaningfully created. The TDSB was able to establish the Model Schools for Inner Cities initiative, which seeks to close “the opportunity gap to support equitable outcomes for all students.”
For those who question the necessity of increasing diversity in university classrooms, it is important to remember several things. First, our society defines itself by principles of equality — as a subset of this, it is important for all persons to have the equal opportunity to attend post-secondary institutions, and it is thus our responsibility to actively investigate barriers that unfairly prevent certain students from succeeding.
Second, while the call to begin this type of census was brought on by students in the Black community, there are universal benefits to solving the problem of underrepresentation. From an equity perspective, diversity means there will be challenges to mainstream narratives, and thus a more wholesome understanding of society. In fact, in 2015, The Atlantic published an article that argued non-white educators “can help disrupt what are often one-sided portrayals of the world and offer invaluable insight to students from different backgrounds.” Comparably, a 2014 Scientific American article extensively traced how “[d]ecades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers” have shown how socially diverse groups enhance innovation and creativity.
Lastly, race-related data collection at U of T is also an important symbol of administrative accountability. While the university has not yet released the specifics of this initiative, it is clear they are listening to students and engaging in dialogue with them. In doing so, our school is recognizing the legitimacy of student voices — significantly, those that have been historically marginalized by educational institutions — and reaffirming the importance of diversity. We should thus be cautiously optimistic about how this data will serve as a catalyst to create programming that works towards increasing the participation of all visible minorities, in faculty and within undergraduate and graduate student populations.
Milen Melles is a first-year student at Victoria College studying humanities.