Posted on February 23, 2016

U of T to Track Race-Based Data of Its Students

Christopher Reynolds, The Star, February 22, 2016

The University of Toronto has committed to continuously collect race-based data from its students, the Star has learned, unprecedented among post-secondary institutions in Ontario.

The undertaking by Canada’s largest university comes amidst a broader effort to tackle a lack of representation in the lecture hall among some groups and lend hard numbers to the push for equity in the public realm.

Angela Hildyard, U of T’s vice-president for human resources and equity, hopes to see the online census rolled out next fall for the incoming crop of students.

“We’re trying to be as comprehensive and progressive as we can . . . We’re trying to be much more reflective of our own community,” Hildyard said.

The voluntary survey will likely reveal “significant under-representation of black faculty and staff,” she said, noting the new stats could be used to gauge disparities and inform recruitment policies.

Young black leaders, whose demands helped secure the university’s pledge, embrace it as a positive move toward equity in the halls of higher education–one that trumps fears of latent stereotyping revived by the prospect of racial categorizing.

“There is still so much work to be done, but we’re welcoming this as an exciting first step in creating a campus where black students feel safe and welcomed,” said Yusra Khogali, a U of T student and member of the Black Liberation Collective, a campus protest movement with local chapters across North America. “We hope to see work like this replicated at other institutions.”

Black Lives Matter co-founder Sandy Hudson said the news has “great potential” for overcoming barriers, from student diversity to program content.

The survey will allow students to self-identify with one or several ethnic backgrounds and check off racial identities drawn from Statistics Canada, ranging from Black to Chinese, South Asian, and Latin American. Students can also specify a racial background other than the roughly dozen listed.

The info would be gleaned–from all 85,000 students eventually–as part of a broader demographic data harvest that reaps information on students’ gender identity, sexual identity, religion and other areas–all largely uncharted territory for post-secondary institutions at this scale.

Carl James, director of the York Centre for Education and Community, thinks crunching numbers in fields from education to incarceration is key to confronting prejudice. “The data is critical,” he said.

Detailed demographic statistics, including information on race, is routinely collected in U.S. schools and universities. The fact that racial data-tracking breaks new ground up north speaks to deeply rooted attitudes toward race in Canada, says James.

“We have tended to think as Canadians that race is something we don’t live by or identify people with, when in fact we do,” James said.

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, notes that “anecdotally” there seems to be a ghettoization of certain groups in particular disciplines. “Women for instance are highly concentrated in the social sciences, almost invisible in engineering. And I think there are parallels with racialized minorities.

“Right now there’s not a lot of data collection that’s going on across the country to evidence that,” Robinson said.

Administrators plan to unroll the census on the heels of a revamped employment equity survey for faculty and staff.

That bare-bones questionnaire, in place for several years and filled out by incoming employees, currently lists no racial categories beyond “visible minority” or “racialized.” For gender identity, “transgendered” can soon be ticked off alongside more traditional boxes.

“Using ‘racialized’ or ‘visible minority’ actually makes black people become invisible. A faculty could be racially diverse and have no black people,” said Rajean Hoilett, head of the Canadian Federation of Students’ Ontario chapter. Hoilett said he approves of U of T’s upcoming info cull.

Responding to any one question would not be mandatory on the self-reported survey, Hildyard noted. The information would be available publicly in aggregate, with students’ individual responses remaining confidential.

The Council of Ontario Universities confirmed no universities in the province have a central process in place to continuously collect race-related data.

Both the Canadian Universities Survey Consortium and Colleges Ontario survey a sampling of students periodically. In 2006, Queen’s University offered a colour-coded snapshot of its freshman class.

Many post-secondary institutions track the number of aboriginal students, first-generation Canadians and disabled individuals to connect them with various services.

York University, reputed for its diverse undergraduate population and progressive policies, is now mulling a similar survey. The institution already collects data on sexual orientation during enrolment.

“York is in the early stages of examining how the self-identification surveys and processes for its faculty, staff and students could be enhanced in the future,” said spokesperson Janice Walls.