The Ghost In The Machine

September 2020

“The impetus for this group comes from several places: from the conversations and struggles we’ve had as individuals, and as an institution, over many years; from our desire to share information about on-going equity initiatives on our campuses; and from the recognition that we still have a long way to go to make UNB an equitable institution.”

This was the opening paragraph from the University of New Brunswick (UNB) President’s Executive Team announcing the new Bi-Campus Standing Committee on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Human Rights. I have kept this correspondence for more than two years, my curiosity drawing me back to it every so often.

“…we still have a long way to go to make UNB an equitable institution.”

As a new committee, just beginning to consult “to gather wide-ranging information on our current equity gaps, omissions, and success,” it seemed to me some knowledge came a priori: whatever the current equity gaps may be, we know they’re BIG, that on a far-off distant horizon sits the clearly undefined but unambiguous goal of an equitable institution, and a tacit agreement – ever present – that some level of wide-ranging institutional malfeasance got us here.

I wondered, with a gap so large, why this institutional failure was not obvious to me. After all, my employment at UNB has spanned 16 years. In that time I taught and interacted with hundreds of students, participated in innumerable meetings at department, faculty and university level, provided recommendations for the hiring and promotion of colleagues, joined Senate, and became friends and socialized with a spectrum of those from the UNB community. Yet, with one exception, not the vaguest thought ever entered my mind that my actions, or the actions of those around me, were terribly inconsistent with the expectations of my employer.

Notwithstanding whatever may be lingering in the mind of the greater UNB machinery, on a personal level could it be my idea of “equitable” is wrong, that I don’t recognize its lack of implementation? I am being deliberately naïve here but shouldn’t the word “equitable” apply beyond gender and race? I thought it should mean treat people fairly, as equals, as an individual, on their merits, on the content of their character. Something like that. Along these lines is how I conducted myself, and that has been my experience watching others at the University.

What I find of greatest curiosity, that causes me the most confusion, is the silence. Not from the “President’s Executive Team” – they’re rarely silent – but from lower down, closer to the ground floor, from those running the day-to-day operation of the University. It is there that I reside most often. Down here, why would this failure – “…we still have a long way to go to make UNB an equitable institution” – remain continuously and silently unidentified by those more enlightened than myself? Not one person has ever said, “Philip, your actions – right here and right now – are not reducing the equity gap.” No, I have never experienced this, nor witnessed or heard of such a rebuke aimed at others. Down here, at the level of action, the severity of the problem goes undiscussed and the mistakes made stay unidentified. Why?

Confusion of this type keeps coming. It arrived again, this past 9th of June 2020. On that day I learned from our administrative assistant that the next day’s department meeting was cancelled at the request of a faculty member; their wish – now forced upon all of us in the department – was that work is to stop for that single day as we in academia show solidarity with the people united under the social movements #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM, and #Strike4BlackLives.

Curious, I looked at what effectively was the “mission statement” for that “day of action.” Here are a few of the more interesting parts.

“In academia, our thoughts and words turn into new ways of knowing. Our research papers turn into media releases, books and legislation that reinforce anti-Black narratives. In STEM, we create technologies that affect every part of our society and are routinely weaponized against Black people.”

And: “Black academic and Black STEM professionals are hurting because they exist in and are attacked by institutional and systemic racism.” And: “Those of us who are not Black, particularly those of us who are white, play a key role in perpetuating systemic racism.”

Once again, confusion: I cannot reconcile these statements with my personal 25-year history of working, in the trenches, in University environments. Nothing in those statements rings true to me, yet I feel an expectation to accept the claims. Do I now assume UNB Saint John, my campus, is engaged in research that has been and will be weaponized against Black people? Am I part of an institution that – through institutional and systemic racism – is actively hurting and attacking Black academics and Black STEM professionals? And although I have no explicit personal examples from my own career, as a white male must I accept that I’ve played a role in perpetuating systemic racism?

Is this how I am to think of myself and my place of employment? Do I believe both these damning statements and our popular slogan, “Proudly UNB”? And how should I feel when my department gives tacit approval to a movement making such claims about my University?

The cognitive dissonance being required of me is astounding.