How leaders can and must work together to address inequity

Leading by example and striking the right balance between competition and collaboration are crucial points for those hoping to lead HE to a more equitable future

Charles Egbu's avatar
Leeds Trinity University
7 Jul 2022
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A human paper chain representing how university leaders must come together to tackle inequity

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Covid-19 has amplified the structural inequities that exist for people of colour in education, health and labour markets. Following the pandemic, we find ourselves at a time of real possibility for leaders to address inequities in opportunity and outcomes – by working collaboratively to drive change.

For example, at Leeds Trinity University, we recently held our annual Race, Equity and Social Justice conference, which this year focused on “Decoloniality of the Academy”. It was a remarkable day that brought together academics and leaders from across the world to share knowledge throughout different sectors to bring real change within our respective organisations.

As part of this conference, I engaged in a roundtable discussion with panellists from Leeds City Council, Leeds Learning Alliance and HE institutions including University College London, the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University and Durham University. What struck me most from the session was the emergence of three key leadership themes that are central to making progress in this area:

1. Collaboration not competition

Too often, we struggle to strike the right balance between where we need to compete and where we need to collaborate, particularly in order to tackle the key issues around inequity. True collaborative efforts, bringing in the perspectives and learning from a wide range of sectors, really can make a change if we work together as communities and invest in collaboration.

Within this, we must remember that no one institution is the custodian of all knowledge. We are all on a journey where we will make mistakes, but there are lessons to be learned along the way. By working together, we can tap into the best practice, understand how to overcome challenges and make a difference. Our recent conference is a good example of this, as it brought together academics and leaders in a safe space where we were all able to speak about our experiences, discuss what we can do going forward and show genuine collaboration in our work.

There are opportunities to do this in every role, in every sector. Last year, we launched a new diversity mentoring scheme for staff in partnership with a number of higher education institutions across Yorkshire. The U-Connect programme provides cross-institutional mentoring to colleagues at Leeds Trinity, Sheffield Hallam, York St. John, Huddersfield and Sheffield Universities, working together to provide staff from diverse backgrounds with career support, development and progression. We recognise the importance of role models for recruitment, retention, attainment, career progression and curriculum, and we are keen to continue this collaborative approach with other institutions.

2. True leadership

Leaders coming together in collaboration to help each other address inequity is important, but they must also lead by example. This comes down to honesty and truthfulness when we say we want to make a change: to say, as our institution does, that we acknowledge that institutional racism exists and that we want to be an anti-racist organisation. This is as important internally as it is externally. But there also needs to be boldness in leadership, in setting measurable targets, so that changes are made and progress can be tracked. This means being honest about what has worked well and what hasn’t, and, importantly, pausing, reviewing and understanding why before starting again.

This is reflected in our Race Equality Charter work in which we carried out a root and branch review of our institution to identify areas in which institutional racism exists and put in appropriate actions to address the issues identified. As leaders, we set the tone of what “good” looks like and how we can implement this in all aspects of what we do. For example, last year I introduced the Office for Institutional Equity at Leeds Trinity to examine all policies and practices through the lens of equality, diversity and inclusion, to support colleagues and students in these matters and to develop appropriate training. The director, Tamsin Bowers-Brown, now leads a programme of engagement, accreditation, monitoring and integrated practice improvement to support our students, colleagues and wider community, and to embed a culture based on equity, social justice and belonging.

This shows that as well as recognising the issue of inequity, we must also create safe spaces and environments to make change happen and support other leaders who are doing this effectively.

3. Accountability

As we look to lead by example, we must also hold ourselves and each other accountable for our actions as leaders. That is why I have ensured that every department in the university has an action plan in place in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion, to drive transparency and accountability. In 2021 we organised the “Black Lives Matter: Accountability, Transparency, Action” event to mark the anniversary of the death of George Floyd and provide a platform for our black students and staff to share their lived experiences.

We recently held the second Black Lives Matter event and will continue to do so to ensure that our university’s statements are genuine and impactful, and that we hold ourselves to account in every aspect. In this way, I believe that all leaders should take time to reflect on what they have done since they have been in their position to address and tackle the key issues around race and inequity and consider what they can do in the future to make real change.

As a vice-chancellor, I am committed to making our institution a truly inclusive place to learn and work. I know this will take time and will require everybody within the university and the wider community to work together and make progress – with actions like those set out above. I look forward to collaborating (not competing!) with other leaders to listen, learn and, most importantly, to take action.

Charles Egbu is vice-chancellor at Leeds Trinity University, UK.

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