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Rights + Justice
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Education

SFU Passes Motion to Hire at Least 15 Black Faculty

Students ‘brought their brilliance’ to force change and make the university more inclusive, prof says.

Katie Hyslop 21 Sep 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them here.

Simon Fraser University took steps towards tackling systemic anti-Black racism last week by adopting a student motion view at its senate to hire at least 15 Black tenure-track faculty across as many departments as possible.

Inspired by a similar motion at the University of British Columbia, the SFU motion was a collaboration between student senators, the student union executive, the Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry group, as well as faculty, students and staff in SFU’s Black caucus.

The motion calls on SFU to recognize Black History Month and the International Decade for People of African Descent; and acknowledge the harm racism has done to Black faculty, students and staff by financially supporting programs that “redress the inequities that currently exist.”

It says the university must consult and collaborate with the Black community on these initiatives.

Former student union president Osob Mohamed, who graduated last June, said she never had a Black instructor at SFU. Stereotypes of people of African descent went unchallenged in her classes, she said, and the lack of representation and mentorship weighed on her.

“A lot of these classes, especially in departments like international studies or political science, about African politics or Black history, are being taught by non-Black instructors,” she said. “It leaves out a layer of understanding, a layer of empathy and nuance that I think can be greatly missed.”

The motion comes six months after an independent investigation into the violent on-campus arrest of a Black alumni found that systemic racism was not at play, a conclusion rejected by the student union and the SFU Black caucus.

June Francis, an associate professor at the SFU Beedie School of Business, said the motion is binding, though it lacks an action plan. But she is confident SFU will follow through.

“The senate is the highest body in the university for deciding academic matters,” she said, adding SFU’s Board of Governors makes financial decisions for the university.

As a former member of the university’s senate, Francis says on rare occasions the senate has not followed through on an adopted motion. But it would not be a good look if the university failed to implement this motion, she said.

“They would lose all moral authority — and really authority to rule — if they passed this and then failed to implement it,” she said.

Francis is proud of the work students put into the motion.

“I have seen students not only bring their brilliance, but their commitment, an enormous amount of time, to try not only to bring to the university’s attention the problem, but also a path to a solution,” she said. “What I’ve seen here from the students has inspired me to believe that change is possible.”

An internal 2019 Diversity Meter survey found that just 35 per cent of Black faculty felt included and respected at the university, compared to 60 per cent of SFU faculty members overall.

In an email to The Tyee, Brian Green, executive director of the SFU Faculty Association, said the association had no advanced notice of the motion and hasn’t had a chance to discuss its implementation with the university.

“But we look forward to working with SFU to see that these new members are hired in a way that respects the collegial role of academic units and provides appropriate supports to ensure the success of these colleagues,” Green wrote.

The Tyee requested an interview with university president Joy Johnson but she wasn’t available. Instead, a spokesperson sent a written statement from Johnson.

“The motion approved by the senate is an important step forward as we work to ensure Black faculty, staff and students feel included. I am grateful to the students who brought the motion forward and look forward to collaborating to deliver on these commitments,” the statement read.

While the motion did not include a timeline for hiring the new faculty, the SFU spokesperson said details would be included in the university’s 2022 faculty hiring plan.

The Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry group has pushed for more Black faculty at SFU since the mid-1990s. Sophonie Priebe, a second-year SFU student and executive member of the group, says that advocacy will continue, as hiring more Black faculty won’t end systemic racism.

“I don’t think the fight will ever stop,” she said. “I just think it will make it a bit easier for students like me to enjoy our time at SFU and focus less on advocating for ourselves all the time, and focus more on our studies and connecting with others. Because it’s very draining to always be advocating for yourself.”  [Tyee]

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