Universities can and should do much more to address systemic racism

Written by: Funmi Olonisakin
Published on: 16 Jul 2020

The cinema billboard of a local theater in Lake Oswego, Oregon, has been changed to support the nationwide protest demanding justice for George Floyd.

Source: iStock

The global protests of the past week in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police have refocused attention on racism around the world, and rightly so.

Higher education has not been left untouched. Our diverse communities – students, staff, alumni – are asking questions of university leaders and their colleagues. They are asking for much more to be done, beyond the utterance of platitudinous words of condemnation about racism towards black people. Their demands have urgency at the core, especially against the background of anguish about the differential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people of colour. George Floyd’s needless death exacerbates this anguish.

Doing nothing is not an option. And doing too little incurs the wrath of our communities. We as academics and institutions must stand up to be counted.

READ MORE: Dear senior university leaders: what will you say you did to address racism in higher education?

We are training a new generation of students who are more empathetic and loathe injustice. They are braver and more impatient than any previous generation. We have seen a wide display of solidarity and intersectional support by white students, the LGBTQ community and others – all recognise that they have a role to play and are calling for action.

What’s more, 600,000 international students are expected to study in UK universities alone in the next ten years, notwithstanding Covid-19’s impact. They will remember our commitments and our actions – or the lack thereof. Due to their growing diversity, we will need to manage more tensions in our classrooms, whether virtual or physical. We may not be prepared for this if we do not recognise the significance of these changing times. But there is complexity to this issue. It is a wicked problem that requires a multi-dimensional and systemic response. In essence, it is a leadership challenge.

Universities are seen by their communities as being part of the problem. There is clarity in the minds of students of colour when they articulate their experiences and demand that universities address systemic racism and decolonise education. There is consistency in the questions that they ask:

  • Why are there so few black professors and university leaders yet so many students from BME backgrounds?
  • Why are people rarely called out on racial microaggressions?
  • Why are BME students less likely to attain the best graduate outcomes?
  • Why are Western universities’ curricula so Eurocentric when there are many other forms of knowledge and ways of learning?

What can university leaders do to begin addressing systemic racism in higher education and by extension, society?

First, we must recognise our own position in relation to this issue. As individual university leaders and institutions, who we are and our track records will be laid bare every time we attempt to speak and act on issues of grave national and global concern. Confronting our own place and contributions with integrity is an important starting point. Without addressing our positionality, it is difficult to be seen as honest arbiters in this divided space. Nor can we earn the trust of our communities collectively.

I must, therefore, begin with myself and King’s College London, the place that I call my institutional home. King’s is where I achieved two postgraduate degrees after a first degree in Nigeria. It is where I have spent the bulk of my postdoctoral career in the last two decades, after short stints in South Africa and the United Nations in New York.

As the first black woman to become professor at King’s (which also has at least three black male professors) and the first to have been appointed to the position of vice-president and vice-principal (deputy vice-chancellor) at England’s fourth university, I cannot but acknowledge my own privileges. While I have always had a strong professional network outside of the university, I owe my growth as an academic at King’s to three white men. One could say it’s inevitable that these mentors would be white men given the male-dominated field (war studies) in which I studied. But they chose to give me a place to stand by facilitating the nurturing of my ideas and innovations.

The paradox, however, is that in the same institution where I was nurtured by individual academics and built lasting friendships and partnerships, my career advancement was stifled. Reaching the rank of professor was a titanic struggle, which left its scar. I would later learn that I am not alone in this experience. Every black woman professor in the UK has her own harrowing tale to tell. I imagine it is the same for black male professors. It is in the nature of systemic racism to punish difference and reinforce unequal life chances. That I needed these mentors to fight my corner – and that black professors, male and female, are a rarity at King’s or any UK university – makes the point.

I wear the badge of being only one of two black women in the position of deputy vice-chancellor or above in a UK university with mixed feelings. In March, just before the UK went into lockdown, Nicola Rollock’s study, Staying Power: The career experiences and strategies of UK Black female professors, was published by the UK’s University and College Union, setting out how a culture of bullying and stereotyping holds black academics back. In addition, an exhibition, titled Phenomenal Women, was held of photographer Bill Knight’s portraits of 40 black UK women professors at London’s City Hall.

That we could count only 40 black women out of 19,285 UK professors (of which 12,975 are white males, 4,560 white women and 90 black males) goes to the heart of the issue of systemic racism. That King’s is home to two of these 40 also tells of a changing institution, but one that has to go much further. Change takes time and requires sustained commitment. We cannot grow the pool of black professors if there is no pipeline of black academics that can grow into senior roles.

