Imagining a More Just University: a Panel Event with the Live Work Well Research Centre

On November 15, 2022, the Live Work Well Research Centre (LWWRC) hosted “Imagining a More Just University”, a panel event that explored how to create more just academic spaces by reducing barriers to access and ensuring equity for all. The panel was moderated by then-Acting Director of LWWRC, and the Co-Lead of the Displacements, Emergence, and Change Cluster, Dr. Leah Levac.

The panel consisted of five members, each of whom brought a unique and informed perspective on the injustices existing in higher education. They were:

  • Dr. Adam Davies (they/them), Assistant Professor, Family Relations & Human Development; co-lead of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Cluster with Live Work Well 
  • Dr. Roberta Hawkins (she/her), Associate Professor, Geography, Environment and Geomatics; co-lead of the Integrating Care & Livelihoods Cluster with Live Work Well 
  • Jena-Lee Ashley (she/her), Vice President External, Central Student Association (CSA) 
  • Suman Roy (he/him), Chair, Feed Scarborough
  • Nicole Walker (she/her), President, Central Student Association (CSA) 

The 90-minute panel consisted of two rounds of questions for each panelist. In the first round, panelists were asked to describe what justice means to them, as well as the injustices they have experienced and witnessed in their day-to-day lives in academia. Panelists addressed overlapping and intersecting injustices including the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, systemic racism, colonialism, (hetero)sexism, ableism, and economic inequality. The second round consisted of specific questions tailored to each panelist’s expertise. These questions invited panelists to imagine what more just university spaces could be at the University of Guelph, and across academia at large. Here’s a summary of each panelist’s responses:

Dr. Adam Davies

Justice is not a universal concept, in that what is just to one person can be highly unjust to another. A difficulty in achieving justice in the university system is that since higher education is part of the neoliberal capitalist complex, folks within the system who are trying to deconstruct it are also in relationship with it, and must grapple with those tensions. Also, tokenism is prevalent in academia; institutions are happy to celebrate marginalized faculty and students until they make requests that challenge the status quo.

We must recognize that some move through the university with more privilege than others, and so it is important to centre the most vulnerable in what we do as we work towards justice. The best way to create more just institutions is by making space for scholars with differing knowledge, and being more empathetic to those who experience barriers that we ourselves do not.

Dr. Roberta Hawkins

From the vantage point of a faculty member, overwork is a form of injustice. University faculty are given so many tasks to complete, from preparing lectures to writing publications, which leaves little time for meaningful connections and scholarship. This overwork leads to burnout and health problems, and the competitive nature of the environment leaves faculty and students exhausted. Justice demands a more collaborative and less hierarchical space that recognizes the different forms of knowledge and experience as valid.

If universities were structured around an ethics of care, they would allow folks to better care for their own well-being. This would involve collectively refusing overwork, valuing diverse ways of knowing by recognizing the invisible work that historically-excluded groups undertake, and learning about the colonial history and environmental dynamics of where we work.

Jena-Lee Ashley

Jena-Lee shared a story of needing a signature from a professor to prove to her Band that she was using her academic funding correctly, and being denied this signature. Injustices such as this, alongside instances of racism and misogyny, persist on campuses and create barriers to education and well-being.

The university must respond to such problematic issues, and must be transparent when doing so. Those in leadership positions must collaborate with students, and the groups on campus must collaborate with each other to have a greater impact on the system.

Suman Roy

Food insecurity is one of the greatest injustices within and outside university spaces. There is an intense and growing need for food security on university campuses. It is unjust to see university leadership ignore and dismiss the problems students face, which only normalizes food insecurity.

Food banks are not the solution. They were designed as a temporary measure in the 1980s, and it is problematic that students pay – through their tuition – for the food banks they subsequently have to access. Food must be seen as integral to education. It ought to be a human right at the campus, provincial, and federal levels.

Nicole Walker

Justice requires a collective approach, where everyone advocates for everyone. Faculty ought to advocate for students and vice versa, and the most marginalized should not be expected to do all the work themselves. In academia, the cycle of injustice is perpetuated by bureaucratic red tape that shifts responsibility for making changes from department to department, so change is very slow, and advocates become burned out.

More just university spaces would strongly encourage - and create time in peoples' work schedules for - training related to sexual- and gender-based violence, anti-racism, and mental health. A culture of collaboration must also be encouraged between students and the university, and students should have more opportunities to give feedback. Implementing universal design for learning would also lessen the need for student accommodation requests.

What’s Next

We know that the conversation cannot end here. Beyond imagining what more just universities might be like, the LWWRC is interested in disrupting injustice by engaging in long-term change initiatives to ensure the University of Guelph and academia at large become more inclusive and equitable.

On February 16, 2023, we hosted a follow-up discussion with the event’s panelists to start considering opportunities for action moving forward. Some of the key takeaways from this meeting involved increasing opportunities for a ‘campus coalition’ to increase collaboration, as well as looking for ways to facilitate feedback in campus budget discussions. LWWRC and the panelists are committed to acting on the discussions and ideas from the fall panel, and we are excited for where this path of learning takes us!