Rejected MA was too critical of white establishment, says academic

Black scholar at UCL claims that he lost out on a permanent job after his proposed course ‘scared’ the academy

May 21, 2015
Source: Alamy

One of the few black philosophers in the UK claims that he has been rejected for a full-time job because his proposed course is too challenging to white-dominated academia.

Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman was appointed Britain’s first research associate in the philosophy of “race” at University College London in October 2013, making him one of just five black philosophy academics in UK universities, he says.

Much of Dr Coleman’s work has concentrated on whether the university curriculum is “too white” by excluding the writings of overlooked black scholars in favour of “dead white men”.

A public talk at UCL in March 2014 led by Dr Coleman, titled “Why isn’t my professor black?”, was attended by several hundred black students and academics, and chaired by Michael Arthur, UCL’s provost and president.

But Dr Coleman, who strikes through his surname to highlight how it was bestowed on his family by slave masters in Jamaica, said that he has now been told that there is no job for him at UCL when his fixed-term contract expires in October, despite what he believed was an outstanding record in teaching, research and wider social engagement to promote debate around racial issues in higher education. Dr Coleman was also named Online Communicator of the Year at a UCL awards ceremony on 7 May.

He said that his application to become a permanent lecturer had been turned down because the post was contingent on the creation of a new black studies MA, which was recently deemed unviable.

Dr Coleman said that his proposed “critical white studies” course did not find favour with colleagues, who wanted to offer a black studies programme less critical of the white establishment.

“White hegemony was…to be put under the microscope,” he told Times Higher Education.

“Turning the spotlight on to the ivory tower, putting the fear of God into many of its scholars – predominantly racialised as white – who had contented themselves hitherto to research and teach in an ‘aracial’ – aka white-dominated – way,” he added.

Among those criticised by Dr Coleman include Francis Galton, the famous Victorian “father of eugenics” and UCL benefactor.

Jonathan Wolff, executive dean of UCL’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, said that the proposed MA was rejected because “it became apparent that UCL is not yet ready to offer a strong programme in this area”.

“If the new MA was accepted a new job would have been created, for which Dr Coleman would have been encouraged to apply, although, of course, the appointment would have been open to all applicants in accordance with UCL’s rigorous equal opportunities policy,” he said.

He thanked Dr Coleman for “the work he has done to shine a light on issues and practices at UCL and beyond, and the preliminary steps taken to establish this important MA”, which it remained committed to setting up.

UCL had recently made new appointments in African studies, which is also “making further progress in equality and diversity issues more broadly”, such as its efforts to gain a race equality charter mark, he added.

Dr Coleman, who took a PhD in philosophy at the University of Michigan, said that he is likely to work in US academia if he cannot gain a post at UCL.

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Reader's comments (11)

