An investigation into the lack of diversity within McGill professors and staff

Persistent obstacles for faculty of colour strain students, research, and the university

Written by Caroline Sun, News Editor
Design by Zoe Dubin, Design Editor

During my time at McGill, the professors I’ve had have been predominantly white. In my first semester at McGill, I did not have any professors of colour. During a class that semester, I remember having a McGill woman of colour professor give us a guest lecture. The feeling I had after the lecture was indescribable. It felt as if I had been waiting for this event for a very long time.

The realization that most of my professors are white came to me relatively quickly after the start of my university career. Throughout my two years at McGill, I have felt that other students surely shared similar sentiments after that guest lecture: A revelation, a breath of fresh air, and also confusion about why we didn’t see the issue sooner, and a curiosity to delve deeper.

As a political science and sociology student, diversity within the universities’ faculties was often a topic of class discussions. And, as someone deeply interested in understanding the broad patterns that structure people’s lives and in affairs on campus, I wanted to hear from McGill professors about their experience working within the faculty. But first, I did some digging to find data on the racial and ethnic makeup of McGill’s professor population.

Stats about diversity in McGill professors

McGill published a Biennial Report on Employment Equity in 2023. In this report, McGill presents data regarding the number of staff members and faculty categories, such as “Indigenous,” “Racialized Persons/Visible Minorities,” and “Ethnic Minorities/First Language Learned.”

According to the report, 20.3 per cent of tenured professors who answered the survey consider themselves as a “racialized person” or a “visible minority.” 1.3 per cent of respondents self-describe as “Indigenous,” and another 16.2 per cent deem themselves to belong in the “ethnic minorities/first language learned” category.

In an email to The Tribune, Tynan Jarett, Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) in the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic), stated that the report follows the definition for ethnic minorities used in the Act Respecting Equal Access to Employment in Public Bodies in Quebec.

“[The category “ethnic minorities”] is designed to be mutually exclusive from the grouping for racialized persons and for Indigenous persons, so in essence it refers to a white person who speaks a language other than French or English among their first languages learned,” wrote Jarett.

These statistics led me to believe that McGill seems to be making decent progress in promoting diversity within its faculty, despite the dismally low number of Indigenous professors and staff. However, the interviews I conducted with professors offered a more layered and comprehensive perspective on the way that McGill and comparable universities need to work to be truly diverse.

For this piece, I emailed 23 professors of various departments and faculties—including some who are no longer teaching at McGill and one who is on sabbatical—to ask whether they would be available to speak to me about their experience teaching at McGill. I got responses from eight and interviewed five of them.

None of the professors I interviewed stated that they had experienced a conflict at McGill, whether with another professor, member of the administration, staff, or student, where they felt that the dispute was rooted in racism. However, professors explained that they believed there were problems with the status quo, including a lack of transparency concerning administrative decisions, the obvious lack of Black professors in their department, or the additional physical and emotional labour that professors of colour carry. Such results suggest a subtle denial of racism within the university’s administration.

Speaking with Professors

The first professor I interviewed, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed that their biggest concern is the lack of representation for people of colour in the administration, which has control over decisions concerning appointing professors to the departmental chair and dean.

“I call it an old boys’ club. I think the problem is [that] this is really the right way to say how the universities make their own decisions.”

They also stated that he sat on a departmental EDI Committee, where members gave the department suggestions as to how to create a safer and more inclusive working environment within the university for students, professors, and staff. They explained that, because the budget was next to nothing, the committee did not take concrete actions toward their goal, other than selecting some students of colour for awards.

Later, I spoke with Tomoko Ohyama, a Japanese tenure-track assistant professor in the Department of Biology. She was hired in 2017 and is the only woman of colour professor in the department. When asked how she felt about being the only woman of colour professor in biology, she said, “I didn’t think about [it] because, always, that’s the case.”

She pointed out the discrepancy between the composition of the student body and that of the faculty members at McGill, noting the lack of reflection in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity. To explain this, she hypothesized that the long-term nature of academic appointments means that the recent trends toward diversification in the student body will naturally change the demographics of students in graduate, doctorate, post-doc, and professor positions slowly and incrementally.

Such thoughts were echoed by Barry Eidlin, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, who stated that he believed the professor population at McGill was predominantly white.

“[McGill’s professor population]’s very white. I mean, academia is pretty white. And McGill’s pretty white [....] I wouldn’t say that McGill is especially white. I think academia is white, and McGill’s not immune from that.”

As a white faculty member of the sociology department, he mentioned that the department had not had a Black faculty member until very recently—specifically in 2022—after McGill established the Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism in 2020.

Also that year, Professor Charmaine Nelson left the university and stated that the university was “not a safe space for people of colour” after her departure. According to her, 0.5 per cent of the university’s faculty was Black when she was teaching at McGill.

The university developed the Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism after numerous numerous groups, including the Black Students’ Network (BSN) and the McGill African Students’ Society, demanded redress against institutionalized forms of anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd.

The university set forth several goals for itself, including the hiring of 85 Black tenure-track or tenured professors by 2032, with an interim goal of reaching 40 professors by 2025. According to the university’s website, it has hired a total of 39 Black professors under the purview of this Action Plan as of now.

