Hopefulness and commitment to change highlight Western University’s town hall on racism

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A virtual town hall meeting struck a hopeful and determined tone, two days after the release of a report that outlined the insidious nature of racism embedded throughout the institution of Western University.

The report was compiled by the Anti-Racism Working Group, which was formed in the wake of a high-profile incident last fall involving a student who was subjected to racist emails after she raised concerns over a professor’s use of a racial epithet.

The report’s findings suggested that the anti-Black racism the student endured was “not isolated or singular in nature,” but was part of “a deeply entrenched anti-Black legacy that remains pervasive — evident to those who live it, but hidden from, willfully ignored, or denied by those who don’t.”

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At Wednesday’s town hall, and in the report itself, Western University President Alan Shepard was commended for his efforts in starting the conversation and his apparent commitment to real change.

Shepard has been in the role less than a year after officially taking over as president on July 1, 2019.

“We heard the importance of timelines and transparency,” said Lisa Highgate, working group co-lead.

“Our campus community has been eagerly awaiting change,” Highgate added, noting, “the importance of representation at every level of the institutional structure and the importance of adequate support and financial investment to fully support the principles of EDI [equity, diversity and inclusion] within our institution.

“This work of disrupting racism and oppression in all forms needs to be an institutional priority and it is work that Dr. Shepherd is prioritizing. I’m optimistic on where this will lead.”

The report made numerous recommendations and Shepard released a statement earlier this week outlining what steps he was immediately committing to, adding that “all of the recommendations are helpful, and will be addressed as we move ahead.”

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During Wednesday’s town hall, Shepard said he hopes to raise a recommendation with the board of governors next fall to move forward with plans to create a senior role at the university to lead EDI efforts.

“In the meantime, we can get started now by my creating a special advisor in my office. We’ll do that this summer. And I anticipate running a full regular search for the AVP (associate vice president) position that will commence once we get approval from the board, assuming we do, which I’m sure we will,” Shepard said.

“These things are never as fast as you want them to be. But I am somebody who likes to do what I say I’m going to do so that’s where I’m headed.”

Shepard also suggested at one point during the town hall that efforts should be made to maintain momentum on the issue in the future.

“I also imagine like an annual report to the community on some metrics on how we’re doing. These are important issues and not to sort of be the thème du jour then like next year, there’s another topic or something like that,” he said.

“This is an ongoing project. It’s a multi-year culture change project and it’s super important. I think sustained attention to it will be really beneficial not only to people in the racialized groups, but to everybody — to the whole university, to its future, to its alumni, to London.

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“I think it will be good. I think it will be very, very good.”

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The town hall involved numerous questions related to hiring practices within the university and whether plans are in the works to hire more faculty, staff, and leaders that reflect the diversity of the student body and surrounding community.

To that end, Shepard said there are “hopes” rather than concrete plans.

“Across Canada, one of the big shifts was the Canada Research Chair Program, in which the initial — for those of you who pay attention to these things, you’ll remember that — the initial ones, there were almost no women nevermind anyone from racialized groups. It was all pretty much all white men in the first round few years ago.

“The federal government was making a big push on this and I think it’s been inspiring universities to feel like they can also they could push on this.”

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Karen Campbell, vice-provost of academic planning, policy and faculty, noted that in 2019, Western “ran a specialized competition of our Canada Research Chair Program search and we sought applications only from equity-seeking candidates. And in fact, at the end of that particular round of applications, we had 14 available CRC slots and we had 280 applications from qualified individuals.”

“I think that we actually moved the needle more significantly by having a special program rather than simply applying principles of equity to an unspecialised program. And certainly the Ontario Human Rights Code gives us scope to run special programs, so I think certainly these are ideas worth considering in the go forward.”

On the staff side, associate vice-president of human resources Jane O’Brien said they have not done any specialised programs but that it is their next focus. She added they have “improved overall representation within certain occupational groups, but we have areas to move forward in, in some supervisor and professional roles.”

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Specific to students, associate vice-president of student experience Jennie Massey noted that the school “fairly recently” opened the Office of Student Support and Case Management.

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“Which is where our gender-based violence and code of conduct investigation and responsive care is situated, in part because we heard from our students that they wanted one place to go to be able to bring forward a complaint and seek a resolution.”

Massey added that the school also recently hired a coordinator of equity diversity and inclusion education.

“She’s working very closely with student organizations like the Black Student Association to make sure that we’re providing space for their voices to be heard at decision-making tables consistently and also to design student leader training.”

Additionally, the town hall specifically addressed the pain caused by the controversial work of Western psychology professor Philippe Rushton, who propagated “epistemic racial violence under the guise of ‘scientific research’ in the late 1980s and 1990s.”

Dr. Erica Lawson, report co-lead and Western University associate professor and undergraduate chair of women’s studies and feminist research, noted early on in the town hall that Rushton’s work highlights the issue of whose voices are heard and whose are ignored.

“For me, this is quite personal. I remember quite clearly the profound hurt and deep wounds that this research caused to me, family members, friends and I think fair to say, the entire Black community in Toronto where I was living at the time. There are students today now in middle age who left Western because of Rushton. And there are people on our campus today who live with those painful memories from that time,” she explained.

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“I was really struck by Dr. Shepard’s apology and really quite grateful, and to the psychology department for its follow up statement. But the point is that Rushton is emblematic of something deeper that should never have been allowed and should never have been allowed to carry out the research he did.”

During the question and answer section of the town hall, Shepard was asked to speak more about his apology.

“I wasn’t going to comment on his research because I’m not a specialist in those fields and I don’t want to make this an argument about academic freedom. I wanted to say … many people, many, many people, as Erica said earlier, were deeply disturbed by what he was saying and promoting and scientists who work in his area very deeply challenged him at the time and continue to challenge that work,” Shepard explained.

“I wanted to focus on the pain that I thought, that was real pain — moral pain, probably physical pain — that people experienced. And I thought that was the right thing to do and that is the proper role of a president. And I felt it was ultimately the right thing to do. So that’s why I did it.”

The statement from the psychology department does delve into the merit, or lack thereof, of Rushton’s research, noting that it is “deeply flawed” from a scientific standpoint, in addition to “ethical concerns about the nature and funding of his research.”

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The statement goes on to say: Rushton’s works on “race and intelligence” are based on an incorrect assumption that fuels systemic racism, the notion that racialized groups are concordant with patterns of human ancestry and genetic population structure. This idea is rejected by analysis of the human genome: racialized groups are not distinct genetic populations. What Rushton described as “races” are a socially created categories, and do not reflect patterns of human inheritance or genetic population structure.

In closing statements, Shepard noted that these are “difficult conversations” but that he’s optimistic that Western has “the moxie, the wherewithal and the ambition to keep moving ahead in real ways on these critical paths.”

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