March 15, 2019

University language choice highlights need for broader understanding

Question viewed as harmful by some community members

Universities are places where people grow and learn through curiosity and exploration. As a research university, our impact on society is measured by how we answer society’s toughest questions, creating  and sharing new knowledge that helps the world move forward.

For the past three years, UCalgary has been running a positioning program based on this premise — that asking questions leads to dialogue and learning. If you happen to drive along Crowchild Trail in Calgary, you may have seen our billboard featuring a variety of questions — everything from “Is a nursing home unavoidable?” and “Are anxiety and depression in our genes?” to “Is there a better way to detect cancer?” and “Is social media making us less civil?” These questions lead to stories about research and scholarship being conducted at the University of Calgary.

Last month, we heard from some community members that a question we posed as part of this program was viewed as violent. The question asked readers to consider whether a person’s anatomy defined their gender. It was intended to compel the reader to visit a website that addresses the complexities of gender dynamics through research and scholarly work conducted at the university, including how gender and sexuality are being redefined in modern society.

Those who came forward felt that the question echoed language often used to dehumanize transgender people and put their personal identities up for public discussion. Regardless of our intent, our words were received as harmful, which we regret. With this understanding, we chose to remove the billboard.

“Universities are convenors of important societal conversations. We also have a responsibility to create a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment,” says Dr. Dru Marshall, provost and vice-president, academic, “which is why we chose to take action in this situation. As a community, we are truly dedicated to nurturing a culture that supports equity, diversity and inclusion. The first goal in our academic plan focuses on prioritizing our people . . . all of our people.”

Adds Marshall: “We must continue to ask questions and explore difficult issues. Curiosity and inquiry are critical to the learning process and help advance society as a whole. Our campuses are places for open dialogue, where respectful conversation and open debate are encouraged, and where people can explore ideas and share their perspectives.”

This experience has spurred discussion of ways in which the university can better involve and support members of our diverse community.

Important campus resources

The University of Calgary community has worked over the last several years to develop strategies, policies and procedures specifically geared toward creating a safe and secure space for our students, faculty, staff, and visitors. We offer a variety of resources to educate and guide the campus community on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. For example:

  • The Office of Diversity, Equity and Protected Disclosure is committed to the education of students, faculty and staff to build intercultural competencies, so that the campus community is better equipped to work with diverse groups, participate as active members in the safety and well-being of the campus, and be inclusive and welcoming to everyone. Resources available through ODEPD include the following:
  • The UCalgary sexual violence support advocate brings support, advocacy, prevention education and awareness to many topic areas that impact and intersect with the issue of sexual violence.
    • Intersectional and anti-oppressive workshops around gender-based violence, sexism, racism, transphobia and homophobia
    • Response support for anyone who has experienced or been impacted by sexual violence support website
    • Overview and resource list
    • The SU Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity (the Q Centre) provides a safe, comfortable and inviting space for the LGBTQA+ community at the University of Calgary. Featuring a library and peer support services, the program co-ordinators and volunteers plan events and direct clients to relevant resources.