The language of equity and diversity in the academy

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Malinda S. Smith, Vice-President, Equity Issues

“The term diversity is ubiquitous in university mission statements, strategic plans, recruitment brochures, and university websites.” This observation led two scholars to analyse more closely how the language of diversity is used in various university texts and contexts. Their findings recently were published in an international journal on diversity. The article compares the language of diversity used by elite universities in the United States and the United Kingdom, and offers insights for Canadian universities and colleges.

What are universities or organisations saying to themselves and to the world outside of academia when they use the language of ‘diversity’? Does this language signal a fundamental shift in their policies and practices? The short answer is, of course, 'yes' and 'no' or 'it depends'. One of Kathleen O’Mara and Liz Morrish’s conclusions is that, “[d]iscursively embracing diversity commits institutions to recognizing little difference, and certainly not to institutional or structural change, rather diversity is seen as the property of individuals, and is congruent with the project of the neoliberal university.”  The ubiquity of diversity in university documents may coexist with deep structural and institutional inequities.

So what does the use of diversity signify in these texts? Using techniques of corpus linguistics, the authors examined the patterns of use of diversity in university documents. Previously undertaken by hand, corpus linguistics and powerful software such as Oxford Wordsmith Tools now allow deeper analysis of the kinds of research undertaken and questions analyzed in linguistics. The article offers a cautionary tale about the uses of the language of diversity.

Corpus linguistics and computer-assisted analysis allowed O’Mara and Morrish to compare and contrast the use of diversity language in large collections of university texts.  Focusing on diversity statements, the scholars looked at three things: first, the frequency of the statement; second,  its environment or context (concordance); and, third, the company it keeps (collocations).

The word frequency analysis of the diversity statements suggests that they are largely made up of semantically vague lexical items – Strategically Deployable Shifters – which contribute little to the overall meanings of the statements. These words, e.g. excellence, diversity, respect, even equality are multi-functional, polysemic abstractions which invoke fair play.

The differences in the language of diversity used in mission statements and strategic plans in the United States and the United Kingdom are so significant, the authors conclude, “that they cannot be said to conform to the same ‘genre’.” For example, among, “UK Russell group diversity statements display a modality position of certainty, which resonates with the noun commitment. In contrast, US Research university diversity statements are formulated more as aspirations, and focus on benefit to the community, but claim a less certain outcome.”

This new research reinforces an earlier conclusion of British cultural studies scholar Sara Ahmed, who argued that in contemporary institutional contexts characterised by audits and inspection, words like equality, equity, and diversity tend to be taken up as forms of institutional performance and measurement.

Some organisations generate systems of diversity for inspectors that are not actually operationalised in any meaningful way. The focus on producing a ‘diverse’ image can function to ‘hide’ the lack of diversity in organisations, and can even be a technology for reproducing that lack, as if organisations already have diversity by virtue of projecting the right image.

There are pros to the language of diversity and also cons, including the word’s multiple and shifting uses.  Sara Ahmed suggests the language of diversity is attractive precisely because it readily comports with organisational ideals and organisational pride. What makes diversity useful in institutional contexts also makes it somewhat limited, particularly when it becomes detached from lived experiences and the history of struggles for equality and social justice.

Diversity is sometimes used as a synonym for equity in the academy, especially in conservative environments where there are claims of ‘equity fatigue’. At other times, diversity may be a liberal way of signalling expanded commitment to equity by including, for example, LGBT issues or progressive movement along an equity continuum.

While equity and diversity may be complementary, there are important differences.  One necessary distinction is between equity – with its connection to historical and legal struggles and justifications for equality – and diversity, which may be entirely dependent on instrumental institutional factors. One of the strengths of the legislative frameworks for equity is that human rights objectives are identified and articulated in a public process, and in compliance with constitutional principles. Universities are responsible for addressing inequities by ensuring processes and outcomes that are open and fair, institutional climates that are welcoming and environments that are inclusive.

Although there are many productive ways in which the language of diversity may be used in the academy, those differences are not always clear. Diversity may refer to people, or ‘who’ we are or may become when fair employment processes increase the representation of women, Aboriginal people, racialised minorities, and persons with disabilities.  Increasingly universities, colleges and scholarly associations are invoking the language of diversity to characterize their employment equity strategies as forwarding-looking and proactive measures to build work places and organizations that reflect Canada’s diversity.

