Dubious Partnership: Equity And Excellence Are Not Equivalent

April 2007

It is clear from pages 1 and 12-13 of the November 28 issue of the Bulletin that the university administration is not only proud of putting the university “at the vanguard of North American post-secondary institutions for the breadth and scope of its equity policies”, but it is now excited about being “poised to take its commitment to practices significantly further through an emphasis on excellence” (“Linking Equity, Excellence”).

News of this latest expansion of administrative commitment to equity led me to recall the times when the equity movement was in its infancy at this university, with the creation of one or two equity offices. The stated mission of these offices was to look after matters that the administration no longer felt could be done by the ombudsman’s office. That office dealt with injustices against individual members of the academic community independently of those individuals’ skin melatonin content, race, ethnicity, genitalia, or preferences in sexual partners.

If the aim of the administration has been to develop the emphasis on equity at this university from these small beginnings, then it has indeed succeeded. So I am impressed by the various “equity events” advertised on page 12, and even more by the number of equity offices and officers that were advertised on page 13. As I am no longer a member of the academic board, I cannot obtain the approximate annual budget for these offices and officers, but would guess that they significantly exceed the $3.5 million per annum estimate that I obtained about 5 years ago, which itself exceeded the $1.0 million estimate that I obtained about 10 years ago for the administration’s expansion of the “breadth and scope of its equity policies.”

A continuing source of logical embarrassment for the administration’s equity efforts has been the discrepancy between two goals of the university. One goal is the maximizing of academic meritor excellence, while the other goal is the maximizing of so-called equity and diversity. The former goal requires that only academic merit counts in competitions such as tenure-stream faculty appointments, while the latter (social-engineering) goal requires that other non-merit-associated factors be taken into account. Depending on the weight assigned these other factors, the competitions are biased either in favor or against individuals as a function of whether they belong to “designated group”.

This conflict between merit and equity was implicitly acknowledged by most university administrators, as they referred to the importance of “balancing” excellence and equity considerations. Only conflicting goals need balancing, and so the proponents of equity in universities were vulnerable to logical criticisms from such organizations as the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship ( which argued that only merit should be used in the allocation of competitive academic positions, and that the criteria of “equity” were essentially sex- and race-preferential, and hence unfair in a university, even if they may justifiable in some circumstances in society (e.g., composition of police to reflect racial characteristics of the neighborhood).

My university’s administration has recently dropped the concept of “balanced” and has shifted over to the position that excellence and equity are equivalent. This move probably originated with former president Robert Birgeneau, a physicist, who asserted that “excellence and equity go hand in hand” (e.g., He also added the term “equity” to the title of Angela Hildyard’s provostial appointment. Consistent with the equivalence assumption is the vice-provost’s current declaration that in the equity-vanguard administration, “we are talking about equity, diversity and excellence all at the same time, that’s unique to us here at UofT” (“Linking Equity, Excellence”, November 28).

Asserting the equivalence between excellence and equity may work as a slogan to eliminate the perceived conflict between these two goals, but if the equivalence assumption is considered as one that is open to empirical test, then there are two consequences that have recently been tested in research funded by two non-governmental agencies, the Donner Canadian Foundation and the Horowitz foundation. The research (summarized in the 2nd section of examines the impact of such factors as time, university status, discipline hardness, and locus in Canada on the phraseology of tenure-stream advertisements. The data are ratings provided by trained judges who are blind to those factors when rating the ads on their degrees of emphasis of merit and equity (or affirmative action for American universities). If the equivalence assumption is true, one consequence is that the examined factors should yield the same pattern of results for merit and equity. In fact, all studies, from the initial one ( to the most recent ones in California and Australia, have consistently yielded results where the factors impact quite differently on merit and equity emphases.

The second consequence of the equivalence assumption is that the correlation between merit and equity ratings should be as high as those among the judges for both merit and equity. In fact, the merit/equity ratings correlations range from 0 to 0.35 (the latter accounting for only about 10% of the variance), whereas the inter-judges correlations (a measure of rater reliability) range between 0.80 to 0.95 (these reliabilities have been going up with our later studies, as our methodology improves, and are veryhigh by the standards of social science research).

So unless the equivalence assumption is merely a slogan to be enforced through power rather than truth (as was the case with the Orwellian slogans of “four legs good, two legs better” and “2+2=5”), I suggest that our administration abandon the idea of “talking about equity, diversity and excellence all at the same time”. We should be competing with York University not for Employment Equity Awards, but for genuine excellence in teaching and research.