Speaker looks at developing diversity at the university

by Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

Although university students across Canada are coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds, York University sociology professor Carl James says there's still much to do before academia is fully accessible to all minority groups.

"We have to advocate for equality and equity within universities until race, gender, age, class and sexual orientation are no longer used as a basis for discrimination," he said at the lecture that launched Dialogue and Diversity: Intercultural Experiences in the University.

Diversity within universities, James said, must not only be reflected in the student body; it must also be present among faculty and staff. Universities are "businesses" that should reflect their clientele by hiring professors from minority groups.

It's not enough for universities to develop policies of inclusion for minorities; academic institutions must also make room for oppositional voices. However, people are expected to conform at universities, which puts minority [values] at odds with academic culture. "Minorities are expected to fit the university's cultural mould."

But as various minority groups conform to academic culture, he asked, "what happens to diversity?" He theorized that differences disappear over time, creating homogeneous university communities that "negate" the differences among people.

To get a better understanding of their student bodies, James said, it would be useful for universities to collect statistics. "[Currently] there's no way to tell the racial mix within universities."

There's a reluctance to collect these figures, he said, pointing to the federal government's discomfort with including Canada's racial makeup in the 2001 census, even though the 1996 census counted minority groups.

However, not counting minorities can be problematic. James cited gender disproportion in the workplace as an example. "People can get away quite easily with an all-male or all-female institution quite easily," he said, "because no one ever counted."

Providing a breakdown of minorities, he said, would allow universities to determine if Canada's racial makeup is accurately reflected within their institutions.

James said he fears historically disadvantaged racial groups still aren't getting into universities, which is unfortunate, "since education is a vehicle that promotes social justice, knowledge and skills that are productive to society."

Several Canadian universities now have affirmative action programs that admit members of minorities who don't meet conventional admission requirements. (Others, like Concordia, offer Mature Entry programs).

Affirmative action has its limitations, James said, because minority students can feel that they were granted access out of sympathy, not merit.

Affirmative action can also incite discrimination against access students. "Even students who did not get into university through the access route are often labelled as access students," he said.

Access programs are sometimes labelled as reverse racism, too, when minorities are perceived as taking the place of more qualified students. Once in university, he added, affirmative action students must work harder to keep their grades up "so as to not validate stereotypes."

But whether universities choose to implement affirmative action or other strategies to grant minority students access to higher education, James said, these actions are critical "as long as race discrimination still exists."

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