We Are Not Tokens for Diversity Brochures: An Open Letter to Lakehead University to Fulfill its Commitment to Diversity, Equality, and Justice

Over the last several weeks, Lakehead University has been subject to controversy regarding the marginalization and lack of institutional support to faculty of colour. This has resulted in the high profile resignation of Angelique EagleWoman, the Dean of the Bora Laskin law school. The first Indigenous dean of a Canadian law school has gained wide support for condemning systemic racism within the university.

Related to this are other professors of colour, especially within the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Humanities, who have quietly announced they are leaving or planning on leaving Lakehead University due to facing systemic racism, hostility from non-racialized students and colleagues, and lack of support from university administration. These professors of colour have played a vital role in providing safe spaces for students of colour to discuss systemic racism and other related forms of inequality. The limited spaces that exist within Lakehead for students of colour to experience being taught by diverse faculty, including Indigenous, racialized women, and queer faculty of colour and other equity seeking groups has limited students’ opportunity to thrive in safe learning environments. These professors of colour have worked in often hostile teaching conditions to open up unique spaces within the classroom to critically explore issues related to the historical trauma and experiences of marginalization that students of colour face.

Just this month, the Canadian Association of University Teachers released a study titled, “Underrepresented & Underpaid Diversity & Equity Among Canada’s Post-Secondary Education Teachers.” In it, the study concludes that despite diversity initiatives, departments are failing to achieve employment and wage equity for academic staff. With this, departments are failing to recruit and hire faculty of colour that reflect the diversity of students they teach. Of particular concern is the finding that Black academics make up only 2% of faculty, while Indigenous academics continue to be significantly underrepresented within postsecondary institutions, making up only 1.4% of all university professors and 3% of college instructors in 2016. This finding is particularly troubling since 5% of undergraduate university students identify as Indigenous and further make up 3.8% of the total labour force. Similarly, a disturbing wage gaps exists between white men and all other groups, and is most significant for racialized women professors who only earn an average of 68 cents for every dollar. We are attentive to the fact that neoliberal shifts have resulted in the declining number of Assistant Professors, shrinking from 10,910 in 2006/07 to 8,544 in 2016/17. Adding to this challenge, Indigenous, Black, racialized women, and other equity seeking post-secondary academics are the least likely to secure full-time, full- year employment.

In the context of these distressing trends, Lakehead has positioned itself as a unique institution that is committed to diversity, equality, and human rights. Lakehead’s websites, brochures, and diversity pamphlets present powerful images of campus diversity. However, one must question if Lakehead is committed to hiring and supporting people of colour beyond tokenistic displays. We challenge Lakehead to meaningfully invest in faculty and departments that will bring Indigenous, racialized, queer, and disabled perspectives and faculty into the classroom and institutions. Current trends demonstrate that Lakehead is not meaningfully advancing the interests of staff, faculty, and students that are experiencing the forms of marginalization that Lakehead benefits from in advertising campaigns.

Of particular interest is Lakehead’s Social Justice Studies Program, which brands itself as a unique learning space: “The program prepares students to work, research and advocate towards a more socially just society which values equality, solidarity and human rights and recognizes the citizenship of
each human being.” We are aware that the SJS program has an upcoming opening for a three-year contractual appointment. The vast majority of courses taught within SJS are being taught by non- racialized professors despite dealing with issues particular to Indigenous peoples and other communities of colour. It is vital for Lakehead to hire and retain Indigenous, Black, and other racialized female faculty to advance critical scholarship and mentor students from equity seeking groups. We are dismayed that core courses that rely upon the pivotal knowledge production from scholars of colour – especially Indigenous and racialized women – are not being taught from these very same groups. It is unacceptable for a program to advertise itself as advancing the interests of equality and human rights, yet have a majority white faculty advancing their academic careers from the knowledge production of largely equity seeking groups that are not hired as full time, full year employment.

The faculty within the SJS program should be doing everything in its power to fulfill its stated goals of researching and advocating towards a more socially just society. We recognize the need for Lakehead to invest in recruiting and retaining staff and faculty of colour from equity seeking communities. Concrete hiring initiatives are pivotal for supporting students’ academic goals and to provide them with the critical tools to support the surrounding Thunder Bay community beyond tokenizing them to perform white academic allyship. This is a prime opportunity for the SJS program to meaningfully reflect its mission statement and seek to recruit diverse faculty to advance its curriculum and support future students of colour.

To Angelique Eaglewoman and all the faculty of colour who have quietly left or are announcing their departure due to forms of structural racism and outright hostility from students and colleagues, it is the hope that Lakehead University will step up to the plate and enforce a robust plan of recruiting and hiring faculty that will reflect the diversity of the student population and surrounding community. It’s time for a change, and we are confident that Lakehead can fulfill its commitment to diversity, equality, and justice.

*** We have decided to remain anonymous in order to retain the freedom to speak frankly about our experiences within the university and to shed light on racialization as a systemic problem rather than reducing it to individual bias.