A 'Chilly Climate' at the University of British Columbia

By McConaghy, Tom | Phi Delta Kappan, February 1996 | Go to article overview

A 'Chilly Climate' at the University of British Columbia


McConaghy, Tom, Phi Delta Kappan


THE SUMMER of 1995 will be remembered as one of the hottest summers on record, resulting in hundreds of casualties across North America. But in Vancouver, as the city basked in sunshine, the University of British Columbia (UBC) was experiencing a very "chilly climate."

The unpleasant climate began with the experiences of some graduate students in UBC's Political Science Department as far back as 1992, when 12 political science graduate students, most of them female, wrote to the dean of graduate studies to complain about the sexist and racist attitudes of some professors. (There are 25 professors in the department, most of them male.) In addition to accusations of sexism and racism, the students' pine-page document also alleged that there was "a uni-perspective intellectual climate, where many faculty express intolerance of ideological pluralism, and where students who present alternative views, such as critical, race, and feminist theory, are either marginalized and/or otherwise penalized."

In November 1993 the students submitted a second memorandum to the dean of graduate studies. This one complained about the lack of action taken by the department, and it reiterated the major concern "that the curriculum suffers from a lack of pluralism and students meet with 'hostility' when their research interests and/or methods do not coincide with those of some faculty members." The second document also claimed that the students' concerns had been characterized as a "Ph.D. woman thing," and it decried the authoritarian relationship between faculty and students, as well as the fact that students were not made to feel that they were "partners" in the learning experience.

The students were not satisfied with the steps taken by the Political Science Department, the Faculty of Arts, or the university in response to these two memos. And still more complaints from students arose, reaching a zenith in August 1994. The persistence of the complaints prompted the administration to hire Joan McEwen, a Vancouver labor lawyer, to inquire into allegations of "pervasive racism and sexism" within the Political Science Department -- particularly with regard to its treatment of graduate students -- and "to determine whether, or to what extent, there is any basis to the allegations."

Ten months later, in June 1995, when McEwen released her 174-page, $240,000 report,' all hell broke loose on the campus and in the Canadian media. Using her own self-defined framework, McEwen substantiated the charges of sexism and racism in the department. On receiving the report, President David Strangway and the university administration decided that swift action was required. In a memo to deans, department heads, and directors, Strangway said, "The report, while expressly not making specific findings of fact or of individual culpability, concludes that the 'culture which so markedly dominates the department may well have an adverse impact on those students who do not share its prevailing characteristics."' He went on to say that the report "found a genuine basis for the allegations in question."

In response to the report the dean of graduate studies suspended admissions to the graduate program in political science. He said that the suspension would remain in effect "until there are satisfactory provisions in place relating to educational equity and a working and learning environment which is free from harassment and discrimination" This precipitous action was taken even though the report did not identify professors or students, nor did it make any attempt to verify any of the allegations it contained. The number of aggrieved students who were complaining of racism and sexism was small.

THE REACTION of the media to the McEwen report was immediate and swift. Canada's national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, carried stories, comment, columns, editorials, and letters on the topic all through the summer. It was the most comprehensive coverage given to any institution of higher learning in Canada. …

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