Why equity, diversity and inclusion offices are failing us

I likely have a lack of innovation but hard to avoid the bureaucratic approach in large organizations as they grapple how to manage and implement policy and programs:

I have been writing and researching about Canada’s history of Blackface for over a decade. This work requires me to travel through history to a time when Black people were not seen as human and we had few rights. Because I do this work, I have a deep understanding of the development of human rights procedures and equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) offices.

I am a knowledge expert. And I unequivocally believe that EDI offices are failing us. Not because of a lack of talented or well-intentioned people, but because of a lack of courage to imagine new ways of problem solving that centre people, not procedures, processes, and paper trails.

By insisting on bureaucratic solutions to execute strategic plans and prioritizing institutional value statements, with well-thought-out bullet-point “action items” these offices take what Benjamin Ginsberg, author of “The Fall of the Faculty” has called, “the neo-liberal all-administrative university” approach.

This model of education privileges economic-based relationships, it treats students as customers — who are always right — and faculty, who are cast in the role of service providers rather than knowledge experts, as failed subjects when students file complaints against them to human rights services embedded within EDI offices.

There is little room, in the current system, for decision-making at the point of intake. Instead, every complaint is treated as a potential threat to the institution’s reputation and as a result, faculty suffer collateral damage in this process.

The ever-expanding “regime of bureaucratization,” as Amna Khalid described in an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has taken as its mission the fulfilment of student EDI demands at all costs, while weakening and undermining more meaningful EDI efforts, such as ongoing community engagement and knowledge-expert-driven ideation and collaboration.

Human rights services at Ontario universities have publicly available statements about their policies and procedures, which are informed and guided by the Ontario Human Rights Code. Created in 1961, Ontario was the first province to create a human rights code and a Human Rights Commission to enforce it.

Daniel G. Hill, a Black American who moved to Canada in the 1950s and who wrote a landmark dissertation, “Negroes In Toronto; A Sociological Study Of A Minority Group,” was the first chairman of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Hill often tackled racism head-on, in public forums, with Black community and the public present to bear witness to what discrimination actually looked like. In doing that, he transformed the human rights process into a community event, rather than a backroom investigation to serve measurable outcomes.

We live in different times. But EDI offices are taking the joy out of education because they resist collaborative, restorative approaches to conflict and instead cling to approaches that are too bureaucratic, dehumanizing, and almost solely focused on the document trail.

Inside these institutions there is a culture of fear and silence among faculty, staff and even decision makers, who are rendered powerless by procedures and policies that are just not working.

At the same time faculty are invaluable to the institution as knowledge experts, once they become embroiled in a complaint process, which can go on for an unspecified number of years, they become voiceless, powerless, and invisible.

I agree with blogger Jodre Datu, who in 2022 declared, “if EDI isn’t igniting joy, we’re doing it wrong.” In that post, they called for an overhaul of EDI that would not create environments in which people are afraid to say the wrong thing but instead EDI work would involve an entire restructuring of our workplaces and a reorganization of power.

I know I don’t speak for all academics and there are EDI people who will disagree with me. But good people are leaving universities — something I have even contemplated — because of the “business as usual” approach to conflict taken by EDI offices. No one wins with this approach. It ultimately feeds into the hands of racists, homophobic and transphobic hate, and in the long run, is harming our institutions.

Cheryl Thompson is an associate professor in Performance at The Creative School. She is also director and creative lead, The Laboratory for Black Creativity. Twitter @DrCherylT

Source: Why equity, diversity and inclusion offices are failing us

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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