Equity at the U of S: Biased bursaries versus selective scholarships

By in Features/News

On Feb. 16, 2016, an Ontario judge overturned a deceased doctor’s request to set up a scholarship exclusively for white, single, heterosexual students on the grounds that it conflicted with public policy. While such severely narrow awards are not necessarily in circulation at the University of Saskatchewan, there remains some concern across campus regarding current awards that may be seen as outdated and potentially discriminatory.

Despite progressive actions and mindsets that continue to develop and evolve in contemporary society, there are several individuals like the aforementioned donor who remain loyal to traditional thought processes regarding matters of gender, sexual orientation, race and cultural backgrounds, among other identity markers.

Considering that several scholarships and similar awards have been entrusted to various Canadian institutions since the beginning of the 20th century, there are inevitably discriminatory stipulations that have somehow sustained into the present-day.

For Wendy Klingenberg, associate registrar and manager of student finance and awards at the U of S, these types of conflicts are uncommon, but there are certain processes in place to address problematic stipulations.

“The university has, several times over the past 15 years I’d say, gone to our legal counsel to ask about awards that are targeted for specific populations. Particularly, we are looking at human rights legislation and human rights prohibited grounds. So we will not set up awards that are discriminatory against a particular identified group,” Klingenberg said.

With undergraduate student awards topping out at $10 million plus per year, the various departments and colleges at the U of S provide several opportunities for students to access financial assistance or rewards.

According to Klingenberg, the label “award” is used as an umbrella term that covers scholarships, bursaries and prizes. Scholarships are typically granted based on academic merit, while bursaries are based on financial need and prizes on the basis of specific performances such as an exceptional essay or the highest grade in a particular course.

“Funding-wise, we are roughly in the middle of the pack nation-wide, which is okay. We would love for there to be a money tree in the Bowl, but we have to be judicious,” Klingenberg said.

The student finance and award office primarily advertises four award cycles over the course of the year, which are available through the PAWS system for students to access during each cycle. Klingenberg estimates that approximately one in 70 awards goes unclaimed.

“We don’t have a dollar amount on [unclaimed funds] because many of the awards, especially those that are donor funded, are endowed, so the capital is protected and the spendable amount every year can vary depending on investments or the university’s investment income. But we do find that some awards go unrewarded, even with re-advertising a second and even a third time,” Klingenberg said.

One such award is the Sarah Jane Abrey Bursary, open exclusively to male students pursuing a career in education. Klingenberg explains how this award, while targeting the male population specifically, does not discriminate but rather aims to assist an under-represented group within the discipline, which is the key for gender and other equity restrictions on awards.

While this particular under-representation may still hold true in the present day, Marcel D’Eon, faculty member in the College of Medicine, community health and epidemiology, points out a similar stipulation that has become problematic for him, but not necessarily for the reasons one might think.

D’Eon argues that the Dr. Jessie McGeachy MacLeod Prize for women graduating from the U of S College of Medicine has outlived its usefulness, as women are no longer under-represented in the discipline.

“It’s not that I would say it is discriminatory, but I thought it might be a little bit degrading for women to have their own prize, as if they couldn’t compete with the men on an equal basis, when we know in fact they can, and there are as many women as there are men in the top 10 and they are often the top graduate,” D’Eon said.

While D’Eon admits that at one point in time, this award certainly filled a necessary purpose, he believes it is time that the award be re-evaluated and adjusted to reflect the present demographics.

“Over the last 10 years, the proportion of women has increased and now it is about 50/50, and in some places across Canada there are more women, and for [the U of S] it’s been around half for some time now — several years. That may change, I don’t know, but for right now I don’t think we are doing anything particular to make it that way, it just turns out that half of the students are women,” D’Eon saiMoney Tree - Jeremy Britzd.

Benjamin Ralston, licensed lawyer and sessional lecturer both at the College of Law and the College of Agriculture, was also recently made privy to a problematic award lingering in the U of S system.

The Benjamin J. Sanderson Fellowship, valued at $5,000, is offered to male students under the age of 30 who are graduating, or have graduated, from the U of S with an undergraduate degree in the social sciences and who will be pursuing studies at the London School of Economics and Political Studies.

“Though I am not going to give a legal opinion, it seems fairly clear that male-only scholarship for [political science] students would breach human rights law, but the question is whether or not human rights law is even engaged … It seemed on it’s face wrong, potentially illegal, and I had to wonder why [the department isn’t] doing anything about it — if they aren’t,” Ralston said.

While the award details strike Ralston as outdated, he is not taking a hard stance on the issue, but rather encouraging the institution to take a closer look at the laws surrounding the details.

“It’s not black and white because there is a lot of complexity in the law in this area, but I don’t think it would sit well with most people,” Ralston said.

Until her interview with the Sheaf, Klingenberg had been unaware of this specific anachronism in the system.