Dr Coleman's protestations are utterly unconvincing: there is no way that anyone with a two year old PhD and not a single peer-reviewed publication could be offered a permanent job at UCL. He should consider himself very lucky to have been offered a coveted two-year postdoc at a prestigious institutions with his research record.
I'm a philosophy student at UCL and I'm utterly disappointed that Dr -Coleman-'s contract will not be renewed, His work in the department and at UCL at large is extremely important and as a student I will regret not being able to take a module in critical race theory at the undergraduate level. This is especially unfortunate considering that philosophy is a discipline with such a dismal record of inclusion of and recognition of the work of nonwhite scholars.
I think this is a prime example of the issues in academia highlighted in the 'Why is my curriculum white' movement. Dr. -Coleman- could provide a much needed critical voice to another wise unquestioned curriculum (and institution) that maintains colonial white discourses (and faces). And his proposed MA would begin to allow for wider perspectives to enter this 'prestigious institution'. However, it seems UCL's pledge towards 'further progress in diversity' is contingent on it remaining inoffensive to existing privileged. As a former UCL staff member, I am disappointed. As a woman of mixed race, I am offended. And as someone who would jump to be a part of that MA programme, I am heartbroken.
Priscilla, the #whitecurriculum campaign has had more impact than most peer-reviewed articles ever have! The fact that UCL will not give Dr -Coleman- a permanent position despite his demonstrable expertise and influence in institigating a public debate on white supremacy within philosophy (and UK academia as a whole) is just more evidence of the problem his work (and the work of all academics and students challenging institutional racism within academia) seeks to address.
So let me see if I get this straight: 1) Academia needs more black/non-white voices - agreed 2) philosophy is too white - agreed That is without debate, here's the bit that it all falls to pieces to me - because of 1 and 2 - an academic who has failed to publish a single PR piece should be given a FT permanent process *without a competitive application process* - because that is what is being argued here. Challenging and breaking down racism in the academy isn't done by rewarding mediocrity or by "jobs for the boys" (because ironically simply giving a job to this man reinforces gender problem). I don't know about UCL but someone applying for a FT lecturer post at my lowly post-92 wouldn't even get short-listed without publications. Also people need to knock off with the "demonstrated expertise" - we have a way of demonstrating that in the academy - at the moment people are just relying on the idea of false authority "he's a expert because we say he's an expert".
1. When you consider a peer review system that is per-dominantly white, based on frameworks that favor modes of thinking that are established and enforces by that dominance, it isn't surprising if one were to see someone who speaks with a voice of critical race philosophy struggles to meet REF requirements. 2. I can't speak if he has published before this year, but I do know he has a book chapter that came out in 2015 AND earlier this year he put out a call for articles for a special edition of the Journal of Applied Philosophy that he is editing.
Clearly, a strong peer reviewed publication record is regarded as essential for getting a permanent job in academia, and by such criteria Dr Coleman would be unlikely to get a position at UCL or anywhere else. However, let's not pretend that number of publications is an infallible or objective measure: Also, I'd like to know more about the process by which the university decided against running the proposed MA. Was that to do with Dr Coleman's publication record? It's a seperate issue really, and I don't think one can deny that the university, like the academy in general, is reluctant to confront the issues he deals with in his teaching and his non-peer reviewed publications.
We're not talking about a high number of publications or a full REF return here. We're talking of a couple decent articles, which is the bare minimum after two years of postdoc. And there is plenty of material published each year on critical race theory. There are specialised journals for that kind of work, in case one doesn't manage to get it through peer review at the admittedly traditionalist-dominated major venues. Besides, Dr -Coleman- has degrees from Oxford and Michigan, some of the world's foremost philosophy departments. In fact he managed to land a postdoc at UCL without publications. He is hardly an academic outsider.
No publications = check Failed to get any during a 2 year post-doc = check Wants to start a new MA that nobody wants to do = check Applies for a permanent position at one of Europe's leading institutions = check. Doesnt get it = check Blames it all on 'racism' = check. There's a pattern here, one ive seen time and time again. What is essentially a radical left 'let's blame the west / white man' me-me Im a victim absolute moral certainty discourse. The idiotic crossing out of his surname pretty much tells you all you need to know. Perhaps Dr Coleman should go back to the US, where so much of this pathetic hyper leftism seems to originate.
I think it is unfortunate that he/this article made it so personal about his own job rather than rightfully complain about the MA plans being cancelled altogether. This distracts from the problem because it is easy to pick out the person's shortcomings and why they should not get this job. This programme being cancelled is about more than that. But since it was made personal, then I do feel it is crucial to point out that this person is a very junior academic, they seem to want to jump into running their own programme and getting a permanent post but in academia you need to publish your work to be an expert. If steering online hashtag campaigns is your talent than you should go for a different job. Being in the same position, along with many of my friends, I can say, it is always difficult to have to hear 'you need patience and more publications'. He has just started the journey and he wants to have arrived, sorry thats not how it works. regardless of how talented you think you are.
Dr -Coleman- has made a great contribution to UCL, challenging the assumption that knowledge is neutral and promoting a critique of what we teach (and how) in an inclusive and dialogic manner. This is what a higher education is about, and this is particularly the case in a university centred around the notion of ‘global citizenship’. The article does not suggest Dr -Coleman-‘s expertise is insufficient, but that his MA proposal is at odds with his department’s priorities. Although Black Studies are a welcome addition, we need to be careful about such courses becoming ‘tokens of diversity’ (that reinforce a sense of otherness). What Dr -Coleman- offers is a deeper institutional and disciplinary self-critique. Losing such a critical voice would be a pity.