Universities are failing to address racism on campus

Higher education is awash with stirring statements about its commitment to greater diversity. Yet students who face discrimination often do not know where to turn and are seldom impressed by the support they get, discovers Jason Murugesu

October 1, 2020
A woman looks at her phone  as she sits on steps of a University
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While on a university sports tour in Europe – which, predictably, involved a lot of alcohol – a Jewish student we will call Billy awoke hung-over one morning to find a swastika spray-painted on to his torso. 

The group he was with found it funny and even made jokes about it on Facebook. It took a week for the paint to come off, but Billy didn’t report the incident to his university.

“I was 18 years old,” Billy explains. “I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t think reporting it would make a difference.”

In light of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and the global Black Lives Matter movement, universities everywhere have been quick to put out anti-racist statements. Some have promised to recontextualise their historical links to slavery, colonisation and eugenics. Statues have been removed and lecture theatres renamed.

But that is the easy bit. The real question is whether universities are effective in combating the racism on their campuses. Do students feel comfortable reporting racism? What actually happens when you report racism to senior management? And how effective are the systems in place?

Jess’ experience gives another reason to doubt that the current system is fit for purpose. She is of Indian descent and was nicknamed “Onion Bhaji” by her fellow students during freshers’ week at a UK university.

It was my name for four years,” she recalls. “My problem was that, at first, I was so confused by it that I just kind of laughed along with it, and then I realised that I couldn’t stop it.”

Then there was the student social event she attended at a local Indian restaurant, which ended with the largely white class throwing cutlery at the South Asian staff as a joke.

I felt so isolated,” Jess tells Times Higher Education. “I was so depressed – I had no idea who to talk to.” It did not help that there were few other Asian students at the university. So, like Billy, Jess never reported the racism she faced.

There was nobody to report it to,” Jess says. “Nobody ever told me that if this happens, this is who you should go to.” Even her university therapist did not know how she could report racism.

Both Billy’s and Jess’ experiences echo the findings of a 2019 report, commissioned by Goldsmiths, University of London, into racism on campus. This found that 79 per cent of the university’s students simply did not know who they could report racism to.

Even starker are the sector-wide figures on how many students report racism to their universities. According to a 2019 report by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, there were only 559 complaints of racial harassment in UK universities over a period of three and a half years. The authors note that this is the equivalent of one complaint per 4,100 students since the start of the 2015-16 academic year, belying a survey finding in 2019 that in the previous six months, 8 per cent of students had experienced racial harassment. The survey also found that only one-third of those students reported incidents to their university.

It seems clear that large amounts of racist behaviour, no doubt including much that is as blatant as that experienced by Billy and Jess, is simply not coming to the attention of universities.

Students from Essex University joined demonstrators gathered in London to participate in the Stand Up To Racism demonstration

So what happens in cases where students do decide to report such episodes? Aya”, a medical student in New York, says she was subjected to belittling comments made by one of her course evaluators. She felt, at the time, that these were the result of bias since they were directed solely at her, the only black student in the class. When other students of colour confirmed that they had similar suspicions about the same staff member, Aya emailed the director of her programme.

The director later told her that she had talked to the evaluator, who assured her that the comments were not racially motivated. “And that was that,” according to Aya. I just let it go and moved on. But this happens a lot, and there are lots of students who just want to pass and do well – and so never even speak up in the first place.”

Ben”, a black doctoral student in the south of England, got a funny feeling from a colleague when he first met her: “It was a lot of small things, but it just became clear that she had a problem with me. She would stop talking whenever I entered the room, or simply not give me eye contact.”

Although already convinced that she was treating him differently from all the white people on the team, Ben remembers a particular occasion when his colleague “started talking about how white skin was synonymous with beauty. She also just happened to deny the Holocaust.”

The first move Ben made was to email his supervisor, who brought the two of them in for an informal mediation. But the woman “just denied everything” and the “supervisor had no idea what he was doing, and it didn’t help the situation at all”.

The next step was a formal complaint to HR. “I didn’t want her to lose her position or anything,” Ben makes clear. “I just wanted an acknowledgement that what she was doing was wrong.”

This complaint led to those involved, and several other team members, being interviewed. The whole process took several months. Ben claims that nobody explained to him the potential outcomes of the tribunal process, and that he was rarely kept up to date with what was happening. In the end, the panel found in his favour, but little else happened. The person he complained about continued to deny the allegations and just stopped coming into university.

It took a lot of time and headspace to make a complaint,” Ben says. “If I was an undergrad, I might have graduated before it all got wrapped up.”

Beyond how time-consuming complaints procedures can be, they can also actively harm the complainant.

Sara Bafo, the welfare and liberation officer at Goldsmiths, had first-hand experience of this when she reported a white staff member for racism in her first year studying at the university. The most traumatising part was sitting in a room with people who don’t fundamentally understand how detrimental [racism] is to your physical, mental and spiritual health,” she explains. I was naive about the process and didn’t know what it would be like or what would happen.”

The mediator brought in to help resolve the dispute was also white. As a result, the mediation became centred around [the alleged racist’s] feelings and their fragility. I’m the first-year student, but it somehow ended up with me having to come up with a solution for how we could exist in the same space.”

Bafo was moved to a new class. She cannot give details about the racism she faced because the tribunal process also resulted in her signing a non-disclosure agreement. The use of NDAs by universities in such situations suggests to her that senior management take the university’s reputation more seriously than combating racism.

More than that, however, Bafo is adamant that she “would never go through the tribunal system again. It’s so difficult to justify why racism is hurtful. It feels like you have to justify your existence.”

