Kitchener-Waterloo

Academic says universities too worried about bad PR to deal with systemic racism

A University of Waterloo dean says the institution’s recent attempts to address anti-Black racism show a greater concern for public relations than for creating real change.

Anti-racism task force lacks consultation with Black faculty, says Kofi Campbell

Kofi Campbell, dean and VP academic at Renison University College, says he thinks the university is more concerned with public relations than with addressing anti-Black racism. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

A University of Waterloo dean says the institution's recent attempts to address anti-Black racism show a greater concern for public relations than for creating real change.

Kofi Campbell is vice-president academic and dean of Renison University College, which is affiliated with the university.

Campbell said recent moves by the university speak to a similar problem of administrators making decisions, purportedly to help Black faculty and students, but without actually consulting them.

Earlier this month, the university issued a statement saying the N-word has no place on campus, in response to a change.org petition that called on the university to reprimand a St. Jerome's University professor who reportedly used the word in class.

The problem, Campbell said, is that many Black faculty members engage with that word as part of their work. Issuing a blanket statement against the word hindered their ability to teach and to do research, he said.

'Chilling effect'

"The message was crafted and posted without any consultation with the Black faculty on campus, essentially the people who were most affected and who had the most to gain and to lose from such a statement," Campbell told CBC News.

"If any of us had looked at that statement, we would've been able to explain to them exactly why it was a bad idea, how it goes against academic freedom and how it put a very chilling effect on our ability to do our work."

The university later retracted that statement, saying it did not live up to their standards for promoting free inquiry. The university also said it would use an anti-racism task force to better understand and deal with issues of racism.

But Campbell said Black faculty members had not initially been consulted about that task force, either. He told CBC News he has questions remaining about the makeup of the task force, whether the work will be compensated and whether it will have any real power to make change.

Campbell said he was glad to see the university taking action and responding to criticism. But, he said, both instances demonstrated a lack of consultation he found troubling. 

"It tells us the university, in many ways, is reproducing these structures of historical racism by speaking about its racialized faculty, speaking on behalf of its racialized faculty, but not  actually speaking to those faculty members," he said.

"It's an indicator of the precise kind of systemic racism that the university keeps swearing to fight against."

Statements issued by Wilfrid Laurier University have also been the target of recent criticism, Campbell noted. 

Universities respond

In a statement to CBC News, University of Waterloo spokesperson Rebecca Elming says "as our president made clear when he announced the President's Anti-racism Task force, we know we have more work to do to advance equity for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) on our campus."

The task force will be led by co-chairs who are Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, the statement said. 

The statement goes on to say the university is listening and consulting with BIPOC faculty members, students and staff and has started delivering anti-racism training to senior leaders.

CBC News also reached out to Wilfrid Laurier University for a response. 

"President MacLatchy replied to their letter to reaffirm that as an institution Laurier is committed to taking action in collaboration with Black, Indigenous and racialized members of the Laurier community," said Laurier spokesperson Graham Mitchell.

"She also offered an in-person meeting with senior Laurier leaders to discuss their concerns," the statement said.

Broader issue

Campbell said the events of recent weeks speak to a broader issue within academia. Universities are often reluctant to talk openly about racism because, he said, they hate bad publicity.  

"As soon as you begin to engage with these issues in any sort of deep and sustained and really meaningful way, of course one has to acknowledge one's own complicity," Campbell said.

"For a university to deal with this, it's going to have to be willing to hear some very hard truths about itself and about its faculty, its administrative structure, about the various kinds of systemic racism that are a part of that university historically and to this day."

To truly fight systemic racism, Campbell said universities need to take an honest look at where they've failed in the past, and listen to feedback from current faculty and students. Going forward, they need to recruit and hire students, faculty and administrators of colour, and give them the power to make decisions.  

Campbell said universities delay dealing with these issues at their own risk.

"The world has changed and people will absolutely make decisions about whether to attend your university based on how well you do on these issues," he said.

"If you're a university that very clearly doesn't care about race, ultimately that will catch up with you and students will begin to vote with their feet."

About the Author

Paula Duhatschek

Reporter/Editor

Paula Duhatschek is a reporter with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo. You can reach her at paula.duhatschek@cbc.ca.

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