Geoffrey Alderman

Are British universities institutionally racist?

Are British universities institutionally racist?
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How genuine and inclusive are complaints about institutional racism affecting non-white academics and students in British universities?

To find out, over the past half year I’ve made it my business to attend academic conferences (four in all) focused or largely focused on alleged racism at UK universities and the experience of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students and staff.

I had been shocked by the insistence of my colleagues and peers that racism on university campuses is not merely alive and well, but flourishing and growing. Could this be possible, when it seems that every UK higher education institution has draconian policies and procedures in place to combat racism? I am myself a member of an ethnic minority and, over a career spanning more than half a century, have suffered adversely from the very prejudice that these procedures and policies were designed to outlaw. I was therefore more than a little curious to know whether the situation has gotten better or worse since I began my career.

The ‘charge sheet’ (as reflected in the conferences I attended) is well summarised by York university sociology lecturer Dr Katy Sian, who outlined her argument online last month. Sian identifies a number of ‘myths’ about universities: that they encourage 'inclusivity and diversity', 'invest in non-white academics'; that they are 'post-racial'; 'desire curriculum reform'; and are 'committed to race equality'. Sian is having none of this. She argues instead that racism in British universities is 'endemic'.

The proof? Well, official data appears to show that of 17,880 professors in UK universities only 85 were black, only 950 were Asian, and fewer than 20 were black and female. The academy is overwhelmingly white. Worse still, according to Sian, it wallows in 'structural and everyday forms of racism,' bolstered by 'entrenched practices'. These include a 'colonised' curriculum that reflects and supports white 'privilege', and innumerable instances of 'micro-aggression' and 'hidden' white networks. 'We have to be exceptional,' one respondent told her, 'just to be ordinary'.

Based on the conversations I had at the conferences I attended, I have no doubt that these grievances are genuinely held. But when I asked for evidence – hard evidence – to support the full charge sheet, very little was forthcoming. For instance, the fact that so few university professors are black does not necessarily mean that black candidates for professorships are rejected on racial grounds. This may be the case. But there are other explanations that (rightly or wrongly) need to be tested – for example, it may just mean that there is still a shortage of BAME candidates at the right level.

Frightened by allegations of 'institutional' or 'structural' racism, some universities have actually appointed 'decolonisation' officers, whose job appears to be to trawl through reading lists and insist that they be amended to please a variety of ethnic lobbies. At one conference I attended, one such operative boasted that when a lecturer in mathematics protested that his subject was 'race neutral,' he was told that none of the articles on his reading list devoted to a branch of algebra had been authored by a black scholar.

I don’t want to seem unsympathetic to my BAME colleagues. That there is racial prejudice at UK universities I have no doubt. But this has always been the case. In 1971 I was not shortlisted for a lectureship in history at a large civic university because the professorial head of department announced to colleagues (two of whom reported to me) that he was not prepared to appoint a 'Zionist' [Jew] to his staff.

I believe it to be significant that at none of the conferences I attended was any attention paid to the present-day experience of Jewish staff and students, even though there is – unfortunately – some alarming evidence in the public domain that anti-Semitism is a problem on UK campuses. In a recent (and much under-reported) submission to an inquiry by the Equality & Human Rights Commission, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities drew attention to the case of a professor responsible for student admissions who is reported to have declared 'we'll think twice about taking anyone with a Jewish name'. When, at one of the conferences I attended, I drew attention to this shocking evidence, I was met with an embarrassed silence.

Of course BAME academics need to be 'exceptional' just to be 'ordinary'. That’s how prejudice is fought. But it will never be overcome by feeling sorry for oneself and demanding special treatment.