Universities say they welcome the challenge from Ottawa to improve diversity among the ranks of the Canada Research Chairs, under threat of funding cuts.
The federal government issued new rules last week for the prestigious research program in an attempt to improve representation for women, visible minorities, people with disabilities and Indigenous scholars.
Universities are now being told that their candidates for the program, which provides $265-million for up to 2,000 scholars across the country, must meet certain diversity targets or else granting agencies would withhold funds.
Pari Johnston, vice-president of policy at Universities Canada, said her association's members were consulted in the run-up to the announcement, and they are glad they are being given two to three years to adjust their hiring practices.
"Institutional change takes time. There is a reasonable time frame set out so that those changes can happen," Ms. Johnston said.
Pam Foster, director of research at the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said the government's actions were a long time coming and that the threat of fewer positions was needed to get institutions to act.
"This self-regulatory approach that's been on the table hasn't worked," Ms. Foster said. "This should work."
Equity targets were first created for Canada Research Chairs (CRCs) after a 2006 human-rights settlement that alleged discrimination in how the positions were handed out. Targets were assigned based on the availability of eligible academics for the positions. In the decade since, most universities in Canada have consistently fallen short in hiring for one or more of the four designated equity groups.
For instance, 31 per cent of chair positions are meant to go to women, because that is the portion of eligible researchers who are female. Instead, women hold only about 28 per cent of research chairs at large universities across the country.
The rules unveiled last week are the first time a penalty is being attached to missing the targets.
Science Minister Kirsty Duncan told a gathering of university presidents in April that she was disappointed that their institutions were still not nominating diverse candidates, after she began to raise the issue last year.
Vianne Timmons, president of the University of Regina, said her fellow academics took the message to heart.
"She [Ms. Duncan] was very forceful on this issue. The presidents took it very seriously," Prof. Timmons said in an interview.
She said she's been involved in promoting the importance of female leadership in academia for years, but will now take a more hands-on role in how her school selects candidates for Canada Research Chairs.
"I don't think there will be a university president in the country that isn't actively engaged in any selection of any research chair as we go forward," Prof. Timmons said.
"I'll be honest, I think something like this is needed to push us. That's unfortunate."
Postsecondary institutions across the country are trying different ways to promote diversity in their ranks. Last year, the University of Guelph, at the urging of provost Charlotte Yates, created five tenure-track positions exclusively for Indigenous scholars.
Malcolm Campbell, vice-president of research at the University of Guelph, said the school currently only meets one of its four equity targets, but as the five- or seven-year positions come up for renewal the university is increasingly filling those spots with more diverse candidates.
A common criticism of equity targets is that hiring is no longer based just on merit, but Prof. Campbell said there is no shortage of academic talent across groups.
"Frankly, there are more qualified people in this country for CRCs than there are CRCs available," Prof. Campbell said.