This article, published in the Fall 2020 edition of The Beacon, was written by StFXAUT Communications Officer Philip Girvan.
Following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, D’Andre Campbell, Rodney Levi, Ejaz Choudry, Chantel Moore, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake this past spring and summer, and in the wake of police riots and other violence that erupted following Floyd’s death, many postsecondary institutions across North America released statements emphasizing an institutional commitment to diversity and inclusion, and an intolerance for racism. The StFX statement is here.
Many statements have been criticized as being inadequate, vacuous, and/or performative. StFX does explicitly state that Black lives matter, but academic Faculty and staff, students, alumni, and others want greater clarity about the concrete actions that the University is taking to fulfill commitments expressed in the statement. Without action, this expression of solidarity could be reduced to an empty, symbolic gesture of support.
One example of the dissonance between the StFX statement and the University’s day-to-day operations is StFX Administration’s decision to invite the RCMP to campus this summer to perform spot checks on self-isolating students. The decision received widespread condemnation and inspired the StFXAUT Status of Women and Equity (SOWE) Committee to look for an alternative expression of solidarity.
It begged the question,“What are you going to do about it?”
Committee Member Corinne Cash, Senior Program Staff, Coady International Institute, heard about Scholar Strike Canada via Twitter, and brought it to the Committee’s attention. Scholar Strike Canada describes itself as “a labour action/teach-in/social justice advocacy”. On September 9 & 10 participating academic Faculty and staff across Canada paused teaching and administrative duties to protest racism and police violence. Aligned with the scholar strike organized on September 8 & 9 on US campuses, itself inspired by labour actions taken by the Women’s National Basketball Association and National Basketball Association players this summer, Scholar Strike Canada was unique in that it highlighted “anti-Indigenous, colonial violence” endemic to Canada.
Cash circulated information re Scholar Strike Canada to the AUT listserv. This prompted Donna Trembinski, Professor, StFX History Department, to work with Cash to organize a September 9 march and speaking event. Black academics commented upon the stark discrepancy between the StFX statement and the potential harm that Administration invited upon Black, Indigenous, and International students via the RCMP presence. The StFX University President and the Academic Vice-President & Provost were among the approximately 200 people in attendance. Organizers acknowledged the significance of senior Administration being present, but noted that it begged the question “what are you going to do about it?”. Those interviewed agreed that the people with the power to effect significant change on campus could be doing considerably more to address issues raised by Scholar Strike Canada.
Chris Frazer, Associate Professor, StFX History Department, was invited to participate in Scholars Strike Nova Scotia: Teach-In for Black Lives, a Facebook Live teach-in involving scholars from across Nova Scotia actively engaged in ending all forms of racist, carceral, institutional,and systemic forms of violence, organized by OmiSoore Dryden and El Jones. At its peak, over 300 people were watching the Facebook broadcast, and, as of December 14, 2020, approximately 3,300 viewers had tuned into the archived recording.
Participating scholars spoke to situations on their respective campuses. Frazer highlighted tensions operating within StFX University as it attempts to reconcile questions of equity and embed anti-racist practice into the everyday business of building and running the University. Frazer cited as an example the decision to commemorate the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence in the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government Centre’s Barrick Auditorium. Certain StFXAUT Members noted the inappropriateness of holding a memorial to massacred women in an auditorium named after a corporation (Barrick Gold) whose long record of human rights violations, particularly prominent against people of colour (POC) and indigenous populations, includes accusations of mass rape. The decision was later made to hold the ceremony in another campus building.
Frazer noted how COVID-19 is being used to reduce the scope for democratic participation on campus, to undermine collegiality, and how it has resulted in a centralization of the decision-making process at StFX. During Scholars’ Strike Nova Scotia: Teach-In for Black Lives, Frazer described “an echo chamber with very little input from the rest of the community and this has produced some unhappy decisions” including the decision to invite the RCMP to campus. Frazer commented that this flies in the face of the tradition of university autonomy which is, among other things, “the right of a university to be free of interference by the state and by any other external power as regards its operations and affairs”.
