Welcome to Equity 101

General counsel Logan Atkinson works with his colleagues to ensure all who come into contact with the University of Waterloo are welcome

Concordia cum veritate. From creating gender-neutral washrooms to providing appropriate prayer space, the University of Waterloo is working to create a supportive environment for students, faculty, and staff of all backgrounds. It’s motto, meaning “in harmony with truth,” is exemplified in these equality-focused endeavours.

University leaders are paying special attention to promoting gender equity as a key component of its core mission to pursue learning at the highest-possible levels in a spirit of free enquiry and expression. The university is one of 10 worldwide institutions chosen to participate in the United Nation’s HeForShe IMPACT framework for gender equality. The campaign brings together male global leaders in government, business, and academics who strive to empower women and combat gender-based violence.

“For me, growth is driven by curiosity, by unanswered questions. Of course, that’s largely what the academic enterprise is about, isn’t it? It’s about following your curiosity and allowing yourself the freedom to ask questions in an uninhibited, unencumbered way.”

University president and vice chancellor Feridun Hamdullahpur is “keenly interested in an accessible, equitable environment for everyone who’s interested in experiencing the University of Waterloo,” says secretary and general counsel Logan Atkinson. “This is an important opportunity because, for us, the university is a complex, challenging place. We have to keep our eye on this very carefully all the time.”

Atkinson, 61, has been with the university since 2012. He began his legal career in private practice for 15 years before going back to school for two master’s degrees in humanities and social sciences, as well as a doctorate in legal history. He was motivated to pursue the degrees in an effort to better understand questions surrounding professional ethics.

After years in private practice and five degrees, Atkinson feels as if he has an unusual perspective on the university and its mission. He opted to stay in academics and worked as a faculty member and university secretary for Carleton University before taking the job with UW.

“The transition to academics was a complete change for me,” Atkinson says. “From the day-over-day push around billable hours to thinking about things at a more theoretical level and thinking about the welfare of our students.”

Atkinson is responsible for about 35 decision-making bodies at the board of governors, senate, and administrative levels. He oversees privacy, freedom of information, policy management, risk management, internal audit, records management, police services, the safety office, human rights, equity, and conflict management. As general counsel, Atkinson converted the office from one that sent its work to outside firms to one that handles legal issues in-house, reducing the legal spend by about 70 percent in the first year.

But how does he handle what he believes is the broadest span of responsibilities among his peers at other Canadian universities?

“I know how to delegate,” says Atkinson, noting that he has strong people leading his teams. He expects his directors and lawyers to make decisions on their own, seeking his help when they have difficulties.But how does he handle what he believes is the broadest span of responsibilities among his peers at other Canadian universities?

In response to identified institutional needs and with the support of a wide number of colleagues, Atkinson has taken on several major projects at the University of Waterloo, including developing its first truly institutional risk-management program and adding more accountability to the internal audit program.

Beyond his law degree, Atkinson obtained master’s degrees in legal studies and humanities. He has written several books and academic papers but has a particular passion for human rights and equity.

He also established the equity office and hired a director of equity in fall 2013—Mahejabeen Ebrahim—who reports to Atkinson. She’s working to develop sexual-assault protocols, promote gender equity in faculty hiring, and address issues of parental leave and faculty mentorship.

“It’s been an unqualified success, but of course there is much work still to do,” Atkinson says.

The university’s reputation is largely built on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, which historically have not been understood as particularly friendly to women, he notes.

“For us to take on the idea of gender balance in faculty and in our student population—given that we’re so heavily invested in the STEM disciplines—is a very big challenge,” Atkinson says. “But we’re optimistic. We’re starting to see some change already and very interesting programs, some heavily invested people on the ground here. It’s an exciting time.”

In 2013, the university created a new strategic plan with eight themes, including recognition and promotion of a sound value system. As the person in charge of institutional policy management, Atkinson tries to ensure that the university’s values are ingrained in its policies. They incorporate commitments to ethical behaviour, research and workplace integrity, academic freedom, equity, and respect for human rights.

“These are some of the values that we try to promote in the university; I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” Atkinson says. “To have the discussion about values as a theme in your strategic plan—that speaks volumes about the university’s commitment.”