Dr. Ivan Joseph is vice-provost of student affairs at Dalhousie University, a public speaker and author of the book You Got This.
I am vice-provost of student affairs at Dalhousie University in Halifax and I identify as a Black man. I was a designated hire. That means that before posting my job, the university committed to hiring someone from one of four underrepresented groups identified by the federal government’s Employment Equity Act: women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and visible minorities. This decision was made because, at the time, the institution’s leadership team was entirely white.
Everyone at Dalhousie knew I was a designated hire. In fact, everyone in Canada who was paying attention knew it.
In February of 2018, when the university announced how it would approach the search, it became national news thanks to a Canadian Press story. Headlines as far away as Edmonton announced, “Dalhousie restricts search for new VP to ‘racially visible,’ Indigenous candidates.”
As an educator first and foremost, I want to share what I have learned about institutional racism and what does – and doesn’t – work when organizations pursue a designated hire.
What institutional racism looks like
Racism in an institution isn’t restricted to race-laced insults or colleagues using the N-word. It’s often more subtle and nuanced, yet pernicious. Based on my experiences in the ivory tower of academia, here is what institutional racism can look like.
Institutional racism is white leaders within the prevailing power structure arranging “a meeting before the meeting” to align the majority around their position. Their purpose is to ensure that when you have a dissenting view or new perspective, you are isolated, appear out of touch and don’t really know “how things work.” This effort to undermine your authority, leadership and power is intended to ensure you will never have a seat at the table.
Institutional racism is tokenism. When it comes time to be included in discussions and have an equal voice, you will not always be invited to the meetings.
Institutional racism is asserting that if someone’s background doesn’t fit a narrowly defined path to power, they aren’t qualified. As a Black man coming up through the postsecondary educational system, I rose from athlete to coach to athletic director to vice-provost. Sport isn’t the only path to leadership for Black men and women, but it is a common one. The view that athletics offer an insufficient background for the serious business of high-level leadership in a university setting is a form of discrimination. In my case, this view intentionally ignores my long experience in student affairs.
Institutional racism is people questioning the quality of your ideas whenever you have an opinion they don’t agree with, pursue an outcome they don’t like or proceed in a way that is unconventional or counter to the established culture.
Institutional racism is colleagues hiding behind the fact that you are a designated hire to attack your decisions and initiatives.
How a designated hire can be set up to succeed
I’m an idealist, so I choose to believe that when an organization makes a designated hire from a visibly underrepresented group, it is genuinely saying, “We need to do things differently.” In my case, I assume it’s not merely an effort to add a non-white face to the leadership group. I assume the goal is nothing less than organizational, cultural and systemic change.
Based on my experience, here are three guiding principles for the head of any organization who has decided to pursue a designated hire as one method of addressing institutional racism.
1. Publicly declare your support
As the most powerful person in the organization, you need to make it clear – from the outset – that you are committed to standing with the new leader. When they begin in the role, publicly declare you are aligned with them. And when they begin having the inevitable conflicts with the majority, be unwavering in your support. Otherwise, genuine change will be elusive.
2. Assign a strategic mentor who is knowledgeable, powerful and influential
When you pick a mentor for the new leader, choose someone who has been around and is deeply embedded in the political structures of the institution. Your new hire will need continuing advice about how to navigate the existing power structures. They will need input about strategy and tactics. And they will need access to the connections and network this mentor can provide. As with anything else that matters, put your best people on it.
3. Create a scaffold of supports
Nobody does anything alone. No leader from an underrepresented group can move the needle without a network of support – no matter how dynamic, inspirational, capable, talented and visionary they may be. If you want to address systemic barriers, set up systemic supports. It’s not enough to give the new hire a mandate and say, “Go.” Ensure they have resources, influence, sponsorship and authority. Set them up to have early wins. Make it clear to the entire institution that you take the new leader and their mandate seriously.
Eliminating institutional racism is like any other strategic priority
My message is simple if you are hiring a racialized leader like me. Approach it like anything else that really matters. My guess is that you are pretty good at achieving what you focus on, such as objectives that improve your bottom line. Treat a designated hire with the same urgency and importance.
If you are committed to addressing institutional racism, make it a strategic priority. Assign exceptional leaders to make it happen. Give them the authority and resources they need. Support them relentlessly. Help everyone get on board with the change.
When you do that, you can turn to your designated hire and say, “I have given you everything you need. Now do your part.” I think you will discover the new hire is up for the challenge. In fact, I’m guessing you will find they are passionate about achieving precisely the kind of change you have in mind. I know I am.
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