Subtle or covert racism remains prevalent in UK and US universities and is going unnoticed or ignored by senior managers, a report claims.
According to “The experience of BME academics in higher education: aspirations in the face of inequality”, a paper commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, senior managers often dismiss racist incidents as a “conflict of personalities” or believe them to be exaggerated.
Based on interviews with 12 black and minority ethnic academics in the UK and 10 in the US, the report found that although public displays of overt racism were considered rare, a pernicious set of behaviours has emerged to mask racist positions.
Respondents felt excluded in meetings, reported a lack of eye contact or being asked their opinion and experienced “constant undermining and criticism of their work”.
“Almost instinctively we regard our ‘seats of learning’ as institutions that rise above the inequalities and injustices of society at large,” the report says. “However, this is clearly too rosy a picture. Within many higher education institutions, embedded sets of beliefs and internalised codes of collegiality seem to work to reinforce and promote the interests of small elites. This needs to be challenged.”
It concludes that although policy legislation such as the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits direct and indirect discrimination, is welcome, “it works only to curb public behaviour in the confines of the largely white, liberal academy”.
Rather, a greater representation of BME individuals in senior positions in higher education is needed, it says, adding that “they need to be afforded comparable status with their white counterparts”.
“Such positions cannot be seen as a ‘token gesture’; rather, HEIs must think about how their own practices in recruitment, retention and promotion processes can be changed in order that they can contribute to an inclusive equality agenda, and indeed a recognition that racism persists in higher education,” it states.
Although many universities implement data collection regimes that identify the ethnic background of job applicants, this often does little more than “ensure the institution meets its statutory duties through the most basic box-ticking exercise”, the paper continues.
“If there are few BME candidates applying for jobs, universities should explore why this may be the case and be proactive in instigating change…A process of transparency is needed to ensure consistency and equity at all stages of the recruitment process.”
Julie, one of the interviewees identified in the report as a “black British professor”, says that she gets a sense from her colleagues that she does not belong at the university.
“Being a black professor here causes a lot of tension,” she adds. “[Colleagues] don’t expect a black woman who is a professor to be clever and articulate, so I feel I have to downplay my achievements sometimes to be accepted. You can be good, but you can’t be so good that you challenge your white colleagues.”
Among the recommendations for universities set out in the report are the development of formal support networks for BME staff and anonymous shortlisting when hiring to address issues of inequity during the selection processes.