The Interview USA
University of Windsor, Ontario
Director of Anti-Racism and Organisational Change

Marium Tolson-Murtty

Building bridges of understanding and support within the university setting starts with acknowledging the systemic barriers that impede a sense of belonging and actively working to dismantle them. This understanding is central to the work of Marium Tolson-Murtty, Director for Anti-Racism and Organisational Change at The University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

Marium met with Max Webber, Co-Host of The Interview, to share her insights on everything from the challenge of encouraging respectful conversations among students with differing viewpoints to the value of responsive and empathetic leadership.

Marium's Journey

Max: Let’s begin with a quick introduction to yourself and your current role.

My name is Marium Tolson-Murtty and I’m the Director of Anti-Racism and Organisational Change at the University of Windsor. We’re located in Ontario, Canada, and we’re home to about 16,000 students. We offer close to 200 different programs from undergraduate through to PhD level. It’s wonderful to be a part of this amazing institution.

Max: What inspired you to pursue a career in higher education?

I always knew I wanted to be an educator, but I fell into it a lot earlier than I had anticipated.  My undergraduate degree is in Communication Studies, and then I received a Masters degree in education before studying for my PhD. I always thought I would work in the school system, with elementary or secondary school students, and then maybe work my way to post-secondary. But because I was so involved with programming at the undergraduate level while I was a student, I was hired to work in higher ed as soon as I finished my first degree, and I've been in the sector ever since. I’ve worked in a variety of roles, from experiential learning to undergraduate recruitment and continuing teacher education. I’m now really immersed in equity, diversity and inclusion, specifically anti-racism in higher education. I’m highly invested in addressing systemic issues as they relate to students, faculty, staff, and even alumni to some extent as well.

Max: What’s been your focus in terms of creating a sense of inclusion and belonging for all students across the student body?

That's a really good question. What has really drawn my focus is hearing the concerns of our students, especially after the murder of George Floyd. At that time, we recognised that there were incidents of racism at our institution and some students just did not feel like they could trust the university to do better. And so I really felt honoured and privileged to be able to step into this role and say, “Okay, I understand where you're coming from, but please try to trust in the process.” It’s our goal to make this university a better institution, to look at issues of inclusivity, and to create a safe environment where students can feel like they belong. We do that by listening to what students have to say – that’s the best way to build trust. Trying to build these trusting relationships is challenging even in the best of times, and it was even more difficult with the pandemic and virtual learning. I feel that it’s my mission to bring students in and make them feel comfortable and confident enough so that they can share with me what their issues are and what changes they want to see. 

Max: Recent guests have spoken about the challenge of student engagement. How do you try to get all students involved?

During the height of Covid, we saw a lot of issues around engagement. We were doing everything remotely, from our classroom environments to our guest speakers. And when it came to talking about issues like racism, we found that many people didn’t have the context. 

So it wasn't just about having a parade of speakers, but also about making sure that context was provided so that people could walk away with the knowledge and resources to really connect with the reasons why we're doing what we're doing. We aren’t focused on isolated incidences but on systemic practices. Sometimes, people aren’t able to identify institutional racism because it’s just so normalised as part of their everyday experience. So it’s about bringing in a variety of speakers and making sure that within those speaking engagements, opportunities for learning are happening as well.

Max: Students have busy schedules, and have little free time. How can we get them actively engaged in inclusivity and belonging initiatives?

In the beginning, it was extremely challenging, because we were operating from a space of mistrust after several unfortunate incidents. It’s important that we don’t minimise that, but also think about what is the best way to move forward. You need to act with empathy; often, institutions make empty promises, and that may have happened here under previous leadership. But as the years have progressed, and we've returned to an in-person environment, I feel that the level of trust is now building because there is a diversity of people. So we run a variety of workshops and events; our goal is to create opportunities to meet students where they're at, to bring them in, and to work with them one-on-one if necessary to help foster that sense of belonging.

Max: How can we encourage students to engage in respectful conversations across difference?

We're definitely dealing with that right now, and it's a huge challenge. There are such contentious issues at play, and some of these issues have been part of people's lives for decades. They aren’t topics that can be addressed lightly. All points of view have to be respected; as a practitioner, you absolutely cannot take sides. Though, of course, we don't condone any kind of hate speech – that's where we draw the line. So once again, it's about recognising that there are no quick solutions. Even opposing parties have to be respectful of each other's opinions. That goes a long way to ensuring that students feel included in a diverse university environment.

Max: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?

Surround yourself with great people who really believe in meeting the needs of the students. At the end of the day, you're part of the students' journey, so making sure you have a good team of people around you is vital for your well-being as well as the well-being of the students that you're working with.

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Max Webber
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