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Employment "Equity" Steamrolls Conservative Government


Employment "equity" policies and practices at Ontario universities continue unabated, despite the election in 1995 of a conservative government committed to eliminating racist and gender-based quotas from government hiring practices.

Originally entitled "Rae-to-Harris Shift Has No Apparent Effect on Universities' Commitment to Employment Equity"


John J. Furedy

 Author Notes

Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto, Former President (1993-8) of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) and Vice-president for International Affiliation, Foundation for the Advancement of Sexual Equity (FASE)

 Essay - 1/8/2001

The intellectual quality or academic merit of a university's faculty is important not only for each institution, but also for everyone in the country. In Canada, the most critical determinant of average faculty merit is the decision made when hiring faculty at the junior (assistant-professor) level into the "tenure stream". Since the seventies, these positions have been widely advertised in North America, and the university selects the winner from applicants who have answered the advertisement. The positions are "tenure-stream", because after a period of about 5-6 years, the individual is considered for tenure, which, if granted, provides a position until retirement unless gross negligence or criminal behaviour is exhibited. In contrast to some Ivy League universities where only a small minority are granted tenure, the rate of obtaining tenure at Canadian universities is high -- about 80% to 90%. So for practical purposes, it is the decision made at the tenure-stream stage that is most influential in determining the quality of the faculty at Canadian universities.

The bases for making the tenure-stream decisions are many and complex, but the wording of a university's tenure stream advertisement is an indirect indication of the institution's relative commitment to the conflicting principles of employment equity as against merit. The degree of this commitment can vary considerably even if, as is the case on Canadian campuses, all universities have an employment equity policy (if only to ensure that they are eligible for federal funding, and are seen as conforming to the 1986 federal employment equity law). For example, as Stewart Page reported in his "On the daily vicissitudes of equity-based hiring" in the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship Newsletter #22 (June 1999, pp. 2-5), in some universities the equity officers can exert quite direct pressures on departmental chairs regarding job advertisements and decisions on appointments. Again, there are federal awards for a university's commitment to equity, and York University retains the distinction of the only Canadian university that has won a federal Equity Award (in 1994). In other universities, the "balance" is tilted more in favour of merit, which is said to be the primary criterion. Still, for example at the University of Toronto, the Status of Women equity officer meets with every hiring committee, and asks pointed questions if, for instance, the short list does not have any women on it.

Funded by the Donner Canadian Foundation and the Horowitz Foundation, some students and I have been engaged in what I have called "judgmental content analysis" of the wording of advertisements for Canadian tenure-stream arts and science positions in University Affairs, the bulletin of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which carries all academic job ads.

We have used factorial analysis of variance techniques to examine the effects of factors like time (e.g., 1971-75, 1976-80, 1981-85), location (Eastern Canada, Ontario, Western Canada, Quebec), discipline hardness (physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities—in terms of this three-level categorization, the physical sciences are the "hardest" or most objective, whereas the humanities are the "softest" or most subjective), and university mission (using the MacLean's 3-level categorization of universities: medical/doctoral, comprehensive, and undergraduate—in this three-level categorization, the medical/doctoral institutions place most emphasis on research, while the undergraduate institutions place most emphasis on teaching.) This study has included the interactions of these factors on both merit and equity wording of the tenure-stream advertisements.

Our research allows one to identify latent influences on the way in which universities achieve the right "balance" between merit and equity considerations. The influences are latent in the sense that we assume that the advertisements are not consciously worded to be different according to time, location, discipline hardness, or mission.

In this note I report on the impact of political change on the employment equity policies of universities.

There was a quasi-earthquake in Ontario politics when, after a three-year NDP government headed by Bob Rae, the Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris took over in 1995. Whereas the NDP had strengthened employment equity regulations during the Rae years, Harris abolished the requirements, at least for private industries. Admittedly, the federal employment equity law of 1986 was still in place, and the provincial government said nothing about equity policies in universities as against private industries. So it would be too much to expect Ontario's universities to revert to considering only merit in appointing its tenure-stream faculty. Nevertheless, given that the major source of public funding for universities is provincial rather than federal, one would expect the Ontario political shift on employment equity to have at least some effect on the hiring policies of its universities.

To test for this predicted effect, we used our factorial judgmental content analysis method on some 500 tenure-stream advertisements, and looked at time as a two-level factor with the years 1992-4 and 1996-8 as the two 'levels.' After several months of discussion about our rating system, our three research-assistant judges (Sean Fidler, Yaniv Morgenstern, and Wendy Tryhorn) rated each advertisement (with names and places removed) on 7-point scales of merit and of equity. To the extent that the Rae-to-Harris shift in Ontario affected universities' commitment to employment equity, one would expect a relative decrease in Ontario in equity ratings from 1992-4 (Rae period) to the 1996-8 (Harris period), when this change over time was compared to the same change over time in the other three locations (West, East, and Quebec). In other, more technical terms, one could predict an interaction between time and location, such that in Ontario alone (in contrast to the three other locations, where no such political shift against employment equity had occurred), there would be a significant drop in equity ratings from the Rae (1992-4) to Harris (1994-6) period. (Students of experimental design will note that the three other non-Ontario locations provide quite a sound basis of control for looking at the "experimental" effect of the Rae-to-Harris shift, even though there has not been any experimental manipulation in the normal sense of that term).

Contrary to prediction, no such interaction emerged as even approaching conventional levels of significance (we used the one employed in poll surveys, i.e., a difference is considered significant if it could have occurred by chance only 5% of the time). Even the trends were not consistent with the prediction, in the sense that the greatest drop over time did not occur in Ontario. Nor was this result due to any insensitivity of our measurement. There were a number of effects due to such factors as discipline hardness and university mission which emerged as highly significant (i.e., a difference that could have occurred by chance less than 0.1% of the time) in our study (these findings will be communicated later in a more extensive report) Probably because of the large sample size involved (over 500 advertisements were rated), the data were considerably less noisy than the "objective" human physiological data (e.g., heart-rate changes) with which I usually work in my main area of psychological specialty—psychophysiology.

The fact that a major political shift of the sort that occurred in Ontario appears to have had no effect at all in universities' commitment to employment equity suggests to me that those who are committed to advancing merit over equity aims in higher education, whether or not they are academics, have to work independently of the political changes that occur outside the universities. This study also shows that, in addition to conceptual analyses, it is also possible to do meaningful empirical work on the effects of political correctness on Canadian campuses.

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