The tribunal approach, which is commonly adopted by UK universities, is based on an adversarial form of justice and, like the court system it mimics, can be riddled with bias. Struggles to justify experiences of racism to white staff members is a common reported occurrence.

The lack of diversity on adjudication panels reflects a general lack of diversity in senior university management. In the 2018-19 academic year, only 185 of the 11,860 senior non-academic staff employed by UK universities were black. In addition, according to a student adviser at a UK university who we will call “Raj”, senior management actively selects for personalities disinclined to rock the boat. After an all-white HR tribunal rejected his claim that a colleague was guilty of racism, he appealed the decision, arguing that issues surrounding racism should be considered by a panel with at least one person of colour on it. His appeal was later granted.

A lot of people on these panels have been promoted to middle management because they’re willing to protect the organisation,” Raj suggests. “They often sit on the fence and say it’s nobody’s fault.”

While it is clear that without an effective reporting system for racism, no university can claim to be anti-racist, this is by no means all that is needed to solve institutional issues.

Jamal Koumiye-Boyce, a black student at the University of Ottawa, made headlines last year when he tweeted about being handcuffed for two hours and then questioned by Ottawa police after campus security stopped him and asked for ID. He had been skateboarding to class, but white students skateboarding nearby did not receive the same treatment.

An external investigator hired by the university later found that race played a role in the episode. While the president of the university did apologise, Koumiye-Boyce is unhappy at how the institution has since dealt with the underlying issues: “Their response has been so surface-level. Security still do not receive bias training, and black students continue to be asked for ID.”

Alongside other activists, therefore, Koumiye-Boyce has been holding town halls for students and professors of colour to talk about their experiences of racism on campus. “These complaints are not isolated incidents,” he stresses.

Furthermore, working with students from the whole province, Koumiye-Boyce and his team are lodging a formal complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. They are going beyond an individual university’s internal complaints system in an effort to effect real institutional change, he says, since he is convinced that universities “only respond to external pressures”.

So what should universities be doing? Sara Khan, vice-president for liberation and equality at the UK’s National Union of Students, wants them to move away from the court-style system for addressing racism, and instead to deal with the trauma it causes.

Most people just want an acknowledgement that they were wronged and the perpetrator to take steps to improve themselves,” she argues.

Prior to her role at the NUS, Khan was the liberation and access officer at the University of Manchester. In that role, dozens of students came to her with issues of racism and she suspects this was because “they felt comfortable coming to me, because I was also a person of colour and they knew that I would instantly believe them”.

Few students, in Khan’s experience, wanted to report these cases formally, but “just wanted someone to listen to them”. Of the few students who did make a formal complaint, none came out of the process happy. “I don’t think a single case resulted in a satisfactory outcome,” says Khan. Students talk about having a distressing and retraumatising and dehumanising experience,” she adds, because tribunals “put them in a situation where they have to talk again and again about traumatic experiences”.

For her part, Bafo would like to dismantle the tribunal system” and is coming up with new ways to deal with racism complaints alongside the rest of her team at Goldsmiths. A major part of the problem, she believes, is that “the current system was set up decades ago with no student input. It was never set up to prioritise us.”

But over and above the inadequacies of complaints procedures and tribunals, there is also a more fundamental issue: universities do not understand the scale of the problem they face, because they lack any good data on the topic.

Yet some very sobering information is already out there. Earlier this year, dozens of Instagram accounts started popping up in the US and Canada that allowed black students to anonymously post about racism they had faced within their institutions. Most were inspired by the Instagram account @BlackatHarvardLaw.

The testimonies detail hundreds of individual stories and amount to the closest thing most universities have to a centralised database on the racism that occurs on their campus.

Without hard data to back up their anti-racist statements, universities’ claims that they are becoming more inclusive spaces just invite scepticism. Figuring out an easy way for students to report complaints of racism, anonymously or not, would be an excellent start. Institutions certainly shouldn’t have to rely on Instagram to see how they are failing their students. 

Jason Murugesu studied science communication at Imperial College London and is now a freelance journalist. 

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Reader's comments (5)

Isn't this odd since most university lecturers come from just about all countries other than the home country now. A Palestinian student at an English University found that he was being discriminated against by Israeli nationals who not only were his lecturers but also in positions of responsibility within the university. Sort that one out.
Or the Palestinian student harassed to the point of breakdown by female Israeli students...
"In light of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer" it is still as yet unproven that he was 'killed', he died in Police custody that is undisputable, but the cause is disputed and should be reported as such.
First, as other commentors have already mentioned, racism is not a black vs. white thing. People of all ethnicities can, and sadly too often do, behave badly towards those of different ethnicities than their own just because of that difference. Viewing people as 'other' to yourself merely because of ethnicity easily leads to such poor and harmful behaviour. To elimiate 'racism' we need to elimate this habit of differentiating between people based on their ethnicity. I cringe every time someone is referred to (or refers to themselves) in that way. Each is a human being. Each is valuable, neither better nor worse because of where they sit on the cline of skin pigmentation. Moreover, just because people have behaved badly in the past does not mean that others who share their ethnicty will behave badly in a similar situation. To think that way is racist and perpetuates racism rather than helps to combat it. Oh, and George Floyd was killed. You can argue - and I believe a US court is going to - whether or not that killing was unlawful.
The title of the piece is "Universities are failing to address racism on campus" so it seems a bit odd to lead off the story with two cases where the student did not report the incidents to the university. Saying there was no one to report it to is a bit thin- email the vice-chancellors office directly. If they fail to deal with it then there are grounds to complain.

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