The Current

U of T students protest lack of diversity on all-white social inequality panel

The student protest of a university event which asked if social inequality is "a real problem," raises questions about a lack of diversity in Canada's academic institutions.
A controversial University of Toronto panel has sparked discussion about a lack of diverse representation in Canadian academic institutions. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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When protesters crashed a talk at the University of Toronto earlier this week, the topic of discussion was an important one  — "social inequality."

But according to the advertisements, one of the principle areas of debate was whether social inequality is indeed "a real problem."

The framing of inequality as a question, and the lack of diversity represented on the all-white and mostly male panel mobilized students to speak out against their university.

Sarah Kaplan, the director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy and the only women on the inequality panel, said she "honours" the students who protested.

Even Kaplan, who was included on the panel to offer "a different point of you," was invited only a week before the event.

She tells The Current's guest host Piya Chattopadhyay that the panel was an important learning moment for the university.

"Everytime I see an all-male panel, I roll my eyes,' says Sarah Kaplan. (Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto)

"We do have an elite that is dominated by white men, and … we're going to have to think about how we're going to change that."

Stephen Rupp, acting principal of Victoria College at the University of Toronto, agrees the problem stems from a lack of diversity in positions of power.

"You have institutional structures; certain people have influence in those structures, and they tend to repeat themselves. Part of the remedy is to pay attention to these processes."

Rinaldo Walcott, professor and director of the Women & Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, maintains there are plenty of marginalized folks who study issues related to inequality that can speak with greater authority than any white person on the topic.

"The reality is that questions of inequality — social, economic, and otherwise — are deeply implicated with questions of race," he tells The Current

"We've seen a number of white men return to the stage to shepherd this conversation and what they never talk about is who are the people suffering from inequality. They never give them a name and a face. But they're black people, they're Indigenous people, they're trans people, they're the working poor, largely people of colour and so on."

Like Kaplan, Walcott supports the protesters, but says he was by no means surprised when he heard of the controversy. 

"Panels like that happen every day, every week, every month in Canadian universities."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin and Yamri Taddese.