By: Maryanne Oketch
One of the reasons I chose to enrol at McMaster University was for the diversity that the school claimed to offer. Coming from a predominantly white secondary school, I was excited to attend a new school. I was hopeful that I would make connections within my program and maybe gain a support system consisting of people that could relate to the experience of being Black in academia.
When I entered the integrated science program in 2016, I was disheartened to realize that in my year of entry, I was the only student in my program that was Black, alongside two other individuals with mixed backgrounds. Within the week, this dropped to two, as one person switched out. Within the month, it then became clear that the two of us were not just the only Black students in our year, but in the whole four-year program.
This lack of Black peers created a feeling that I had to be the best of the best, and when I couldn’t reach that goal, I would withdraw rather than reaching out. This caused damage to my grades, reputation and relationships with my peers.
It is a well-known fact that there is a disparity between the Black population and our representation in higher education. This gap can be seen more in supplementary-based programs that McMaster offers, and my experience unfortunately is not an isolated one.
Multiple students from different programs stated that the lack of Black students in their programs made them feel like there were few people who could relate to the struggles that come with being Black.
There was also another complexity that I did not consider — the fact that there are more Black women in academia than Black men. One health sciences student, upon realizing that they were the only Black man in their whole year, experienced feelings of isolation.
In addition, a justice, political philosophy and law student was the only Black man in their program, and though he is friends with Black women, he notes that it is not fully the same.
Regrettably, the issues that stem from the lack of diversity do not just have interpersonal effects, but also affect the learning experience. A student in the arts and science program said that there were times when a professor or student would ask a question that pertained to race, and the question would seem pointed at them, the only Black student in their year.
This student can also recall a moment when a professor made a comment about how some students may be used to hearing racist jokes, and then locked eyes with them, creating an uncomfortable situation.
Another former arts and science student had a class where a classmate attempted to defend slavery, and a professor who taught a class about oppression but refused to use the term “racism”. The student states that they never felt challenged by the program, and felt that they had to do the challenging rather than their instructors. This was due, they say, to the structure and instruction of the program being catered to their affluent white peers and not to them.
The catering of programs does not seem limited to just arts and science but can also be seen in McMaster Engineering Society programs. A student within the program switched out after one semester due to the lack of actual inquiry in the program, but a focus on the marks received.
When a peer in their program stated that "the disadvantaged [in Hamilton] aren't doing enough for the more privileged to help them," the professor did not immediately shut down this false and insensitive statement, but instead was complacent. In addition, the structure of the program encouraged students to repeat the same statistics because that is what is needed for a good grade, and not because the students wished to learn more about societal issues.
If multiple Black students in different years and different programs are saying the same thing, there needs to be some sort of change to support these students when they are in the program. I am not suggesting these programs change their selection process, because this lack of diversity is a systemic issue, and I do not have the knowledge to provide suitable solutions to help mitigate the effects.
Regardless, if McMaster strives for diversity and does not have the necessary structure to support the diverse students that they already have, then their efforts are just a baseless claim to obtain more money from a diverse group of students.
In previous years, most secondary school students looking to pursue careers in law would not even have McMaster on their shortlist of schools to apply to. Though well known for its strengths in legal philosophy, the Hamilton-based university famed for its scientific innovations did not stand out among a wealth of other options.
But acknowledging that no single approach guarantees admission to law school — especially during a time when competition to get in is particularly high —McMaster has entered into greener pastures with several changes that may beckon to prospective students.
As the Silhouette reported in Nov 2013, the university introduced a new program dubbed Justice, Political Philosophy, and Law (JPPL), which gained approval from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities following several years of lobbying by members of the Department of Philosophy.
When asked about the effort that went into obtaining approval for the experimental program, Dr. Elisabeth Gedge said it was only natural. The Philosophy Department was already well established at the graduate and research level and there was a demand from the university to direct attention towards the needs of undergraduates.
Gedge has seen desire for spots in the program increase and she anticipates a growing interest. The Chair of the Department of Philosophy said that the interdisciplinary nature of JPPL attracts open-minded, intelligent students who like the flexibility the degree offers after graduation.
Dr. Stefan Sciaraffa believes the JPPL has a lot to offer, saying that the writing-intensive nature of the program provides students with valuable skills.
“[The program is] a unique opportunity to hone a highly valuable skill that will serve him/her well in any number of careers that require him/her to write legal briefs, memoranda, policy papers, and so on,” he said.
