June Francis | Becoming an Anti-Racist, Decolonized University: What Does It Mean and What Will It Take?

PFL 2021-2022, Equity + Justice, 2022, President's Faculty Lectures

Universities have made grand anti-racism commitments and statements over the past decades and, more recently, following the Black Lives Matter protests. Of course, these statements echo hollow given the vast gaps between these aspirations and university realities.

In this talk I challenged whether traditional universities, which have been key pillars in constructing racism, are prepared to truly decolonize and become anti-racist. This is a daunting task indeed, given the deep institutional racism, Eurocentrism and white supremacy that are—by design—embedded in the production and transmission of knowledge and human capital.

How can we dismantle these systems to re-imagine and rebuild universities so that they become flourishing spaces of mutual learning and equitable knowledge production and dissemination, fuelled by the vast resources of diverse human knowledge, systems, histories, perspectives and epistemologies?

— June Francis

Tue, 22 Mar 2022

Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre

SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts
149 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, B.C.

The President's Faculty Lectures

The President’s Faculty Lectures shine a light on the research excellence at Simon Fraser University. Hosted by SFU president Joy Johnson, these free public lectures celebrate cutting-edge research and faculty that engage with communities and mobilize knowledge to make real-world impacts.

Each short lecture by an SFU researcher will be followed by a conversation with Joy Johnson and an audience Q&A session livestreamed from the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

This year, lecturers will approach the themes of equity and justice from a variety of disciplines.

June Francis

Dr. June Francis, PhD, MBA, LLB, is co-founder of The Co-Laboratorio (CoLab), Special Advisor to the President of Simon Fraser University on Anti-Racism, director of the SFU Institute for Diaspora Research & Engagement, co-founder of the Black Caucus at SFU and an associate professor in the Beedie School of Business. She is also the chair of the board of directors at the Hogan’s Alley Society, an organization whose mission is to advance the economic and cultural well-being of people of African descent through the delivery of housing, built spaces and programming. She is an advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion for racialized groups as well as human rights through her research, consulting, media appearances and volunteering. June’s extensive experience spans the private sector and the public sector, nationally, regionally and locally, as an entrepreneur with civil society on governance boards, and as an academic.

June has been recognized by the Province of British Columbia and the National Congress of Black Women as a Trailblazer and was named to Vancouver Magazine’s 2022 Power 50 list. The City of Vancouver has also recognized her for her contributions to education and to the City. She is the recipient of the 2021 Rosemary Brown Award for her exemplary work to bring equality for girls and women both nationally and internationally, and the Service Award from the Beedie School of Business for her contributions to the community, among other accolades.


Event summary

Can universities be saved? June Francis on what it takes to decolonize our universities

By Adjua Akinwumi, PhD Candidate, SFU’s School of Communication

As sites of global knowledge production, universities play a significant role in the way we understand and structure our societies. However, they remain rooted in a legacy of Eurocentrism and epistemic monoculture. They produce hierarchies that perpetuate and legitimize epistemic dominance, invalidating alternative paradigms and knowledge systems. For centuries, Eurocentric paradigms have been used to legitimize the logic of colonization and violence against Black and Indigenous bodies.

So, how do we decolonize our universities when visible minorities continue to be underrepresented and underpaid at faculty and leadership levels? When tenure rewards only certain kinds of research? When commitments to equity simply end with signatures? Beginning her President’s Faculty Lecture with “Redemption Song,” Bob Marley's call to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, Dr. June Francis examines what it takes to decolonize our universities.

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Decolonization must begin at the level of university leadership. "This is where the money gets moved around; this is where policies are made. And this is where the operational direction comes from,” June notes. The continued underrepresentation of visible minorities at the leadership level across universities points to a broader problem of systematic exclusion. It excludes not only people but also diversity of thought and perspective.

However, June further explains that solutions to this problem must go beyond hiring visible minorities. The university's overall agenda must reflect its commitments to equity and antiracism. It is essential to acknowledge, June posits, that for marginalized groups of people, every aspect of a university might seem to be built for somebody else. From food to space, is the totality of the university experience viewed from an equity lens? She admonishes leadership to substantially demonstrate how their commitments affect objectives, decisions, resources and accountability at university and departmental levels.

