How do Canada's universities stack up against the world's best? The answer is: Meh. Maybe a handful rank among the global top 100. How many Nobel winners have we produced lately? Better not to ask.
But excellence is not the point of universities these days. Diversity is the point – not diversity of thought or intellect, but diversity of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. To achieve this goal, our universities have announced a major new initiative to collect and publish detailed demographic data on faculty, staff and students. The idea is to ensure that women, Indigenous people, academics with disabilities, and other underrepresented groups achieve equality of numbers.
This is a new goal. The old goal was academic excellence. And the old goal of equity programs was to make sure that everybody got an equal opportunity. Now the goal has switched to equal outcomes. Success has been redefined from hiring the best person for the job to making sure your demographics mirror the demographics of the general population.
"This university needs to have the best faculty possible to maintain its international position," one senior university person told me. As a veteran of more hiring committees than she can count, she has made great efforts to recruit students and faculty from visible minorities, often with considerable success. But now, she says, "The pendulum is swinging way too far."
The unexamined notion behind the diversity craze is that there is never any conflict between diversity and excellence. On the contrary, it's widely assumed that the more diverse the team or institution, the better the performance. In fact, there is no real evidence for this. Another fallacy is the assumption that skills, desires, preferences and motivation are evenly spread across all groups in society. If this is the case, then unequal outcomes must be due to systemic discrimination. Systemic discrimination is the legacy of our long history of colonization, white privilege, and unconscious bias against 'The Other.' And it's systemic discrimination – rather than preferences, skills, differences in family background, cultural differences, and so on – that overwhelmingly explain the shortage of female math professors, the scarcity of Indigenous medical students, the underrepresentation of "racialized" lawyers in the top ranks of big-city law firms and the poor marks of certain groups of students in the school system.
Despite substantial progress, decades of affirmative action have not entirely fixed these historic imbalances in outcomes. To get around this problem, more and more institutions have decided to fast-track the process by dropping the pretense that people from dominant groups are welcome to apply. The mathematics school at the University of Melbourne in Australia is currently advertising for females only. The University of Manitoba's bachelor of education program has set quotas for its new students as follows: Indigenous, Métis or Inuit (15 per cent), persons with disabilities (7.5 per cent), LGBTQ (7.5 per cent), racialized minorities (7.5 per cent) and "socially disadvantaged" (7.5 per cent). The University of Saskatchewan is advertising a tenure-track position in the faculty of arts and science – in any rank or any field, so long as the candidate is Indigenous.
These days, hardly anyone argues that the current disparities in certain fields are caused by overt acts of sexism and racism. Instead, the problems are said to be systemic. They are invisible, pervasive and impossible to resolve until the ruling classes admit their hidden biases and privilege.
That is the tenor of an exhaustive new report issued by Ontario's law society, which has attracted a fair amount of controversy because it demands that lawyers swear a personal commitment to diversity. The report begins by asserting that systemic racism runs rampant in the legal profession. This racism can only be overcome by a massive program of re-education, statistics-keeping and a commitment to equality of outcomes in every aspect of the law. (Never mind that the number of "racialized" lawyers in Ontario rose from 9 per cent in 2001 to nearly 20 per cent in 2014).
The report explains that systemic racism is rooted in the traditional supremacy of white men, who unwittingly hold back everybody else. As Janet Leiper, the co-chair of the working group that issued the report, told the CBC, "It's about saying, look, we live in a culture that was settled by white settlers."
No one would argue that discrimination has magically ceased to exist, or that we have reached a perfectly fair and just society. We never will. But the argument that equal outcomes are the one true measure of equality is corrosive. It means we're doomed to see people through the prism of race and gender instead of talent and achievement. It means that people who refuse to reverse discriminate will be perceived as racist. It means that some people will have to go to the back of the bus because, for whatever reasons, their ancestors were at the front of the bus.
Maybe you think it's fine to rectify past injustices with fresh ones. Maybe you think diversity matters more than excellence. In that case, you're going to make a very fine university administrator. Because that's their job these days.