Cambridge PhD student quits over ‘structural racism’

Indiana Seresin accuses universities of focusing on gender equality at expense of racial justice

July 1, 2019
University of Cambridge
Source: iStock

A scholar who withdrew from a PhD at the University of Cambridge alleging “structural racism” has accused UK higher education institutions of focusing on gender equality at the expense of racial justice.

Indiana Seresin, a white researcher whose work draws heavily on black studies, quit her doctorate in literature and cultural studies after witnessing what she described as a series of “racist incidents”.

Outlining her reasoning in a blogpost, she expressed concern that academics at Cambridge failed to recognise the “widely accepted principle” that different rules applied to white and black scholars when it came to using the N-word.

She also raised concerns about how a lecture by a visiting Ghanaian scholar that she characterised as “a lucid and straightforward analysis of the way racism…function[s] in academia” was described as “controversial and provocative” by a senior Cambridge academic who said “he couldn’t quite wrap his head around it”, an approach Ms Seresin said was “foolish” and “undermine[d]” the speaker.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Ms Seresin accused Cambridge and other institutions of filling their halls with “what you call ambassadors for diversity and inclusivity, who contribute nothing to – or even prohibit – racial justice and usually focus on improving the situation of white women”.

Her decision to leave came from a place of privilege, she added. “It allowed me to share details of what I had witnessed…an option not available to current students and staff as well as alumni, who would probably feel unsafe doing so.”

While Ms Seresin urged people to focus their attention on these institutional problems rather than her quitting, she acknowledged that the publicity surrounding her “possibly…might help shame the university into taking this issue more seriously”.

In terms of how Cambridge should change, this should be decided by those directly affected by racism, she said.

“As a white researcher whose scholarship draws significantly on black studies, I believe that I need to earn the right to do this work,” said Ms Seresin. “I also believe that the ethical and intellectual integrity of my research was compromised by the fact that it was situated at Cambridge. This is particularly true because, as a white student, I benefited from the structural racism of the university.”

In response, Cambridge said that it “strives to create a culture free from racism, discrimination, prejudice and harassment” and that it had “introduced a number of prevention initiatives and anonymous, informal and formal reporting options to make it easier for staff and students to call out and report any form of harassment or discrimination”.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: PhD student quits over ‘structural racism’

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Reader's comments (9)

This typifies the intolerance that stifles any meaningful debate about racial and gender... that anyone who does not view things EXACTLY as you do is obviously quite beyond the pale, an unspeakable individual, and quite incapable of even being reasoned with. You meet it all the time in places like Twitter, one might have hoped for better from someone capable of the level of critical thought necessary to embark on a PhD.
And what might your alternative analysis of "structural racism" - one that would meet exactly your balanced narrative - be?
It involves mutal respect for other people's points of view even (especially) when you don't happen to agree with them, a willingness to accept that your opinion (shock horror!) may actually be incorrect or at least no more correct than other opinions arrived at by equally rigorous thought, a willingness to actually debate rather than condemn. Find out why other people whose views you don't share actually hold those views. For example, ask why the lecturer who thought the visiting speaker's views were contentious felt that way. What was, in their opinion, contentious about what they had to say? Just because our departing ex-PhD student happened to agree with the visiting speaker doesn't mean that other people's challenges to his work are not valid.
It makes sense to study black scholarship at a black institution. It is well known that racial preference is a human universal.
Why is this considered a news item? Person who doesn't understand how academic works leaves academic,.
@timtom, it is newsworthy. How does academia work, rooted in inhumane and aberrant, unethical behaviours of your entitle peers? The curtains are coming down, and shame is the only entitlement that every one of the institutions accommodating uncivilised policies will be known for. Agreed?
Good bye love. Don't let the door bang your arse on the way out.
The racism rooted in the view that that other was subhuman may conceivably be eliminated as the facts emerge stronger and stronger in support of the setentiousness of that view. Rightly so and high time. But the racism that serves as a ‘go to tool’ is a more elastic and resilient weapon when all else is failing inside stiff interpersonal or intergroup competitions. the weaker but ‘more entitled’ unable to draw on merit or having exhausted as much of it as he’s got and yet feeling outcompeted becomes tempted to weaponise prejudice as his last hope to clinch a coveted goal or influence . Race card ( less often gender card ) in such predicaments becomes utilitarianly handy for the competitor who has otherwise run out of ideas. He/she finding himself at the edge of failure patently about to lose to that ‘other’ ( underdog... cultural, academic etc etc ) cries talyho to rally the troops and voila ... the rescue mission is accomplished. This other type of racism ... weaponised last ditch gap survival tool is almost immortal and Darwinian . It’s beneficiary is not under the kind of illusion/ misconception suffered by the first category of racism above. He has evolved past. But unfortunately he lacks what it takes inside the particular challenge to survive without resorting to race card ( or gender card or tribal card or etc ). Darwinism in its most egregious form then kicks in : color coded survival strategy . There is an ineliminability to this category of Darwinian survivalism driven by the ineliminabilty of stiff competitions amongst peers and non peers alike. Color becomes a self preservation camouflage factor eerily same as it was and still is in the Galápagos Islands where Darwin did his seminal work. A competitor on the prejudiced end of a merit based ‘fight’ can improve his/her chances by harder self application . Not so when it is tribal based and less still when color based. How do you morph from one color to another by hard or harder work ? You can assimilate into virtually anything you wish and thereby abolish to the extent of the assimilation any otherwise unfavorable diferences that set you apart from dominant group or advantages therefrom. But how do you assimilate into color ?!!! And therein lies the peculiar perniciousness of color influenced competitions. Basil Jide fadipe.
Instead of doing something about it, the PhD (gasp!) student from Cambridge (gasp!) runs away - Martin Luther King Jr would be proud (sarcasm). Glad to see that the student realised that a PhD was not the career pathway for her and had the good sense to leave.

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