When an organization is hiring someone to fill a job, it’s very difficult to avoid bias in the hiring process – because, at some point, the hiring decision is subjective. The applicants for the job may have very similar qualifications and experience, which then usually leads to assessments such as how well each applicant would “fit” within the organization. “Fit” is a subjective assessment, and when subjective assessments become an exercise in “how much is this person like the people that are already here”, that’s when unintended or explicit bias can affect the hiring decision.
Many organizations think that being inclusive is simply an issue of hiring members of underrepresented groups. But people hired on that basis are not going to stick around if they feel isolated or that they stand out, or that they’ve been hired just because they’re “diverse”. One very important element in inclusivity is representation; people want to see others like them, and also want to see those other people being respected and valued.
One of the ways that business schools and universities like to promote their contributions to society is to emphasize their external connections. These connections take many forms. There are formal relationships such as co-op placements for students, program advisory councils, and participation in external community and academic organizations. Less visibly, there are also connections such as researchers collecting data from or conducting research for organizations, and businesses providing opportunities for students to do class projects or case studies.
However, to paraphrase George Orwell, it appears that at some universities all external connections are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are standard practice in almost every Canadian university and college. These are in-class or online questionnaires that students fill out anonymously to rate and comment on the instructor and the course, with the results passed along to the instructor and, usually, to their supervisor.
But although SETs are standard practice, they’re also controversial. SETs can provide instructors with valuable feedback that they can then use to improve the course or their teaching – the so-called “formative” purpose of such evaluations. But SETs are also often used by universities and colleges as a measure of the quality of the instructor’s teaching – the so-called “summative” purpose. Using SETs for summative purposes can be a problem because there are lots of factors beyond the instructor’s control – such as the difficulty of the course material, the class schedule, the timing and content of the evaluation itself, and even the instructor’s gender or race – that can unduly influence students’ ratings. That is why we’ve seen pushbacks from faculty members and unions at several Canadian post-secondary institutions on SETs being part of (more…)
In January I made an unexpected trip to Edmonton, where I lived in the early ‘90s while I attended the University of Alberta. Some things have changed, some are the same – like -30C weather that time of year – and some have adapted, like the student newspaper the Gateway. When I was a U of A student the Gateway was a once-weekly newspaper, but it now posts most of its stories online, and the print version is a monthly magazine.
I’ve written before about studies that have investigated the process of peer review – the system by which researchers assess the quality of each other’s work. The results of some of those studies suggest that a process that is supposed to be neutral and anonymous is anything but. Now there is a new study of research published in peer-reviewed academic journals that suggests journal articles may play a role in maintaining power and resource imbalances between universities and researchers.
Diversity in the workforce is a challenging issue for many organizations, but it’s particularly critical for universities. This is partly because many universities are publicly funded, which might imply that they have a larger responsibility to represent the population that financially supports them. And universities that teach about inclusivity and equality should surely be expected to live those values in their own operations.
But another reason is that universities are large and very visible organizations. Unlike workers at companies whose operations are largely unseen, workers at universities interact with large numbers of people – students, communities, governments – every day. So if there is a lack of diversity in the workforce at universities, it will be far more noticeable than it might be in other types of organizations.