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Editorial: This isn’t just about one problematic recipient — U of T must fix its scholarship vetting process

David Rayside award scandal reveals a systemic disregard for equity
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Many elements of recent events suggested need for better practices. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY
Many elements of recent events suggested need for better practices. SAMANTHA YAO/THE VARSITY

Over the past week, students have expressed outrage after the Department of Political Science awarded the David Rayside Undergraduate Scholarship — which honours work on advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion for marginalized communities, alongside academic achievement and financial need — to Arjun Singh. 

No one questions Singh’s academic achievements — we are sure they are stellar. If he were awarded a scholarship purely based on that standard, then there would be no controversy. But it should be clear to anyone reviewing Singh’s statements on the internet that they demonstrate problematic and harmful views on sensitive social issues ranging from undocumented immigration to sexual violence. 

No one questions Singh’s right to express his views as he sees fit on Twitter or on his blog. But his views should not be free from criticism, scrutiny, or consequence, especially when the scholarship in question is, at its core, about the kind of views a student advances in the community around them.

And so, for a recipient who’s so openly adversarial to social justice to subsequently be rewarded for it doesn’t just violate the spirit of the award. It tarnishes its credibility and integrity — it undermines the honour experienced by past, fellow, and future recipients doing great work for marginalized communities. Above all, it communicates how little such communities matter to the department. 

Following widespread calls to rescind Singh’s scholarship, the university reviewed the matter and announced that the reward was “consistent with the rules set out in the application process,” as the application form claims that decisions “are based solely on the information and documentation you [the applicant] have provided” — in other words, the application form, a personal statement, two letters of reference, and a transcript.

According to Singh himself, he was not contacted about the department’s review of the decision. If the department felt that it was not necessary to ask Singh about these concerns in relation to the personal statement he submitted for his application, this draws doubt about the thoroughness of the review and the department’s willingness to correct oversight. 

Moreover, the Faculty of Arts & Science is aware that Singh has hired a lawyer to challenge the campaign to rescind the scholarship, and so perhaps it has decided that taking action at this time would be too risky. If so, this kind of calculation is disappointing — especially for such a powerful institution. And ultimately, the department’s steadfast defence of the decision to reward Singh only serves to raise troubling concerns about the vetting process that goes behind selection. 

Indeed, having decisions be based solely on the information provided by the applicant is ripe with flaws. A scholarship that measures one’s character and commitment to social justice should require more — the selection committee must, at the very least, independently and rigorously vet the candidate outside of what they have submitted in the application. 

A simple Google search in Singh’s case would have been sufficient to raise a red flag. It’s also questionable as to how the letters of reference were able to credibly justify Singh’s commitment to social justice in light of his publicly expressed views — and whether there should be more rigorous inspection on these letters as well.

Recipients of the David Rayside scholarship should have a clean record in the area of equity. Even a shred of doubt about one’s record should compel the selection committee to double check their decision.

This raises other possibilities: did this decision initially happen because there weren’t enough applicants to begin with? If so, then this raises other concerns about the outreach and accessibility of the award — especially to marginalized students who belong and work in the communities that the scholarship concerns. 

Was it because there was more emphasis put on academic achievement than the actual spirit of the award? If so, then this would demonstrate that equity, diversity, and inclusion may be of performative interest to the department, but are ultimately negligible in substance. If so, the department should be free to award students like Singh — but it should not try to feign any semblance of social justice. 

Any way you look at it, what is clear is that U of T departments must re-evaluate the entire structure of how they award scholarships — from ensuring a wide pool of applications to vetting the candidates. If academic achievement is able to overshadow one’s personal statement, it is necessary to better cater scholarships toward character and equity. 

The Singh controversy must not be understood as an isolated or individual incident. Over the summer, Massey College announced Margaret Wente as a member of the Quadrangle Society. Wente, who ultimately resigned following backlash about the decision, was accepted into a community that expects members to “retain an appreciation and respect for academic pursuit” — despite long being publicly criticized for plagiarism, not to mention making pseudo-scientific claims about race. 

If U of T wants to pride itself on its academic prowess, it must ensure that members who are rewarded are held to the highest standards. If divisive figures are celebrated while contradicting the spirit of the awards or appointments they receive, U of T only serves to undermine its own reputation. 

All U of T academic units must take this incident as an inciting point to review their selection and outreach processes for awards, scholarships, and appointments. They must ensure a rigorous standard by which such matters as public behaviour and commitment to equity are not a matter of bonus points, but are non-negotiable. They must ensure that selection committees themselves are diverse in composition and take social justice seriously, and they must ensure that students from marginalized communities are made to feel welcome, encouraged, and worthy in these processes.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email [email protected]