Like most elite universities in the UK, King’s has had a chequered history. Notwithstanding the fact that black people have been among its students since 1858, just 29 years after its founding, it took another 156 years for a black person to enter its senior ranks. However, King’s has been changing for some time. The past decade is replete with evidence of an institution with a different ethos and worldview. Leadership renewal in the past few years produced a new vision to transform institutional culture. The commitment of King’s senior leadership team, of which I am a part, to changing things for the better has been a key driver of a process of transformation. But it is yet to be systematically embedded. 

We cannot change what we don’t know. Studying our own internal context and the nature and demands of our students and staff has been a significant part of the process. King’s Vision 2029 is a product of extensive consultations with our community and reflects students’ and staff’s aspirations to make the world a better place. Our agendas for service and civic engagement emerge from this vision, as do our strategies for education, research and internationalisation, the portfolio that I lead, which is underpinned by the values of cultural competency and global problem-solving.

Notwithstanding inspirational vision and strategic intent, members of a community may not always be open to culture change. The reasons are diverse and cannot be addressed here. What is observable is a hierarchy of identities, in which what is privileged depends on what is most convenient to address for leaders and policymakers. Typically, it means avoiding a loss of power and privilege for dominant groups. Too often, when it comes to the more challenging issues of inequality such as race, cans are kicked down the road.

Moreover, even if we provide a semblance of response to race in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, we will remain trapped in a siloed and piecemeal approach to addressing disadvantage. In my view, it is not sustainable to address my gender concerns today, and then deal with my blackness tomorrow and with my class the day after; a focus on one identity without the others will invariably “ghettoise” each one. In the case of race, discussion and awareness-raising will largely remain confined to the annual Black History Month. But adopting an intersectional approach – simultaneously tackling multiple systems of oppression – is deeply political, even in higher education institutions.

We also need to keep in mind that no individual, group or institution is an island. We are impacted by events and situations around us – at home and abroad – and some of our decisions and programmes are shaped by these events. As it was in the past, so it is now: no institution is left untouched by epoch-defining events and phenomena, including slavery, colonialism, the Cold War and 9/11. Government policy decisions and the actions and inactions of powerful people and institutions invariably impact our communities of students and staff. An event such as the killing of George Floyd, amid a pandemic that is disproportionately taking the lives of people of colour, provides us with a moment to take stock and push together for a better future.

Higher education communities must unlearn racism in all its manifestations and embrace diversity in all its forms. This can happen if they adopt a clear set of commitments and submit to being judged against them.

On race and the questions of justice and equality, five markers will separate universities of the future from those that remain mired in an exclusionary logic.

  • Positionality. If we are to move forward, it is vitally important not only to acknowledge historical legacies of injustice and the power dynamics that make the university complicit in racism and other inequalities, but to commit to doing no further harm.
  • Intersectionality. Legacies of past injustices (colonialism, slavery), along with racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and poverty work together to maximise the impact of inequality. The victims are both black and white – poor and working class. A clear understanding and focus on the distinct problems of the most vulnerable groups should be evident in the work of universities. The needs are varied and responses must be differentiated. 
  • Fair representation. We need staff and leadership that is representative of the identities of the student community and larger society. This will only happen if resources are devoted to the training of under-represented groups and creating a pipeline within universities.
  • Diversified pedagogical practices. Eurocentric education will not do as the norm in the 21st-century classroom. It is complicit in racism because it diminishes other valid ways of knowing and learning. There should be room to expose our students to a pluralism of ideas so that the diverse communities of students in universities feel a sense of belonging and are able to expand their worldview. This might be one of the ways to tackle BME attainment gaps. 
  • Systematic de-hierarchising of identities in assessing progress on tackling inequality. Measuring progress on dealing with racial, gender, class and ability inequalities should be undertaken simultaneously to ensure that race (and other inequalities) do not fall through the cracks.

Words of condemnation and short-term action will not bring about structural change. Failure to abide by the above commitments – and inconsistencies in their application – will not only diminish us in the eyes of the increasingly diverse communities of students on our campuses. It will also diminish humanity as a whole. Universities in the UK and elsewhere can do much better, proactively and collectively tackling racism and all injustices in society.

For me, it is King’s commitment to these signifiers, and its determination to make the world a better place, that underpins my own desire to be a member of its senior leadership team.

’Funmi Olonisakin is professor of security, leadership and development, vice-president and vice-principal (international) and chair of the Race Equality Leadership and Action Group at King’s College London.