We need to commit real resources to fight racism and amplify the voices of Black Members
When asked what next steps might include, Cash described “creating a multiracial committee to do a forensic audit of racism within the University”. Frazer noted that a forensic audit has been suggested in the past but agreed with the need to “pick apart and examine the structure of campus” to better understand campus equity needs. Such an audit would examine hiring practices, student recruitment, and the composition of committees, including the StFX University Board of Governors. Frazer argued during Scholars’ Strike Nova Scotia: Teach-In for Black Lives that the composition of the StFX University Board of Governors is “overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly wealthy” and the people sitting on the Board of Governors reflect the University’s interests and provide an insight into the framework in which the University operates and how this influences any meaningful change.
Notwithstanding the heavy responsibilities borne by the Administration, there is a role for academic staff and Faculty. Teaching being the most obvious responsibility. Trembinski highlighted changes currently taking place within Medieval Studies, and cited Viking Studies as an example. Just over the last five years, there has been a recognition within the field that Viking warriors were not exclusively the white, blond-haired, blue-eyed homogeneous peoples of legend. Emerging scholars are uncovering evidence that Viking raiders included Africans and other POC. These discoveries are turning the field on its head.
Anti-racist practice is not limited to the History Department. Marcia Chatelain, an Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University who created the collaborative Twitter project for teachers of history called #FergusonSyllabus, commented that there are multiple ways for non-scholars of American history to get involved. Architects, for example, could talk with students about how urban planning plays a role in structural racism. Chemists could open up a conversation by talking about tear gas.
There is a role for Unions. Unions have power.
There is a role for Unions. Unions have power. Brenda Austin-Smith, CAUT President, noted in the October 2020 edition of the CAUT Bulletin that “academic staff associations must look at how they are structured, how and who they are engaging, and which fights they are fighting”.
Yolanda McClean, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)’s Diversity Vice-President, Racialized Workers, noted in an interview with Counterpoint that
[Unions] must insist on adopting and implementing employment equity plans in every organization. Because if we don’t do that, we still won’t have Black people in leadership positions where they could make a difference, on the ground.
Unions need to lead the way in that regard. Unions have power. We need to commit real resources to fight racism and amplify the voices of Black Members. We need to talk about bylaws, and about how to create diversity positions, and we need to offer training about racism in the workplace, the same way we are offering training on health and safety.
Frazer spoke of the importance of tenured Faculty advocating for equity. People secure in their jobs are more comfortable speaking out against oppression. Unfortunately, academic job security is not as strong as it was even a few years ago. Frazer reported being approached by academic staff working short-term precarious contracts seeking advice concerning their participation in what was, in essence, an illegal strike.
Now is the time to address the systemic racism operating within StFX
With a new president and with all that is happening in the world, it is hoped that now is the time to address the systemic racism operating within StFX. Cash has submitted to the University President a request that the University undergo a forensic audit. Dr. Hakin has confirmed receipt and Cash is awaiting a response.
- Academic freedom and university autonomy: proceedings. UNESCO European Centre for Higher Education. 1992.
- #FergusonSyllabus Historians discuss ways to engage students on Ferguson protests. Colleen Flahery. Inside Higher Ed. January 2015. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/06/historians-discuss-ways-engage-students-ferguson-protests last accessed December 14, 2020.
- “Rising Against Racism” CAUT Bulletin, October 2020. https://www.caut.ca/sites/default/files/october2020-final_lowres.pdf [PDF] last accessed December 14, 2020.
- Fighting Anti-Black Racism “Our time is now”. Counterpoint interview with Yolanda McClean, CUPE’s Diversity Vice-President, Racialized Workers. September 24, 2020: https://cupe.ca/fighting-anti-black-racism-our-time-now last accessed December 14, 2020.
- Bolume, Motun. “University statements on Black Lives Matter fall short”. University World News. June 12, 2020. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20200612085957122 last accessed December 31, 2020.
- The 2018 CAUT report Underrepresented and Underpaid: Diversity & Equity Among Canada’s Post-Secondary Teachers [PDF] provides data on the effects of systemic racism in colleges and universities. The data show that academia is less diverse than either the student body or the general labour force in this country taken from President’s Message, CAUT Bulletin, October 2020.
- Those readers who use Twitter can follow hashtagged learn-ins such as #BlackinPhysics, #BlackintheIvory and #BlackinMath.