Almost 8 per cent of international students at the U of O are Black and come from outside of Canada, and yet teaching staff does not reflect this statistic. Photo: Georgiana Ghitau/Fulcrum
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“Students need professors with whom they can identify,” says Mujawamariya

When professor Donatille Mujawamariya was first appointed to the Board of Governors, her initial reaction was one of surprise. Surprise, because what she had seen and experienced during her time at the University of Ottawa had not indicated to her that voices like hers were welcomed.

An additional burden of support

Born and raised in Africa, Mujawamariya completed her PhD in Rwanda before coming to Canada in 1987 to study. She began her career at the University of Ottawa in 1994, where she quickly became a support system and resource for racialized students.

“At the beginning of my career [at the U of O], I was having problems with my job because students would come to my office to sit and talk about their experiences and how bad they were being treated by other professors. Badly treated by my colleagues who were of course white, and complaining about their ways of thinking and writing,” said Mujawamariya.

Mujawamariya was investing the majority of her time listening and being there for her students. 

“I even asked my dean at the beginning of my career if it was possible to reduce my teaching load to make sure that I had time to listen to my students. Unfortunately, my dean said no. ‘You have been hired to be a professor, you have not been hired to be a counsellor,’ he said.”

The unseen labour and responsibilities of racialized professors that Mujawamariya describes happens at many universities, and is just one example of the consequences of the burden that not having a diverse teaching staff places on professors that are visible minorities.

Inequality in the field

According to recent data, only 21 per cent of full-time faculty members at Canadian universities are visible minorities or racialized people. The number is even lower for professors that are Indigenous. 

How can it be higher given how difficult it is for diverse individuals to succeed — or even enter — academia?

It comes as no surprise that academia has issues with race, with white faculty members being overrepresented and stories of diverse professors getting passed over again for tenure and leadership positions despite their qualifications running rampant. 

At the University of Ottawa, the Board of Governors is responsible for the University’s overall governance and management, and is comprised of a chair, vice-chair, appointed members (faculty and non-faculty), and elected student representatives.

Mujawamariya is a part of the University of Ottawa’s Board of Governors, representing the faculty of education, where, among other things, she advocates for the addition of diverse professors. Appointed in 2021, professor Mujawamariya is currently the only Black professor on the Board of Governors, and to her knowledge is the first professor who is a Black woman ever to be on the Board.

“The Board of Governors were having a meeting and they were talking about the diversity of students and saying that almost 8 per cent of international students at [the U of O] are Black and come from outside of Canada — coming from Africa and Francophones,” said Mujawamariya.

“Why, then,” asked Mujawamariya, “do we not hire professors who represent the diversity of the students we have? Students need professors with whom they can identify.” 

Efforts to diversify at the U of O

For the faculty of education, Mujawamariya is currently on a selection committee that is responsible for appointing one out of five professors. This professor must come from a diverse background.

“My faculty tells me, ‘We are working on it,’ and they are. I think the dean we have is taking this issue seriously,” said Mujawamariya.

“For the University, however, when I ask the same questions sitting on the Board of Governors meetings, they tell me they’re working on it, and we will see. But at least in the faculty of education, I can see the change happening.”

Mujawamariya recalls one particular statement that Jacques Frémont, the U of O’s president and vice-chancellor, gave during a Board of Governors meeting that illustrated her frustration.

“The president of the University has said the University of Ottawa relies on international students financially in order to run, and that the University of Ottawa is standing up because of international students. So we do have many students from different backgrounds that we admit and need. Especially Black students. So what about the professors?” said Mujawamariya.

International students pay more than twice the amount of tuition fees compared to domestic students, and yet, Mujawamariya expressed, their identities are not represented in the classroom.

There are some steps that the University has taken that Mujawamariya thinks are indications that it is moving in the right direction. For example, having a vice-president, international and Francophonie who is Black — Sanni Yaya.

“At least having a vice-president [Sanni Yaya] who is Black shows me some steps taken in the right direction that the University is taking. But, [the U of O] was created in 1848 and this is the first time they have had a Black person in this position,” said Mujawamariya.

Next steps

So what are the steps that can be taken to help this situation? Mujawamariya outlines a few measures that can be considered.

“In order to see where we are, we need to see and to listen to people who represent us. If we’re going to admit that the University of Ottawa relies on international students, then it’s important that teaching staff represent these students. Then students will be safer intellectually,” said Mujawamariya.

By being safer intellectually, Mujawamariya refers to the ability to freely and without penalty express opinion regardless of worldview in the classroom. 

“People [who] come from Africa don’t write or think the same way that people write or think in America or Canada. It’s important that when they go into a classroom, what they have to say is well-received and important. When they write assignments to the best of their abilities, they have to be recognized. The knowledge they bring has to be welcomed and recognized. There are professors that go ‘She doesn’t know how to write, she doesn’t know how to speak, she has an accent!’ Who doesn’t have an accent?” said Mujawamariya.

For students, a lack of diverse faculty has many consequences and can go so far as to affect career aspirations and choices about post-secondary education.

Mujawamariya said that the students we admit need a safe environment to feel welcome at this university in order to grow: we have to keep working and talking to students.

“We have to be the change we want. We know there are changes to be made. And we have to keep on working on those changes, and not saying ‘Oh, this is just how North America is. This is the way it is.’ We have to be working towards it,” said Mujawamariya. 

The Fulcrum reached out to the University of Ottawa regarding the future of diversifying teaching staff. Jill Scott, provost and vice-president, academic affairs, wrote in a statement to the Fulcrum that:

“The University is committed to increasing the number of racialized and Indigenous professors. We have been doing a lot of work to better understand the demographic of the student body, and it is clear that we need to do more to increase the diversity of our professors to match our student demographics.”

“This will be a long-term commitment but we are moving quickly. For example, seven positions were allocated in 2021-22 to Indigenous positions, above the five [positions allocated] for racialized [individuals]. But the total number of racialized hires far exceeds this. Unfortunately, we cannot go into greater details to respect the privacy of the individuals.”

As for concrete, actionable steps to diversify professorship, the University has not given a response nor has it laid out a tangible and transparent plan.

The next meeting of the Board of Governors is on Monday, March 7, 2022 at 4:00 p.m. You can follow on Twitter Charley Dutil, the Fulcrum’s editor-in-chief, who live tweets every meeting.