Decolonization means seriously examining existing epistemic cultures. The university promotes epistemic violence, June notes. "It is a narrative that supports the idea that all things civilized, enlightened and innovative must come from European sources," she further explains. It is a narrative that has been used to invalidate the Haitian revolution while celebrating the French, to erase the Benin kingdom and similar afro-civilizations after pillaging their art.

As sites of knowledge production, universities dictate what knowledge systems and traditions count as valid and real. As the philosophical basis on which universities rest, Eurocentrism erases other ways of knowing by presenting itself as singular, objective, disembodied and universal. Its prioritization as an institution has produced hierarchies that contribute to the exclusion of Black and Indigenous narratives and histories. 

As an academic, June’s own “redemption song” came through her anti-racist and decolonial research journey. By highlighting some of  her publications, she illustrates how research can be used to challenge “epistemologies of white ignorance,” by disrupting and upending racist and colonial narratives of knowledge production, employing anti-racist and decolonized methodologies, and illuminating the colonial and racist roots of one’s discipline. She recounts feeling true academic freedom when her research aligned with her praxis.

To decolonize our universities, June posits, we need to bring in other worldviews, intellectual traditions and knowledge systems. Teaching business courses at Beedie and employing this praxis, she revealed that her students were initially resistant to learning about business practices from Rwanda. "Here is a discipline that has taught us that a person's value is their market worth. The first thing they want to know is the size of Rwanda's GDP. How much are they worth? Why are we learning anything about people who aren't worth anything, right?" she reflects.

She posits that this initial resistance is the product of a system that denies students the privilege of understanding so much about the world. In addition, it significantly narrows the scope of research that gets rewarded via tenure. "We have so deeply invested only in one set of ideas and one group of people,” she notes. Disciplines need to interrogate the value systems embedded in their pedagogy and academic practices.

Decolonization also means moving beyond academic disciplinary silos to create different learning styles. "This notion of these silos … might not be appropriate in knowledge systems that see things as more interconnected,” June observes. 

Can the university be saved? "Only if we are prepared to topple and to reimagine," June answers. It will take more than signatures and hiring practices to decolonize our universities. It would mean challenging deeply held institutional norms, exploring alternative paradigms and pedagogical approaches, rethinking accountability and, overall, reimagining the university.

Decolonization is only possible if viewed as a collective goal. As June concludes, "I invite all of us because the songs of freedom can only be sung when we bring the entire community into the space of innovation … so that the university can thrive for all of us."

2021/2022 President's Faculty Lectures

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  • Tammara Soma | Setting the Table for Food Justice

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    When it comes to issues like food insecurity, who gets to shape the solutions? Tammara Soma will share how SFU's Food Systems Lab applies community-engaged research methods to achieving sustainable, decolonized and just food systems for all.

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  • Taco Niet | Just Climate Policies

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    How do we address the climate crisis effectively and equitably? Taco Niet of SFU’s School of Sustainable Energy Engineering will discuss how evidence-based modelling tools are essential for making urgent climate policy decisions grounded in justice and equity.

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  • Vaibhav Saria | Care and Crisis in India

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    Vaibhav Saria, assistant professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at SFU, will explore how the complex history of health care in India has led to a valorization of care providers’ work during COVID-19, but also to increased violence against them.

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  • Kanna Hayashi | Harm Reduction in an Unprecedented Overdose Crisis

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    Kanna Hayashi, the St. Paul’s Hospital Chair in Substance Use Research, will explain how harm reduction interventions grounded in lived experiences, scientific evidence and health equity are desperately needed to address B.C.’s unprecedented drug toxicity crisis.

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  • June Francis | Becoming an Anti-Racist, Decolonized University

    PFL 2021-2022, Equity + Justice, 2022, President's Faculty Lectures

    June Francis, director of the SFU Institute for Diaspora Research & Engagement, will challenge whether traditional universities, which have been key pillars in constructing racism, are prepared to truly decolonize and become anti-racist.

    Read More →

Past President's Faculty Lectures