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Deeper understanding

Equity, diversity and inclusion: Identifying a shared language for change

Campus and Community

By Dr. Sulaimon Giwa and Dr. Jennifer Simpson

Memorial University’s current search for a vice-provost, (equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI)) points to the university’s growing attention to equity.

As a faculty member and administrator, we hope that this article deepens understandings of and offers a shared language for EDI at Memorial University.  

Equity in universities  

Equity in higher education refers to the procedural, representative and knowledge-related practices of individuals, units, and institutions.

Ideally, these practices will a) value a range of experiences, knowledges and contributions; b) support possibilities for expressing and listening to perspectives on social life, with explicit attention to power and ethical relationality; and c) ensure that the work of teaching, research and public engagement have a connection to the public good and to equity.  

To a large degree, EDI efforts at many universities and at Memorial University currently focus primarily on procedural and representational priorities.

Institutions increase the numbers of students, staff and faculty from underrepresented groups; add courses and/or content to long-established curricular and programmatic offerings; strengthen the quantity and/or quality of supports for those in the university community from underrepresented groups; and/or provide educational or training programs designed to increase awareness.

Dr. Jennifer Simpson is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Procedurally, there is attention to policies and programs that support the success and reality of everyone at Memorial University, regardless of role or background.  

All of the above efforts are necessary.

At the same time, it is crucial for universities to carefully examine what might be called knowledge practices, or those efforts that academic staff pursue through teaching, research and creative work, and public engagement.

EDI efforts that result in lasting and systemic change will also consider the ways in which the work of producing and disseminating knowledge is integrally linked to questions of equity.  

Dominant approaches to EDI 

Below, we note a few of the common ways in which equity efforts fail to support long-term and systemic change.  

“Existing educational spaces typically privilege dominant norms, knowledge and experiences.”

First, understanding inclusion as a process of adding “diverse” bodies to existing educational spaces (research laboratories, the classroom, committees, etc.) will not be enough.

Existing educational spaces typically privilege dominant norms, knowledge and experiences.

The notion of inclusion often entails those in positions of power (frequently white) inviting those from underrepresented groups into university settings while leaving dominant and exclusionary systems intact.

“Those implementing EDI initiatives often act as if current systems are beneficent and offer resources in an equitable manner.”

In this sense, inclusion can expect individuals from underrepresented groups to support systems that ensured their exclusion in the first place.  

A second problem with EDI efforts can be a focus on individual-level rather than system-level change.

Knowledge is not neutral

EDI efforts often articulate the importance of increasing individual levels of awareness, the number of members of underrepresented groups or programming efforts on specific topics.

Too often, such efforts are not accompanied by a) attention to how existing systems and norms might ensure inequity; b) an investment in changed practices (rather than simply awareness, which does not necessarily lead to change), c) the degree to and ways in which power and decision-making are shared; and d) how a university’s collective efforts are focused on equity.   

Finally, those implementing EDI initiatives often act as if current systems are beneficent and offer resources in an equitable manner. A related belief is that knowledge is impartial or neutral.

In university settings, both of these ideas are flawed.

First, systems, including institutions of higher learning, privilege and discriminate across different groups. Second, knowledge is always consequential: it acts in the world in specific ways, variously supporting or challenging the status quo.  

EDI initiatives that are successful over time and on a large scale will need to find ways to move beyond these three starting points.  

Next steps at Memorial University  

The below guidelines might inform EDI work at Memorial University.  

  • The success of EDI efforts at Memorial University will have a direct relationship to financial support for that office and related initiatives. 
  • Substantive change is difficult and will take time. Such change will require administrative staff, faculty and administrators to reflect on and change our worldview, and our ideas about our profession, role and discipline. 
  • Everyone at Memorial University has a responsibility to contribute to change. Change will ideally be led by and must be informed by racialized and Indigenous individuals. Increased attention to EDI can often result in increased demands of individuals from racialized and Indigenous communities, and requests of these individuals must be made thoughtfully. 
  • In doing the work of EDI, you might start by considering your home unit. How has it grappled with diversity? Is there an unspoken commitment to dominant norms? To what degree has it addressed representation, procedures and vision as related to EDI? 

As Memorial University deepens it commitment to equity, it will be crucial for those across the university to commit to educating ourselves, listening to others and working together.

We look forward to not only the appointment of a vice-provost (equity, diversity and inclusion) at Memorial University, but also widespread institutional change.  

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