More diversity is needed in university leadership

Jon Driver’s insensitive pipeline joke demonstrates the problem with populating administrative positions with white-only perspectives

More diverse perspectives are needed for SFU leadership. Screen shot by Nicole Magas, via SFU IT Services

By: Miriam Abel, and WeiChun Kua, SFU Students

During SFU’s July 6 Senate meeting, Vice-President, Academic and Provost pro tem Jonathan Driver made an inappropriate remark as part of the apparent “roasting” tradition for President Andrew Petter’s last term at SFU. Driver joked that now would be the time for some “light-heartedness,” and read a series of fake questions that would be asked at the next senate meeting — one of which questioned if SFU would build a pipeline through Convocation Mall. The obvious sarcasm was meant as a joke, but left discomfort and disappointment with concerned students.

Student groups like the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) and Graduate Student Society (GSS) have organised against the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project due to safety concerns, environmental hazards, and the threat to Indigenous sovereignty. The SFSS has also recently reaffirmed its opposition to the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion. In the past, President Petter has publicly stated that the risks to students’ safety posed by the expansion are “unacceptable,” “significant and deeply concerning.” The university later sent a letter to the federal government expressing its objection to the project. So why are decision-makers such as Driver, who seem to understand the risks posed by the pipeline, making jokes that effectively minimize the severity of the problem? 

By joking and laughing about the problem, the university administration has made it clear it does not take our concerns seriously. How shall we feel as students if our efforts to oppose the pipeline are being mocked? How shall we trust them with our safety if they joke about it directly to our faces?

The inappropriate joke also downplays the way pipeline projects harm reconciliation with Indigenous people. Pushing pipelines through unceded, stolen lands always diminishes Indigenous rights and sovereignty, and such a joke contributes to the colonial violence that the university and its students must oppose in the pursuit of reconciliation. Is an administration that jokes about the expansion really taking reconciliation seriously? 

The timing of the joke also came concurrent to Canada’s recent Supreme Court decision to dismiss the Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation, and Coldwater Indian Band’s leave to appeal their challenge of the expansion in February. According to Chief Leah George-Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, this was a “major setback for reconciliation.” The lack of awareness of both the inappropriateness and timing of the joke is an indication of SFU’s lack of true commitment to reconciliation. The university cannot forget on whose lands it is situated, and so must commit to more than mere land acknowledgements — it must embody reconciliation in all of its words and actions. As noted by Anishinaabe legal scholar Ashley Courchene, until the university administration addresses its complicity in acts of colonial violence, “any attempt to Indigenize or decolonize academia will only wind up as a dead-end.”

As long as the university continues to put white men in positions of power and leadership, it can never truly address systemic racism and white supremacy at SFU. There are simply not enough diverse perspectives at the table to emphatically say, “this is wrong.” There seems to be some “progress” in this regard, however, as a new wave of leadership is coming to SFU with the appointment of Joy Johnson as the next President, Catherine Dauvergne as the next Vice-President, Academic and Provost, and Tamara Vrooman as the next Chancellor. We should be hopeful that the new leadership will employ an intersectional lens in the decision-making at SFU. However it is important to note the whiteness that persists in academia. All three appointees held high positions as Dean, CEO, or Vice-President in their respective jobs — all in fields in which Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) often face barriers entering. 

Dr. Malinda Smith, who was recently appointed the new Vice-Provost Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Calgary, suggests that white women have gained a critical mass in academia. In the quest to achieve equity, Canadian universities have employed a “women first” strategy, because the hiring of white women is seen as more achievable than the hiring of BIPOC — while still checking off diversity boxes. The vacancy of Joy Johnson’s former position of Vice-President, Research and International is a perfect opportunity for SFU to appoint a Black, Indigenous, or Person of Colour. This would be a significant and much needed step in addressing whiteness in academia. 

While students are still actively engaged in anti-pipeline activism, the university seems to have stepped away from this particular battle — such that this still very serious topic is the subject of a joke for top university officials. This is why having an all white-run administration is problematic — from their privileged perspective, they simply do not see how and why this is such an important issue to students and Indigenous activists, and Jon Driver’s throw-away joke is proof of this.