“Because it was established as a bequest, we would have to apply to the courts to break this trust and I can imagine that when this was created, male students were under-represented in social sciences,” she said. “This will was from 1944, so it’s terribly old and it may very well be that, at that time, the London School of Economics wasn’t open to women.”

Klingenberg reassures those individuals and groups with concerns that she and her colleagues at student finance and awards are constantly assessing old terms of reference that are narrow or restrictive.

Despite the fact that many awards are the result of a bequest on behalf of a deceased donor, she points out that the institution employs a clause in many terms of reference that allows the board to make adjustments when the original terms of reference are no longer tenable.

“We have legal obligations because it’s a trust agreement, but we can’t hide behind policy as an excuse for not doing the right thing,” Klingenberg said.

In spite of evident changes in enrollment and graduate students taking political science at the U of S, the fellowship has gone unnoticed, or at least remained unchanged, in the last seven decades. Klingenberg explains how this can happen.

Finance and trusts, a department in advancement and community engagement, is the colleague, co-worker and ally of student finance and awards in changing trust terms. Klingenberg admits that the Benjamin J. Sanderson Fellowship may already be on a list awaiting review or legal action, but she insists that it will be taken into serious consideration, regardless.

“Sanderson is clearly discriminatory and shouldn’t stand. I’m not our legal department, but in my opinion … I would open this one up just based on changes in gender equity in a public policy and societal sense. This one seems unjust,” she said.

Ralston encourages students who encounter potentially discriminatory awards or situations to seek out legal or human rights advice from a credible source.

“It’s something to speak to the Human Rights Commission about. Obviously, you could lawyer-up or try to self-represent, but we are lucky enough to have a commission here in Saskatchewan … They can provide a variety of ways to resolve it that do not necessarily require you to go through a full process, but maybe try and mediate between the parties,” Ralston said.

Moreover, Campus Legal Services, a student-run clinic, recently re-opened through the College of Law, and pairs law students with other students who have residential tenancy complaints or similar issues. Ralston suggests students utilize this free service, should they ever need to seek legal counsel.

While it is an ongoing challenge to assess every award available to U of S students, there are several selective awards for equity groups that the university has committed to focusing on, including Aboriginal students, under-represented women, people with disabilities and physical minorities, among others.

Klingenberg proudly references several increasingly progressive awards that the university has recently established for these specific groups, as evidence of their ongoing sensitivity and awareness of the changing times.

“Last year, when the transgender flag was raised in Convocation Hall, we created two new awards. One for transgendered students or for students who are doing research or scholarly work on transgender issues and an award for two-spirited students. Those are each $2,500,” Klingenberg said.

The College of Law also has a donor-funded award that allots $2,000 per year for second-year and third-year Juris Doctor students who identify as LGBTQ or are working in the field.

Moreover, the Peter T. Millard award, valued at $1,000, exists for students who have done scholarly work as part of course requirements in LGBTQ areas, including written, research, arts or fine arts work.

Klingenberg also draws attention to the Youth From Care Bursary, established in September 2015, which helps to cover the costs of education for youth who have been or are coming out of the foster care system.

“Those students typically have had delays in their elementary or secondary schooling and typically have a much less robust financial support and social support system,” she said.

While the Bowl may indeed lack a money tree, Klingenberg argues that the U of S is world class in many areas, but that it also remains small enough in ways that are especially significant for its students.

“I know, day-in and day-out, my awards and account staff are really focused on doing the right thing, and that comes back to the Sanderson fellowship. This is wrong and we need to fix it and we are going to fix it. We focus all the time on getting the right money to the right student at the right time … We don’t see students as just their student numbers. We see and look for people behind the student number.”

Saskatchewan Youth From Care Bursary

Value: Up to $20,000

Open to entering or continuing students in any direct-entry degree program at the U of S who have been youth in the care of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services or a FNCFSA.

U of S Transgender Student Award

Value: $2,500

To qualify, students must provide a self-declaration of their status as a transgender person, and/or provide a statement of no more than two pages outlining their research into transgender issues.

Hannon Travel Scholarships

Value: $7,000

Awarded annually to students in English, Home Economics and Nutrition and Theology. To be eligible, students must be in the graduating year of their program. Selection will be based on the merit of the travel proposal, involvement in university, college and community activities and character. Academic achievement may be taken into consideration.

Peter T. Millard Scholarship

Value: $1,000

Offered annually to an undergraduate student registered in any college who has undertaken scholarly work related to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and/or human rights issues.

Sarah Jane Abrey Bursaries

Value: $11,500

Offered to male students who intend to become a teacher. Selection will be based on academic achievement, character and leadership, community involvement and financial need.

U of S Two-Spirit Student Award

Value: $2,500

To qualify, students must provide a self-declaration of their status as a two-spirit person, and/or provide a statement of no more than two pages outlining their research into two-spirit issues.

Image: Jeremy Britz / Graphics Editor