Dear senior university leaders: what will you say you did to address racism in higher education?

Posts on social media aren’t enough to dismantle institutional and structural racism in the academy, say Marcia A. Wilson and Lurraine Jones

June 9, 2020
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The killing of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May has sparked worldwide protests and condemnation of racism and police brutality. Floyd’s murder occurred during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when black and minority ethnic communities have been disproportionally affected globally. In the UK, for example, a recent Public Health England report confirmed that people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, other Asian, Caribbean and other black ethnicity had between a 10 to 50 per cent higher risk of dying from Covid-19 that white British people.

Given the turbulent state of societies, as people of all hues take to the streets to protest, organisations have been quick to make statements condemning racism and offering support and allyship to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many took to social media to participate in #BlackOutTuesday on 2 June as a collective stand in solidarity against racism. Higher education institutions were among those who posted the black square that day, which was a symbol of reflection.

The irony is that, across the sector, most universities have done very little to acknowledge and dismantle the institutional and structural racism that negatively impacts the experience of many black staff and students.

These gestures of solidarity are viewed as the “right” thing to do in our current climate, but will it soon become like clapping for carers on a Thursday evening? What started off as an emotional “we are all in this together” act, after 10 weeks became a “we’ve done it now, let’s just clap (or not) from the sofa” act.

What’s more, many NHS staff did not support the clapping because what they wanted was adequate PPE, and for their colleagues not to die – most of whom were black and ethnic minorities.

What will senior leaders of institutions choose to do when the global light is no longer shining on Black Lives Matter protests? What will senior higher education leaders choose to do differently to effectively address the systemically racist structures that are prevalent within universities when they resume their business post-Covid-19?

Resuming “business as usual” for black students means returning to unequal outcomes. White students are 13.2 per cent more likely to be awarded a good degree (1st or 2:1). Meanwhile data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency  indicate similar gaps in outcomes for black students with regard to retention on their degree programme, progression from one level of study to the next and graduate employability rates.

The starting point for real change is an acknowledgement that higher education institutions do not produce equal outcomes for all students. Unfortunately, oftentimes, this degree-awarding gap is seen from a deficit perspective, whereby the student is judged as not possessing the relevant academic skills or aptitude to achieve a good degree. This perspective absolves the institution of any responsibility or requirement to reflect on or change its practices. At best, institutions implement schemes to support underperforming students. However, it is now time for leaders to urgently examine the deficits within their own institutions and to be held accountable for the policies, practices and culture that may affect black students’ progression, retention and award outcomes.

In addition to confronting the inequity among students, dismantling institutional and structural racism needs to be the primary focus in universities’ efforts for change, as well as addressing the very real overbearing problem of whiteness.

Black feminist writer Toni Morrison describes the invisibility of whiteness as a fishbowl that contains fish and water. The fishbowl itself provides meaning as it contains the water and the fish, but one invariably focuses on the fish swimming in the water, and not the constraints of the fishbowl itself.

In order for a “new normal” to emerge for black students and university staff, one must focus on the fishbowl.

One of the key problems in higher education is that all-white spaces are often the norm and there is a lack of critical understanding and knowledge about whiteness and how it works to maintain and reproduce the status quo. We doubt that very few senior management teams even have (constructive) conversations about whiteness and how it links to racism in higher education.

Using critical race theory as a framework, white domination is normalised and is seen (and unseen) as perfectly natural and legitimate. Building on the original legal work of scholars such as Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado and Patricia J. Williams, CRT has been employed in the area of education to provide an appropriate context and framework for research.

Whiteness is much more than simply the colour of a person’s skin, and indeed Robin DiAngelo refers to whiteness as “dynamic, relational, and operating at all times and on myriad levels.

“These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.”

Now more than ever before, higher education needs critical, reflexive leadership. Reflective leadership has the potential to change the university experience for all, but reflexive leadership – consciously acknowledging the issues through introspection and subsequent positive personal and institutional action – is both ethical and moral.

Senior leaders need to understand that the acronym BAME is highly unsatisfactory and problematic for reviewing and analysing staff and student ethnicities in any context.

Seniors leaders need to understand that whiteness can be an issue for many black students seeking wellbeing and academic help and support.

University of Greenwich’s Paul Washington Miller argues that senior leaders have the ability to address the policies and procedures that are embedded within institutions that result in unequal outcomes. These same leaders can also stipulate practices to address discriminatory behaviours and implement a zero-tolerance policy that results in perpetrators being held to account and consequences for their actions administered.

Similarly, leaders can choose to implement culturally inclusive practices in the learning, teaching and hiring across the institution through institutional KPIs that will filter through to HR practices, staff performance and development reviews, external partner relationships and university imagery.

If senior leaders chose to use their power wisely and for the greater good, universities could be very different culturally inclusive and anti-racist places compared to where many are at present.

Recently we saw Alexis Ohanian resign from the tech firm Reddit’s board, a company he co-founded 15 years ago. He urged the board to give his seat to a black person. Ohanian argued that “resignation can actually be an act of leadership from people in power right now”. He wanted to be able to answer his black daughter when she asks: “What did you do?”

The same question is being posed to senior leaders in higher education: after you stood in solidarity with #BlackOutTuesday, what did you do to make a difference in the lives of black students, black scholars and black academic staff?

Marcia A. Wilson is dean of the Office for Institutional Equity and Lurraine Jones is a senior lecturer and head of the department for social sciences at the University of East London

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Reader's comments (3)

My sense is that much of the inequality is caused prior to university entry. I guess the question we need to ask ourselves is: should (and can) universities fix entrenched societal inequalities that happened before university entry? If yes, then this will inevitably lead to crumbling quality of education and fewer innovations and a lower quality of research. We will need to crowd out European students at European universities to make room for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, e.g., from African countries, and there cannot be any more tuition fees. These steps will be necessary to achieve true equality of outcome. If the answer is that we cannot, or do not want to, embark on this journey, then we will simply not reach this goal of tackling racial inequality successfully. So what is more important for us? Fixing racism or securing quality and innovation for the privileged? We need to be very honest about this.
We need to look at this not as a black vs. white thing but as a humanitarian issue. The imperative needs to be to treat every human being fairly and give them equal access to, well, every opportunity irrespective of the colour of their skin (or the amount of money in their pockets). There is no need to deminish standards however. What we need to do is to raise up those who are disadvantaged so that they have an equal chance of realising their potential as that of their more fortunate peers. The aim should always be to raise up, not drag down. Use things like foundation years and community outreach programmes to empower the disadvantaged to be able to participate on an equal footing. The nation, as well as the disadvantaged, will be the better for it.
I am a mixed-race professional. Over the years I have been interviewed for roles at LSE and Queen Mary University; both interview panels were exclusively white. Firstly if they want diversity, HE needs to diversify their recruitment panels to prevent bias. In my time at Southampton University, my lecturers were exclusively white. HE needs to actively support (by funding) PhDs for BAME individuals. This includes developing postgraduate widening participation outreach programmes. If some actions that cause inequality begin prior to university entry. Then HE should be seeking to develop research into strategies to address this. In order for this to be sensitively developed HE management should seek to partner with organisations that support BAME progress. Ideally these programmes should be led by BAME individuals who will best understand the communities these programmes research.