The first black woman to lead a UK university has called on higher education in the country to emulate US efforts to increase ethnic diversity in senior management roles.
Baroness Amos, who was named as the next director of Soas, University of London this week, said the predominance of black university leaders in the US was, to a large extent, attributable to initiatives designed to build a pool of suitably qualified candidates.
The former Cabinet minister, who has just concluded a five-year stay in New York while serving as under-secretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency coordinator at the United Nations, said higher education needed to be “much more serious about diversity issues”.
“In the US you see a lot of work around these issues and huge efforts have been made,” she said, adding that UK academia needed a similar “pipeline” of black and ethnic minority talent.
The former chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission, a Labour life peer and the first black woman to sit in the Cabinet in 2003 when she was Secretary of State for international development, said she was “taken aback” to learn she would be the first black woman to lead a UK university when she takes office in September.
“I worry that we are behind in the diversity stakes – in the US there is not just a tradition of black university leaders, but black women university leaders,” she said.
The first black woman leader is believed to be Mary McLeod Bethune in 1904 at what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Florida. Mary Frances Berry was the first black woman to lead a major research university when she was appointed as chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1976 and Ruth Simmons was the first black woman to be an Ivy League president in 2000 when she took over at Brown University.
In contrast, an event at University College London last year titled “Why isn’t my professor black?” heard that just 85 of the UK’s 18,500 professors were black, of whom 17 were women.
In her first interview since she was appointed at Soas, Baroness Amos said her experience running a major international organisation would stand her in good stead as she took up her first leadership role in higher education.
At the UN, she headed a workforce of around 2,000 people, chaired multi-billion dollar fundraising campaigns and coordinated the work of several major charities and international bodies when humanitarian crises arose, having been involved in interventions in Syria, Nepal, the Philippines, Somalia and Yemen since 2010.
She said she believed that experience would be a good proxy for leading Soas’s fiercely independent scholars and students.
“I had to lead in a peer way – I had no power to command anyone but collectively we took decisions together,” she explained of her UN role.
Leading arguably the UK’s most left-wing university may also revive memories of her own time at the University of Warwick, where she studied sociology between 1973 and 1976, one of its most politically turbulent periods.
However, while admitting she was active in student campaigns around apartheid South Africa, Baroness Amos said her major political influence was her parents.
“I came to this country from Guyana at the age of nine, so I grew up with parents who were very internationalist,” she said.
That international outlook is likely to suit Soas, one of the UK’s most ethnically diverse higher education institutions, which also has a high proportion of international students.
Given their central importance to Soas and her own politics, Baroness Amos said she will champion the cause of international students and the crucial part they play in British academic life.
“Having a country which is open to international students is absolutely critical as Britain has always been an outward-looking country,” she explained.
“I worry the debate on international students is conflated around other issues, such as EU membership and immigration worries, which leads to a lot of negativity,” she added.
Her time at the UN had reinforced her belief over the importance of international students, she added.
“So many prime ministers, ministers and heads of companies received their education in the UK – universities are so important for us as a country," she said.