Provincial Politics Fail to Affect Employment Equity Commitment in Universities

January 2001

The wording of a university's tenure stream advertisement is an indirect indication of the institution's relative commitment to the conflicting principles of employment equity as against merit. The degree of this commitment can vary considerably even if, as is the case on Canadian campuses, all universities have an employment equity policy (if only to ensure that they are eligible for federal funding, and are seen as conforming to the 1986 federal employment equity law). For example, as Stewart Page reported in his “On the daily vicissitudes of equity-based hiring” in the SAFS Newsletter 22 (June 1999, pp. 2-5), in some universities the equity officers can exert quite direct pressures on departmental chairs regarding job advertisements and decisions on appointments. Again, there are federal awards for a university's commitment to equity, and York University retains the distinction of the only Canadian university that has won a federal Equity Award (in 1994). In other universities, the “balance” is tilted more in favour of merit, which is said to be the primary criterion. Still, for example at the University of Toronto, the Status of Women equity officer meets with every hiring committee, and asks pointed questions if, for instance, the short list does not have any women on it.

Funded by the Donner Canadian Foundation and the Horowitz Foundation, some students and I have been engaged in what I have called "judgmental content analysis" of the wording of advertisements for Canadian tenure-stream arts and science positions in University Affairs, the bulletin of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which carries all academic job ads.

We have used factorial analysis of variance techniques to examine the effects of factors like time (e.g., 1971-75, 1976-80, 1981-85), location (Eastern Canada, Ontario, Western Canada, Quebec), discipline hardness (physical science, social sciences, and humanities), and university mission (using the McLean's 3-level categorization of universities: medical/doctoral, comprehensive, and undergraduate. This study has included the interactions of these factors on both merit and equity wording.

Our studies allow one to identify latent influences on the way in which universities achieve the right "balance" between merit and equity considerations. The influences are latent in the sense that we assume that the advertisements are not consciously worded to be different according to time, location, discipline hardness, or mission.

In this note I report on the impact of political change on the employment equity policies of universities.

There was a quasi-earthquake in Ontario politics when, after a three-year NDP government headed by Bob Rae, the Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris took over in 1995. Whereas the NDP had strengthened employment equity regulations during the Rae years, Harris abolished the requirements, at least for private industries. Admittedly, the federal employment equity law of 1986 was still in place, and the provincial government said nothing about equity policies in universities as against private industries. So it would be too much to expect Ontario's universities to revert to considering only merit in appointing its tenure-stream faculty. Nevertheless, given that the major source of public funding for universities is provincial rather than federal, one would expect the Ontario political shift on employment equity to have at least some effect on the hiring policies of its universities.

To test for this predicted effect, we used our factorial judgmental content analysis method on some 500 tenure-stream advertisements, and looked at time as a two-level factor with the years 1992-1994 and 1996-1998 as the two 'levels.' After several months of discussion about our rating system, our three research-assistant judges (Sean Fidler, Yaniv Morgenstern, and Wendy Tryhorn) rated each advertisement (with names and places removed) on 7-point scales of merit and of equity. To the extent that the Rae-to-Harris shift in Ontario affected universities' commitment to employment equity, one would expect an interaction between time and location, such that in Ontario alone (in contrast to the three other locations, where no such political shift against employment equity had occurred) there would be a significant drop in equity ratings from the Rae (1996-98) to Harris period. (Students of experimental design will note that the three other non-Ontario locations provide quite a sound basis of control for looking at the "experimental" effect of the Rae-to-Harris shift, even though there has not been any experimental manipulation in the normal sense of that term).

Contrary to prediction, no such interaction emerged, with the F value for that effect being less than one. Nor was this result due to any insensitivity of our measurement. The F values for a number of other significant main and interaction effects (which will be communicated later in a more extensive report) ranged from 9.0 to over 60.

Probably because of the large sample size involved, the data were considerably less noisy than the "objective" psychophysiological data with which I usually work.

The fact that a major political shift of the sort that occurred in Ontario appears to have had no effect at all in universities' commitment to employment equity suggests to me that those who are committed to advancing merit over equity aims in higher education have to work independently of the political changes that occur outside the universities. This study also shows that, in addition to conceptual analyses, it is also possible to do meaningful empirical work on the effects of political correctness on Canadian campuses.