Former chair, U of O prof calls for change to ‘systemic discrimination problem’

The University of Ottawa has failed to meet all four equity targets in nominating research chairs set by the Canada Research Chairs (CRC) Program, a federal program enacted to attract and retain academic talent, in which the U of O is a member.

Last month the chairperson of the CRC Program published an open letter on behalf of the program’s steering committee, which urged university presidents in the program to make a “concerted effort to address the under representation of the four designated groups (women, Aboriginal Peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities) in nominations for Canada Research Chair positions.”

The letter also notes the “very slow progress being made” with respect to greater representation of the four aforementioned groups in the program.

Data from January 2016, obtained in a freedom of information request, shows that the targets for women and visible minorities are 31 per cent and 15 per cent of chair holders at the U of O, respectively. The university scored under these targets with a 23 per cent and 7 per cent occupancy rate for women and visible minorities, respectively.

Similarly, the targets for Aboriginal and disabled people are 4 per cent and 1 per cent, respectively, while the report indicates that there are no chairs at the university from either of these groups as of January 2016.

U of O law professor and former Canada Research Chair holder Amir Attaran said that in the decade the equity targets have been in place, the U of O has not just failed to meet the four targets, but has actually reversed their progress.

“When Allan Rock arrived as president we were in compliance with the visible minority target,” said Attaran, who filed a grievance against the university after his chair position was not renewed last year.

“Since that time we have gone backwards. Under Mr. Rock this university has gone from compliance, partial compliance, to full on violation and systemic discrimination.”

Attaran alleges that part of the problem is “unwillingness” of Dr. Mona Nemer, vice-president of research at the U of O, to nominate people from the target groups for chair positions.

“I know several instances where Dr. Nemer turned down people’s nominations, not because of a lack of merit … there appears to be some hostility on Dr. Nemer’s part to the issue of equity.”

Nemer and Rock were not made available for an interview upon request by the Fulcrum, but Néomie Duval, media relations manager for the U of O, said in an email that “the university recently created a new position, director of gender equity and diversity, to address university gender equity concerns expressed by academics and the U of O community.”

In addition, Duval said the equity target tables are “a snapshot of the statistics at that very moment,” and that “the tables do not reflect vacancies or any researcher who may have completed their mandate before the report was published.”

She also noted that researchers must self-identify in their CRC application to be represented in the equity data, and that many professors and researchers choose to not self-identify for their own personal reasons.

According to Attaran, another issue is the lack of access to information about the university’s performance in meeting the equity targets. He said that the university provided him with statistics on occupancy for the target groups through a freedom of information request, but alleges that the federal government “censored it.”

“If the university doesn’t fix the situation it’s fully subject to litigation,” said Attaran, who has also had discussions with the federal government to “push them in the direction of disclosure.”

“It’s been apparent to me for some time that visible minorities and Aboriginal and disabled people are not getting chairs at the U of O, and that we have a systemic discrimination problem.”

You can find more information about the Canada Research Chairs program and their equity targets here.