After seeing faculty succeed in bringing JPPL to life, the students enrolled in the program are now taking the lead in initiating further change with impressive results to show for it.
During the fall/winter term of 2013, Chris Leblanc, Louisa Matozzo, and Tiffany Leslie joined forces to create the McMaster Undergraduate Journal of Law and Politics (MUJLP). While undergraduate journals in other areas of study are not uncommon, MUJLP is the first undergraduate journal in Canada to focus on law and politics.
The trio was driven to found the journal in order to fill the void in the undergraduate journal landscape. They also want to give students an outlet for scholarly expression that is not normally afforded to them.
Leslie said she and her peers were disappointed at the lack of excitement with which most university students greet academic tasks.
She hopes that the thrill of having original work published in a peer-reviewed journal will offer an example of the practicality of theoretical knowledge to the skeptics.
The third-year JPPL student also emphasized the collaborative nature of the project, noting that hshe, Matozzo, and Leblanc have added nine more members to their ranks and that she would love to see the team expand further.
Leslie also noted that the number of the new hires speaks to the wide appeal of law and how it can be applied to any stream of learning.
“We have editors who are in Chemistry, some who are in Economics, and others who are in Political Science. There is really a broad range of interest being shown from all faculties.”
Various university employees were called upon to help steer the students to a manageable first year at the helm of an ambitious endeavor, as Gedge put it.
Along with Dr. Gedge, people like Associate Dean of Humanities Dr. Anna Moro, Dr. Stefan Sciaraffa, Dr. Nancy Doubleday, and Rowena Muhic-Day of Humanities Career Services were instrumental in handling procedural matters so that the students could focus on plotting the journal’s future.
For students interested having their writing published in MUJLP, Leslie said that the editorial board is welcoming submissions to the email listed on their website ahead of a conference that will take place in mid-March. They aim to have several professors and keynote speakers engage with students in a sociable atmosphere.
Combined with the JPPL program, the new journal is another feature that may entice future law students to McMaster.
Humanities has introduced a new honours program to McMaster, Justice, Political Philosophy and Law, following approval from the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. The program is the outcome of two years of steady preparation from the Department of Philosophy.
The program went through a long process of approval from department faculty, the university and the ministry. Those advocating for the program creating a detailed brief outlining the programs structure, aims of the courses and benefits for students involved, as well as the unique traits the program could potentially bring to the campus.
“In our case, the consistency with President Deane's Forward With Integrity was an important part of the case we made for the JPPL,” said Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Elisabeth Gedge. “The JPPL Program will instantiate the values set out in FWI in a unique way.”
The main focus for students in the JPPL program will be to help develop an understanding of law and legal institutions, as well as perspective on political and moral theories. The ideologies will be reflected throughout the wide range of courses available, ranging from law and global politics to feminist jurisprudence and human rights.
The majority of students already involved with the program are currently aiming to attend law school, although Gedge emphasized that JPPL will also prepare students for potential careers in other fields, including politics, philosophy, human rights or public policy. “More broadly, JPPL should appeal to any student interested in becoming an informed and engaged Canadian and global citizen,” she said.
The centralized focus on law with the heavy emphasis on philosophical reflection and theology make the program unique in Canada.
Those in the program say the program’s feasibility is based on its faculty; the Department of Philosophy currently has two faculty members with law degrees, and a professor who is Chair in Constitutional Studies.
“It builds on strengths we currently have in the Philosophy department in areas of legal philosophy, political philosophy and applied ethics,” said Violetta Igneski, assistant professor in the Department purchase propecia of Philosophy.
The program hopes to offer experience and opportunities for internships, placements and community engagements in legal clinic, round tables and immigrant centres. Senior undergraduate students will also have the benefit of the Department of Philosophy’s active membership in the Ontario Legal Philosophy Partnership, a joint agreement between the philosophy departments of McMaster, York University and Osgoode Hall Law School, which allows for constant collaboration between the three parties.
In order to qualify for the program, students are recommended to complete Humanities I with at least three units of Level I philosophy, along with submitting a supplementary application form in March of their first year in McMaster. Enrolment will be limited, with roughly 60 students expecting to be admitted.
“Lots of students and parents ask, ‘What can I do with my degree?’” said Igneski. “This program has an answer to that.”