Dea, Data, and the Disabling Canadian University

This post extends a thread about disability and data collection that I began in an earlier post (go here). I had intended to continue my consideration of APDA/Eric Schwitzgebel’s discussion about disability and the demographics of philosophy and of Shannon Dea’s discussion about disability and the post-pandemic university in Canada after I examined the fuller APDA report. My intention was to write a post about the former and then subsequently write a post about the latter. However, the longer APDA report does not seem to have been released yet. So, in this second post about these two discussions, I consider claims that Dea makes in her article about the post-pandemic Canadian university.

Taking her statistical data from a 2019 report of Universities Canada entitled “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Canadian Universities:  Report on the 2019 national survey,” Dea asserts that the current university has considerable diversity. She writes:

According to a recent Universities Canada survey, women now make up the majority of both undergraduate and graduate students, and 40 per cent of students at both levels are racialized. The same survey found that women make up 40 per cent of full-time faculty and 49 per cent of senior university leadership. Further, 21 per cent of full-time faculty are racialized and 22 per cent are disabled.

It’s not all good news. The survey reveals low postsecondary participation by Indigenous people, a leaky undergrad-to-grad-school pipeline for disabled people, and a glass ceiling that keeps racialized and disabled faculty out of the ranks of senior leadership. Despite these obstacles, it is clear that Canadian universities are no longer white male bastions.

Now, it should be noted, first of all, that the Universities Canada report largely comprises information provided by university presidents and senior administrators who may not be the most reliable sources for material about the situation with respect to the efforts of their respective institutions to diversify staff and students. However, the survey that Dea cites in her article (Table 1, page 11) is actually a compilation of figures from a variety of documents external to the report from the university presidents themselves. That is, most of the figures that make up Table 1 are taken from Statistics Canada reports and Census 2016, with two exceptions: the figures for senior university leaders derive from a Universities Canada EDI survey and the figure for disabled faculty derives from the Canadian Survey on Disability produced in 2017.

Although the figure for disabled faculty that Dea cites—22 % (21.8 in Table 1)—appears in the quadrant that gives percentages of full-time faculty for the various groups with which the report concerns itself, the figure for disabled faculty is enhanced with a superscript number that refers to a notation below Table 1. This footnote indicates that the figure for disabled faculty is derived from the Canadian Survey on Disability and includes all disabled faculty, not only full-time faculty. In other words, while the figure that Table 1 of this Universities Canada report gives for disabled faculty encompasses both part-time and full-time faculty, the percentages that the report gives for faculty in other underrepresented groups in Canadian universities encompass only full-time faculty.

The importance of this distinction between what the report’s figure for disabled faculty encompasses and what the figures for other designated groups encompass should not be underestimated. Indeed, when I read this notation to Table 1, I understood why the figure 21.8% was used. As a disabled philosopher who has made it her business to conduct research on the terrible situation of disabled people (faculty and students) in academia, I did not for a minute believe that disabled people constitute 22% (or even 21.8%) of full-time faculty in Canadian universities. If that figure were reliable, it would mean that disabled people are not underrepresented at all amongst full-time Canadian faculty or at least not significantly, given that disabled people constitute an estimated 22-25% of the general population of Canada, with some sources indicating that upward of 35% of the Canadian population is disabled. I and others who do research in the area know that disabled people constitute a fraction of faculty in Canadian universities and that most disabled faculty are relegated to limited term, temporary, and adjunct positions.

I should note that the collection of data on equity and diversity in Canadian universities (as elsewhere) and their representation in reports such as the Universities Canada report to which Dea refers are rarely intersectional. Nevertheless, with some effort, one can derive conclusions that import an intersectional understanding of the data. For example, as Dea notes, Table 1 indicates that “women” make up 40% (Table 1 says 40.2%) of full-time faculty in Canadian universities and 49% (48.9%) of senior university leaders. If we consider the former figure in light of the figure—10.7—that Table 1 provides for the percentage of senior university leaders who identify with two or more of the designated groups, we can infer that most of the women in senior leadership positions are nondisabled, white, and straight. Given the figures that Table 1 provides for the general population, furthermore, we can conclude that nondisabled white women are overrepresented in senior leadership positions, full-time faculty positions, as graduate students, and as undergraduate students.

