'Few black professors but lots of cleaners'

September 3, 2004

Bradford has its first race equality champion. Olga Wojtas meets a high-flyer who relishes rising to the challenge of making universities reflect our diverse society.

Are universities institutionally racist? Look at their staff profiles, says Uduak Archibong, Bradford University's newly appointed race equality champion.

Some 15.3 per cent of the university's workforce say they are from black and minority ethnic groups, compared with 20 per cent of the local population.

"And they are definitely in lower positions. There are a lot of cleaners and very few at professorial or senior-management level," says Nigerian-born Professor Archibong. "You have to begin to ask yourself, am I a good enough employer to attract people?"

Bradford is not only asking questions but is also taking action: last April, it appointed Professor Archibong its first professor of diversity, underpinning its public commitment to "Challenging inequality: celebrating diversity".

While she praises the university's race work (in fact it boasts one of the highest proportions of black and minority staff among UK universities), Professor Archibong concedes that "very frightening things" have happened in Bradford, which recently elected four British National Party councillors. But it is the very difficulties that compelled her to remain rather than return to Nigeria, as she initially expected.

"The question was: can you be deterred from achieving what you're good at, or can you look at it as a challenge that you want to turn into something positive?"

Professor Archibong has a warm, informal style, and is liked as well as respected in the university. She studied nursing in Nigeria, partly because her widowed mother was a nurse, partly because the course was government-sponsored and her family could not afford fees. But her work was so outstanding that her tutors steered her away from a career in nursing practice and towards research.

Her array of awards include being the first student to graduate with a first-class degree from the University of Nigeria's faculty of health sciences and technology. She was rewarded with a government postgraduate scholarship, and chose a UK course, leaving behind her four children, aged 15 months to nine years.

She did field work in Nigeria, and her contribution to the development of nursing in Africa won her a fellowship of the West African College of Nursing. But administrative problems with her scholarship led her to seek a job in the UK to fund the completion of her PhD. She lectured in a college that merged with Bradford University, and was appointed senior lecturer and research coordinator of the School of Health Studies in 1999. By then, her family had joined her, with her husband taking an academic post in London.

Professor Archibong responds with a wry "Oh, yeah, yeah" when asked if she has experienced discrimination outside the university. This has been compounded by her being a black woman. On one occasion when she wrote a cheque on her joint family account, "Mr E. and Dr U. Archibong", the shop assistant told her she wasn't allowed to sign her husband's cheque.

Professor Archibong called for the manager. "There was a very long queue and I made sure I was heard. I said: 'I would like your staff and the people here to know we do have black female doctors. There are many ways of checking people's identity and public humiliation is not one of them.' It wasn't about paying the assistant back, it was about educating her."

Professor Archibong does a lot of outreach work, including anti-discrimination sessions in other educational institutions. Stressing that these examples are not from Bradford, she tells of one lecturer calling a black and minority ethnic student "bin Laden", while another told a talented student: "You'll be the first Paki on the moon." She sounds sanguine when telling such stories, and says it is unhelpful to become enraged or emotional. It is crucial to work with both parties, not just the victim, she says, but it is equally crucial not to demonise the perpetrator.

"There is work to be done with that person because underneath that hatred they have for another human being might be issues they have to be helped to overcome."

Her diversity role covers areas from age and disability to sexual orientation and family responsibilities. But race will be a key focus, she says, arguing that its challenges are so deep-seated and complex that getting things right can improve the institution's capacity to manage other equality issues. Bradford has seen a significant increase in numbers of black and minority ethnic staff since its 1992 figure of 7.4 per cent, but almost 30 per cent of staff do not declare their ethnicity. Professor Archibong is committed to reducing this.

"They may all be black, they may all be white. We don't know," she says.

But she speculates that some may fear discrimination if they declare themselves. It is crucial to get across the message that this information is to help the university do better, she says.

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