Terri Givens, a Black professor in the Department of Political Science and Associate Dean for Equity in the Faculty of Arts, stated in an interview with The Tribune that having professors of different racial, ethnic, and gender identities has an impact on the material that is taught in classes.

“[F]or students, they get excited when [when I teach the course] or they may think differently about a topic. And it’s not just for students [who are] Black and minority or women. It’s about everybody. All my students are learning something different and new when they walk into my classroom because I’m coming at it from a different perspective than the vast majority of their other professors.”

As former Provost Academic Lead and Advisor (PALA) on the Action Plan, Givens explained that having more professors of colour will ensure diversity in the production of knowledge and curriculum.

“There’s whole bodies of literature that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for people of colour and women and others who were actually doing that work. And one of the issues, as we’ve developed not just the strategy to address anti-Black racism but also the Indigenous initiatives, is that we have to make sure that our departments are open to the kinds of research that those people are doing.”

Givens also described the invisible emotional labour that she has performed when, for example, speaking to other professors who might not understand the necessity of expanding the curriculum or transforming the way that courses are taught.

“What’s not so visible is what we’re talking about in terms of the curriculum, and making sure that all the faculty understand what it means to have a diverse McGill, and there’s always pushback. There’s always people who resist and say that, ‘Oh, why can’t we just have everything as the status quo?’ basically. And so that’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of what I call emotional labour.”

To this point, Eidlin added that professors of colour also perform more labour and committee work than their white colleagues, which impacts retention.

“The problem also lies in a retention question. The faculty of colour gets overburdened with service work. They often will get more students who will come to them for guidance advice, because the McGill student body is pretty diverse. So they sort of seek out these faculty of colour [....] That puts a toll both service-wise and emotionally and [professors of colour] become almost like a shock absorber.”

Speaking with a McGill student

After speaking with many professors, I decided that I also needed to hear a student’s perspective on the same topic. Nkwanzi Banage, a U2 Arts student studying political science and economics, is VP Advocacy of the BSN and works as a member of the Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) Equity Committee. For her, working to create a better academic environment has been a habit since high school, since a music teacher directing her school’s band wanted to play a song performed by minstrel bands in the United States. After Banage spoke with the teacher, who did not know about the music’s history, the teacher chose another piece for the band to play.

“[I]t kind of illuminated something in my mind, saying, oh, in academic spaces, you have to advocate for yourself. And you have to sensitize people to these issues. Because sometimes people do things in good faith and just don’t know.”

At the same time as recognizing the effort the university has put in to improve, Banage also mentioned that small incidents such as the one she encountered in high school continue to happen at the university and are reminders of how things still need changing.

“The reality of McGill is that you’re facing these constant battles.”

Next Steps

The goal of this feature was to not only recognize the university’s ongoing need to address persisting inequalities on campus but also to offer a different perspective as to how it could continue its work in representation in faculties. While thinking about the next steps for the university, I spoke with Noelani Arista, an Indigenous associate professor in History and Classical Studies of Hawaiʻi and Director of the Indigenous Studies Program, who said that the category titled “Indigenous” has a tremendous amount of diversity within itself.

While the Canadian government, which officially recognizes three broad Indigenous categories named “First Nation,” “Inuit,” and “Métis,” this recognition may not foster a space for Indigenous diversity to permeate. Our conversation made me rethink whether the idea of diverse representation is based on a model based on a colonial order. Such an order allows those in power to define what diversity is and what diversity is sufficient.

In addition to rethinking the idea of diversity within universities’ staff and faculty and our Canadian society, I wish to propose some possible steps for McGill to take to promote racial and ethnic inclusion on campus.

First, as Eidlin and Givens pointed out, professor and student retention levels are a great indicator of how comfortable they are working and studying at McGill. However, to have good levels of retention, the administration must actively work toward improving the experiences of underrepresented groups, increasing the body of faculty of colour, and allowing undergraduate- and graduate-level students to see themselves as fitting within the community.

Second, creating more opportunities for professors and students to contribute and provide input in matters of hiring of faculty and positions within the administration, such as chairs and deans. The development of the Action Plan—created after consulting BSN and other groups—was a first step toward this end, but it was flawed in many ways as well. The university must expand its initiative beyond arbitrary timelines, include other systematically disadvantaged groups as well, and think intersectionally. McGill needs a systematic approach to diversifying at all echelons of the university, and the time to build is now.

A previous version of this article stated that the Biennial Report on Employment Equity in 2023 demonstrated that 45.2 per cent of professors who answered the survey consider themselves as a “racialized person” or a “visible minority” and that 3.2 per cent of respondents self-describe as “Indigenous,” and another 3.2 per cent deem themselves to belong in the “ethnic minorities/first language learned” category. In fact, according to the report, 20.3 per cent of tenure-stream professors who answered the survey consider themselves as a “racialized person” or a “visible minority.” 1.3 per cent of respondents self-describe as “Indigenous,” and another 16.2 per cent deem themselves to belong in the “ethnic minorities/first language learned” category.” Furthermore, it is worth noting that the table in which these numbers can be found does not mention professors and staff who self-identify as white, cisgender, non-disabled, and French- or English speaking and thus does not account for the entire McGill tenured professor and staff population. The Tribune regrets this error.