Nondisabled feminist philosophers have repeatedly extended to all women concepts, frameworks, and methodologies of analysis that really address only the experiences, perspectives, and constructions of nondisabled women (and nondisabled white women in particular). This tendency is manifest in Dea’s University Affairs article. Although Dea’s article seems to highlight the systemic barriers to fulfilling academic careers that disabled academics confront, the analysis of disadvantage and exclusion that underlies many of Dea’s claims with respect to disabled academics amounts to an over-extension of feminist constructions and frameworks that have far more limited scope, namely, relevance to nondisabled women.

Dea’s applications of the metaphors of “glass ceiling” and “leaky pipeline” to disabled academics are a case in point. The term glass ceiling was coined in 1978 by management consultant Marilyn Loden who used it to describe the often-imperceptible barriers to advancement that women in management professions (in other words, nondisabled white women) confronted at the time. That is, Loden used the glass ceiling metaphor to describe the practices that prevented these women who, at the time, had already achieved some advancement from continuing that advancement. The woman in middle management, Loden pointed out, was systematically prevented from moving to upper-level management, even if she so aspired.

My argument is that Dea over-extends this analysis of professional advancement to disabled academics (students and faculty) due to a lack of familiarity with the circumstances that condition their academic careers. Dea, drawing on the data that Table 1 presents, claims that there is a leaky undergrad-to-grad pipeline with respect to disabled people in Canadian universities and a glass ceiling for disabled academics that prevents them from taking up senior leadership positions. Given that Dea cites an inaccurate figure for the percentage of disabled full-time faculty in the Canadian university, the claim that there is a glass ceiling to senior leadership for disabled people is almost certainly also incorrect. The claim that there is a leaky pipeline from the undergraduate student level to the graduate student level also likely misrepresents what the figures of Table 1 tell us about the academic careers of disabled people in Canadian universities.

Put directly, I maintain that Table 1 presents a very different picture of the situation of disabled people in Canadian universities than Dea provides. On the basis of research that I have conducted in the area over several years, as well as various anecdotal reports, and other documents, I want to emphasize that disabled people are removed from the university from the outset. Table 1 of the report indicates that 22% of undergraduate students in Canadian universities are disabled and only 5% of graduate students in Canada are disabled. Dea interprets the disparity as a “leaky pipeline” from the undergrad level to graduate school. I think rather that the disparity is indicative of something less passive and unintentional than that metaphor suggests. That is, I contend rather that disabled people are forced out of the university even as undergraduates. Indeed, the percentage of disabled students who do not complete their undergraduate degrees is considerable, much higher than the percentage of nondisabled undergraduates who drop out.

The intentional and nonsubjective forms of power that remove disabled people from the university operate at every stage of the game. At every level of their university careers, disabled people encounter hostile and deprecating attitudes, widespread inaccessibility, lack of peer support and mentorship, biased evaluation, and discriminatory standards which the framework of “leaky pipelines” fails to capture.

In short, Dea’s article misrepresents the situation of disabled people in the Canadian university. This misrepresentation, I contend, is due at least in part to Dea’s decision not to substantiate her claims with research by and insights of disabled and other academics in Canada who produce work on disability, including work on disability and academia. Notice that no disabled scholars are cited in Dea’s article. For example, none of my extensive work on ableism in philosophy and ableism in the Canadian university more generally is cited or discussed, despite the fact that Dea regularly refers to discussions that take place in philosophy in other articles written for this publication. To be sure, Dea cites a CBC News item that refers to Karen Hitselberger in her discussion of post-pandemic changes to the university; however, Hitselberger is an American disabled activist and social worker who lives in Washington, D.C., not a disabled academic living and working in Canada. Dea’s article would have benefitted greatly from the sort of informed qualitative analysis that I recommended in my previous post entitled “Counting Disability: On Foucault, Hacking, APDA, Dea, and the Avalanche of Printed Numbers”.

Indeed, the dearth of scholarship by disabled scholars and researchers in Dea’s article throws into relief a key part of the problem of exclusion that disabled people confront in the Canadian university and an ongoing problem of exclusion in feminist philosophy, namely, the reluctance and even refusal to recognize disabled people as epistemic authorities, even about our own situations and concrete lived experiences, and to acknowledge us as such.

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