A second use of diversity in the academy may refer to ‘what’ we do and ‘how’ we engage in our vocation, that is, through our multiple disciplines, bodies of knowledge, competing ideas, theoretical and methodological perspectives, varied pedagogical practices and innovative forms of knowledge translation and dissemination.

Third, diversity may refer to initiatives to assist low-income students and to bridge the rural-urban divide in national spaces.  In this way, diversity also is invoked in internationalisation strategies aimed at recruiting students from non-traditional places like India, China and Brazil.

A fourth use of diversity is by national membership organizations, where diversity refers to types of member associations as well as their raison d’être and forms of geographical and linguistic representation.

A fifth use of the word diversity is in global university ranking systems. One criterion is “institutional diversity,” that is, the kinds of institutions, their raison d’être, and their impact in various national and cultural contexts. One former British university vice-chancellor has suggested that the “pursuit of institutional diversity, despite its iconic standing in university systems worldwide, is a chimera.” Universities worldwide are busy chasing the same things and this leads to less differentiation and greater homogeneity.

In a discussion of the politics and contexts of diversity documentation, Sara Ahmed cautioned that we should not confuse “doing the document” with “doing the doing.” There is a difference between the ubiquity of diversity ‘documents’ and the realities of ‘doing’ or achieving diversity. Although Ahmed focused on the Race Relations Amendment Act in the United Kingdom, her analysis is also relevant for that country’s Equality Act and Canada’s Employment Equity Act. In neither case should we confuse the existence of equity or diversity in public documents with diverse and equitable practices and outcomes.

Legislation does shape in new ways the ‘politics of documentation.’ Diversity documentation is part of the new matrices of institutional performance. Writing documents that explicitly express a commitment to promoting equity and diversity is part of doing equity work. In an audit culture, the mere existence of diversity documents may be seen as “signs of good performance, as expressions of commitment and as descriptions of organizations as ‘being’ diverse.”

Given the politics of documentation, there is need for healthy scepticism. “Rather than assuming such documents do what they say,” Ahmed suggests, we must, “follow such documents around” and analyze if and how they get taken up and what kinds of outcomes they generate. We must assess what such documents ‘do’, and what changes – if any – flow from them. If we fail to go beyond the document, we may miss whether such documents actually do what they say, whether they actually achieve results, and whether they actually engender greater equity and diversity.

Perhaps the biggest caution is this:  Diversity documentation may function to conceal both existing and new forms of inequity and the gap between words and deeds. While equity and diversity documents may articulate institutional commitments, and may inspire an organisation’s members, they also pose risks. Sometimes the mere existence of such documents may give the impression that change is underway. However, without clear mechanisms and benchmarks to assess institutional performance, it is difficult to assess outcomes. We must look beyond the documents.

Equity and diversity are two complementary pursuits in the 21st century academy. Achieving equity and diversity requires more than inspirational mission statements, strategic plans, dynamic websites; they require turning words into deeds, and aspirations into best practices. The best practices for achieving equity and diversity include identifying benchmarks for assessing results over time. The best ways to reflect commitment to equity and diversity include documentation, benchmarks, accountable leadership and modelling the desired outcomes. 

Malinda S. Smith is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta and the Federation’s vice-president, Equity Issues.


Equity Matters


Interculturalism and pluralism


One of the ways in which we might pursue "doing the document," or at least try to "follow it around," is to consider the structural, theoretical, and actual relations between university faculty associations, their administrative counterparts (e.g., Office of Faculty Relations), and Human Rights and/or Equity Offices on our respective campuses. What are the lines of reporting? What kinds of issues are handled by the faculty association and which ones by the Equity Office? Is there any cross-training here? Who does the training? Where's the follow-up (beyond the reporting required by the FCP or specific provincial regulations)? Another concern that sifts through all of these structural, theoretical, and actual relations is the necessity for confidentiality: when does this necessity become an alibi for failure of transparency about process?
Thank you, V-P (Equity) Smith, and everyone who has contributed to the Equity Matters blog. These sustained messages, and the links to further reading and research embedded in them, should be required reading for all faculty associations and university exec's, and everyone in between. I am looking forward to the live conversation on Aboriginal Education provided by Equity Issues programming and UNB, and with support from Athabasca U, U Alberta, and U Western Ontario, at Congress 2011.