Divisions on diversity

KARL JAROSIEWICZ | A new session of Senate began on Wednesday, September 16, with the presentation of the Report of the Academic Policy and Planning Committee (APPC) of Senate on Educational Equity. Subtitled "Learning from Diversity," it was four years in the making and purported to "provide a conceptual framework," not "formal targets or uniform criteria for measuring diversity."

The Advisory Committee on Educational Equity was created in 1994 by APPC, and given the mandate to "research and recommend policies, programs and services which may be required to increase the access, retention and graduation of groups of students who are identified by the committee to be underrepresented in McGill's academic programs."

During the course of its research, the committee surveyed over 15,000 students, which helped it "develop a sophisticated profile of the student body."

Professor Richard Janda, who had served as chair of the advisory committee, presented the committee's final report, as amended and modified by APPC. Supported by colour charts and graphs, Janda told Senate that a diverse student body "is central to our role as an international university." He also insisted that the report should be accepted in a "lyrical vein, not a codification of rules."

The report contains 31 separate recommendations, some of which are presented with notes about financial implications. The appendix even pinpoints problems within individual faculties and schools.

Janda said the committee had identified four recruitment problems or weaknesses: aboriginal, francophone and Latin American students, as well as students with disabilities. One other area of concern, he added, is the number of women in graduate studies.

Describing the concerns, he stated that the often quoted 20% figure for francophone students fluctuates widely among McGill's departments. One recent survey of 4,000 new students revealed a total of only 33 students from aboriginal communities. Latin American and disabled students each make up only three per cent of the student population. Furthermore, female graduate students still number fewer than their male counterparts, even though undergraduate women outnumber men.

Janda's presentation was supported by eloquent testimonials from student leader Sam Johnston and Associate Vice-Principal (Academic) Nick de Takacsy. De Takacsy, quoting from an old song, said the report attempted to "accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative." He added that "this is not a piece of jurisprudence, it does not say 'thou shalt.' It suggests an attitude that we need to develop."

Although the report is generally uncontroversial, not every senator was pleased. The spirit may be strong, some senators seemed to say, but certain passages are weak.

Professor Faith Wallis asked, "How will these recommendations be handled and by whom? They have financial implications that are not spelled out." Using Recommendation 14 as an example, she read:

"That permission to include English as a second language course for credit be given to all students for whom this is appropriate."

Furthermore, Recommendation 15 says: "That McGill fix the goal of educating multilingual graduates and ask each Faculty and School to consider ways to use existing language departments to improve the language skills of its graduates." These items both suggest using University resources without calculating whether or not these are affordable or feasible.

Vice-Principal (Research) Pierre Bélanger drew Senate's attention to Recommendation 9. It reads:

"That for each discipline, Graduate Faculty and the University as a whole aim to bring the number of women in graduate studies up toward the University-wide proportion of women in undergraduate studies in that discipline, and that success on this front be monitored annually by APPC."

"That's very nice," said Bélanger. "But nobody in North America knows why fewer women are taking graduate studies" when undergraduate women outnumber men.

Professor Sam Noumoff said that the data listed in the appendix was not very culturally sensitive and suggested that this may be because the Advisory Committee itself should have been "more diverse." He cited a passage that made reference to "students of African racial and ethnic origin" and stated that it wasn't clear to whom this referred. He said it's possible that some black, white, and even Arabic students could be classified as African. "Please remove these careless statements from the appendix."

"I grew up in London, poor," said Professor Martin Zuckermann, and added that the student body was extremely diverse where he studied. "I feel that the ideology behind this report is superb. Yet I think that we have to be cautious with such reports."

He called attention to Recommendation 20 which says: "That each course and each program of study be conceived in part as an occasion to learn from diversity in the following dimensions: 1) the diversity of the student and faculty population; 2) comparative and critical perspectives on course material emerging from competing theoretical currents, including feminist and minority pespectives; and 3) the testing and applying of ideas in differing cultural contexts."

"In many courses, it can't be done," said Zuckermann. "I teach physics and if you can tell me how to include feminist and minority views, I will. You simply can't say 'each course.' You can only say in 'some courses' or 'appropriate courses.'"

Professor Norman Miller took exception with the criticism. "We should support the spirit of this report. McGill is showing that it leads the world in this respect."

"The report has laudable aims," admitted Professor Robin Yates, "but it's a hodge-podge. If this document isn't just to be shelved, send it back to be prioritized, assigned a timeline, and say who is to carry out the recommendations."

APPC members Vice-Principal (Academic) Bill Chan and Board of Governors representative David Cohen rejected sending back the report, but agreed to rework it "according to the discussion" they had just heard.

Principal Bernard Shapiro concurred. "This is an important matter, but it is complicated and we should do this right."