Universities’ support for Black Lives Matter ‘tokenistic’

Open letter from ethnic minority university staff in UK includes 17 recommendations to help eliminate racism in higher education

July 6, 2020
Black Lives Matter protest
Source: iStock

Hundreds of black, Asian and minority ethnic academics and university staff have written an open letter calling for racial justice in higher education, claiming that the sector has been “overly optimistic in its assessment of the extent of the problem” and has “failed to seriously engage with the systemic and structural nature of racism”.

More than 300 academics, students and professional support staff who work or have recently worked in UK higher education have signed the letter, published online by Times Higher Education. It was spearheaded by Keston Perry, economics lecturer at the University of the West of England; Richard Itaman, lecturer in comparative political economy and development at King’s College London, and Angelique Golding, a department business manager at Goldsmiths’ Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship.

They say that statements from universities indicating their commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, which have been published in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the US, “can at best be regarded as tokenistic and superficial” given that racial inequalities remain in the sector.

“The sector has, to date, been overly optimistic in its assessment of the extent of the problem, it has been slow to act and, where action has been taken, it has failed to seriously engage with the systemic and structural nature of racism,” they add.

The letter – which is addressed to education secretary Gavin Williamson, Universities UK, funders of higher education institutions, learned societies and higher education membership bodies – says that the groundswell of protests in the US and the UK “represent a crucial moment for us – as people directly affected by these issues – to call on the sector for help in eliminating racism”.

It lists 17 recommendations, including calls for committees set up to address racism and racial harassment to be led by and made up of those with first-hand experience of these issues; universities to publish by ethnicity data on candidates who have applied for, been shortlisted and successful in securing senior appointments on an annual basis; and funding bodies to make public the number of award and grant applicants by ethnic groups, of these the number who are successful and make public actions to address any disparities.

It adds that “the sector should not be its own arbitrator of racial justice”. It calls on the government to make available ring-fenced funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to oversee the implementation of its recommendations and identify any further disparities in experiences and outcomes.


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Reader's comments (7)

It's true that there's been a lot of virtual signalling and little substance, but to 'tackle racism' in isolation is pointless, we need to set our minds to being fair to everybody no matter what ethnicity or gender (or any other variable other than merit) they happen to present. We need to avoid over-reaction too, or else BAME staff (sorry about that horrid lumping together) will be left wondering if anything achieved is due to their skin colour rather than their merits. I doubt anyone wants to be a 'token' - they want to achieve by fair judgement of their capabilities just like anyone else. Therein is true fairness.
Great. No one knew what true fairness was until now. "..they want to achieve by fair judgment of their capabilities just like anyone else." Yes, but many don't feel that they are getting that, which is the whole point. If things were fair then what are you implying that people are asking for-unfair advantage? Also, I am sure BAME staff are perfectly capable of figuring out what their merits are, no need to wonder. There is a point in tackling racism and other forms of discrimination, where ever it exists. You don't need to change the whole system to address issues with parts of the system.
There are plenty of articles on THE alone in which female academics present convincing cases that they too are treated less fairly than their male colleagues - surely you don't think that they should be ignored whilst ensuring that people of all ethnicities are treated fairly? Back when people first started thinking about 'equality' in a rather clumsy manner, I went for a job and at the interview stage found I was the only female candidate. During the interview I was asked why I thought I'd been shortlisted, as my skillset was fairly maginal for the post in question. I responded that perhaps they were curious as to how I thought I'd be able to do the job, or... did they want a female on the shortlist? It was clear from their reaction that the latter was the case, so I withdrew my candidacy and walked out on the spot. Yes, I did need a job, but not because of any kind of favouritism based on gender, it would have to be on merit.
I think I said, " There is a point in tackling racism and other forms of discrimination, where ever it exists." You don't have to choose between gender and other forms of discrimination. Tackling gender discrimination is not at odds with tackling other forms of discrimination. Discrimination is no go, full stop.
Senior administrators have to exercise oversight, responsibility for, communication with, and accountability for the operations of all parts of the university system. Moreover, the should not make adjustments in some p arts without informing other untouched areas because it is always better for there to be coordination of parts so that the entire system will work smoothly. There is wisdom in th treated position that a chain is as strong as its weakest link. Therefore BAME issues would require the adoption of a firm policy position going forward, a policy which has to be communicated to all parts of the system because there are people working in every part of the system and also being transferred from one part to another. Such a policy is more effective and will gain more traction if it is initiated at government level in collaboration with accreditation agencies, Athena Swan and THES University Rankings Committee.
Thank you for this: "the homogenising and alienating term ‘BAME’." I hope this is the beginning of the end for it.
I too hope it is the beginning of the end - of discriminatory practices and those that actively or silently perpetuate it.