Canada's universities will collect and make public demographic data on faculty, staff and students as part of a plan to increase the diversity and inclusion of their campus communities.
The promise is included in a five-year strategy, called the Action Plan for Inclusive Excellence, agreed to by all university presidents across the country and made public on Thursday morning.
It comes in the midst of other discussions about what postsecondary institutions must do to ensure that their top ranks are reflective of the growing diversity of the country and of even wider debates about how race, gender and ethnicity play a role in campus conflicts.
"We will in essence challenge ourselves by being public with our data," said Mike Mahon, the chair of Universities Canada's board of directors, the national advocacy group representing all of Canada's universities.
"An institution is going to say to itself, 'If this data is going to be public, we want it to look as best as it can.' It's a simple approach called self-monitoring. If we have public self-monitoring, change will happen," said Dr. Mahon, who is also president of the University of Lethbridge.
Each university already has its own system of gathering demographic information.
However, creating a national database will require them to co-ordinate, allowing comparisons across the country.
"We will be transparent and accountable, but I don't think you'll see us doing rankings and report cards," said Paul Davidson, the president of Universities Canada, the national lobby group representing universities that released the strategy.
Initially there had been some concern about the plan infringing on each institution's autonomy, he said, "but we want to make sure that the principles are not just a piece of paper."
The promise to address under-representation of some groups in areas where it may occur, whether it's the lack of Indigenous students in professional faculties or women in leadership posts, comes as universities are discussing how to meet equity targets in the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program. By Dec. 15, institutions must show that they have created action plans to increase the diversity of candidates for the talent recruitment and retention program. Canada's research granting councils fund the CRC with $265-million for 1,600 top academics every year.
But schools have consistently failed to meet equity targets set by the program's steering committee. Academics with disabilities are particularly poorly represented among CRC holders. Should universities continue to miss their targets, they have been warned by the program's directors that they will see some of the funding for the program withheld.
Discussions on the five-year strategy have occurred separately from addressing the equity goals of the CRC program.
But the strategy will help universities appoint diverse Canada Research Chairs by working to increase the pool of candidates many years before they would be eligible for such prestigious positions, Dr. Mahon said.
"We are talking about broadening the pool not only at the undergraduate level, but even at junior high school and high-school level to encourage people to aspire to university," he said. "It's a reverse funnel where we begin to broaden out these pools starting in junior high school and moving all the way through."
Many of the other points of the five-year plan are aimed at removing hiring biases or encouraging academics from under-represented groups to try for leadership posts.
University leaders are already taking action on some fronts, said Dawn Russell, president of St. Thomas University and a member of the University Women's Leadership Advisory Group. Two years ago, the group – made up of four female university presidents – began an effort to improve the number of female university presidents in Canada. Already, the percentage of female presidents has gone up to 25 per cent from 20 per cent, she said.
"So there is progress. We have talked to search committees about the role of a president. Do they look for things in candidates that are not going to contribute to the university community?" Dr. Russell said.
"We have talked about the role of unconscious bias. … We need to make sure that hiring practices are not barriers to hiring and promotion," she said.