How dare UBC take diversity so seriously?

It has been a year since UBC announced its very first …“president of colour”. And as of yesterday, UBC-Vancouver has its very first woman provost. On the surface, these look like de-facto corollaries of a post-racial, post-sexist era, at a post-modern university whose student body looks futuristic in its amazing diversity. Don’t be fooled!

Right after the announcement of Arvind Gupta as the 13th president of UBC, I was approached by two students.  The first: Woah! I was so surprised, mostly because I was so expecting a tall white silver-haired man to come out from behind that curtain. The second: Thank you the search committee for breaking the glass ceiling. OK! Full disclosure. Both students were non-white.

Anyone who has been following John Montalbano’s public activities in the past two years must not be surprised by this fortuitous turn of events. John, who is the current Chair of UBC’s Board of Governors, has made it a personal crusade to promote women and diversity in business leadership. He has donated hard cash for the establishment of a Chair focused on these issues at the Sauder School. The first holder of the chair, Jennifer Berdahl, is nothing short of a godsend present to UBC. A world-renowned expert on the subject, who is fully committed to making a difference, Jennifer’s scholarly and outreach impact is already palpable.

John is not someone to shy away from talking boldly, often to a surprised press, about his own experiences, but also about his plans for all kind of glass ceilings whose times are up. “The manager with a double-barrelled, Anglo-Saxon name smiled. He listed the named partners and recited those not listed on the company letterhead. All were Anglo-Saxon. At the end, the banker added, “Montalbano … Now, tell me. Which one doesn’t fit?”

I can’t remember when I became sensitized to issues of diversity in our circles. I do remember however, how impressed I was by the appointment of a certain Dean of Applied Science at UBC back in 2008. Non-white, Woman, Muslim, and a maverick, who rides a motorcycle while wearing a discrete –probably more Chanel made than Al-Azhar approved– scarf, the new dean was joining what seemed to be an exclusive all-white, men-only fraternity of UBC deans.

Yes, the new comer had already been Dean of Engineering at Ottawa and had been awarded the Order of Ontario among other distinctions, but that was central Canada, which seems to be miles ahead of the West about these issues. Alas, the “experiment” was to be short-lived and the Dean didn’t last long. Should I have raised the issues more loudly as a UBC governor? I shall never know, but the episode did strike a chord.

So, I started looking around me beginning with my own mathematics department. Like many other STEM related units, we are constantly struggling with the challenges of recruiting women to join the faculty ranks. Substantial progress was made in the past decade, but there is still much to be done to properly address gender disparity in the Canadian Academy. Just look at the powerful message that our UBC colleagues, Judy Illes and Catherine Anderson, sent last week to the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. They make us proud.

What also needs to be said is that our record on non-gender related diversity is nothing short of embarrassing. I personally find it astonishing that a university, which was publicly accused of being “too Asian” because of its student population, never had to answer to the obvious lack of diversity in both its professorial and senior administrative ranks. This does not only apply to VPs, Deans and their associates but also to department heads. The history of my own department on this issue is nothing to gloat about either, though I am very proud with how ethnically diverse my own PDE/Geometry research group is.

Back to the beginning, we are of course thrilled that UBC-Vancouver (see comments below) has decided at last that a woman could be the Chief Academic Officer of the University. The question now is whether this new –though still meager– dose of diversity in UBC leadership is already too much for some to swallow.

This latest episode in the relatively slow process of changing the UBC administrative guard by a new president comes at an interesting juncture. Anji Redish replaces a sitting provost whose priorities, style, ways, and demeanor have, over the past 8 years, made the world of the club of deans very comfortable in their –let’s say– autonomous ways.

It should be fascinating to watch the dynamics between the new non-male boss, who is obviously supported by a non-white president, and all the know-how, the experience and the pedigree that supposedly only people with the right gender, the right color, and the right “values” can have in order to lead a gloriously Asian university such as ours.

I say, get used to it!

I say, get used to the open discussions about it!

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5 Responses to How dare UBC take diversity so seriously?

  1. Adam Schubel says:

    note UBC proudly welcomed a woman provost in Jan 2014 with appointment of Dr Cynthia Mathieson @ UBCO 🙂 https://news.ok.ubc.ca/2014/01/22/new-provost-a-respected-leader-at-ubcs-okanagan-campus/

  2. Ghoussoub says:

    I stand corrected as I was obviously focused on UBC-Vancouver, … which should lead to another blogpost: Why are we still stuck with our own two “solitudes”, who is responsible, and what should we do to accelerate the academic integration of the two campuses?

  3. Minelle Mahtani says:

    Having visited and taught on both campuses I can say that much works needs to be done on communicating a university-wide vision of inclusion as narrated in the Nakata/Iyer report from a few years ago on diversity. Not enough conversation between the two campuses.

  4. Pingback: Beyond UBC’s clumsy announcement regarding Gupta’s resignation | Piece of Mind

  5. Curious... says:

    Reading this today sounds spookyly prophetic – all the players in the ubc drama in one piece

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