Dear fellow academics
In the wake of the horrifying and brutal killing of George Floyd, many in the UK expressed heartfelt solidarity; widespread protests showed a genuine commitment to opposing racism. Since then, however, activists, corporations and institutions seem to have seized the opportunity to exploit Floyd’s death to promote an ideological agenda that threatens to undermine British race relations.
Since the brutal killing of George Floyd, the issue of racism has come to the centre of public attention in the UK. Understandably, many universities have a well-intentioned desire to use this moment to challenge racism through course syllabuses as well as personal and administrative training programmes.
However, we wish to raise concerns about the tendency in some Higher Education institutions to adopt seemingly far-reaching changes to the content and delivery we provide in lectures and tutorials in order to promote or endorse a politicised ‘critical race theory’ agenda. Those teaching critical race theory are perfectly entitled so to do. Other faculty members and academicians who take a different or contrary perspective must be equally respected in academic and pedagogical terms, and should not be penalised for doing so.
Academic independence and freedom of conscience
Curricular and personal development materials are being promoted by diversity officers who encourage the unthinking adoption of contested concepts such as ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘white supremacy’. University policy should not be driven by the concerns of organisations like Black Lives Matter (BLM), or by administrative staff and diversity consultants. While the National Union of Students (NUS) may have aligned with BLM, universities themselves need a distinct voice, and as a rule do not and should not acquiesce to every NUS demand to alter policy.
Universities should not re-structure without full, frank, and open debate. Teaching materials and book lists should be guided by the academic expertise of teaching staff aligned to each course. Reading lists should demonstrate scholarship in a particular field but also reveal to the student a range of opinions on contentious issues. They should not set out to reinforce the idea that there is a single, uncontested perspective on political matters. Sources such as White Fragility, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, How To Be An Antiracist, 13th or Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap are not universally endorsed by academics who oppose racism. Presenting only these sources, with little or no consideration of opposing views, encourages a climate of conformism that is incompatible with the open debate that should be at the heart of academic life.
Academic staff should not be obligated to teach one-sided political content – whether they agree with it or not. ‘White privilege’, ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white fragility’ are contested categories, not proven facts. At a time when many universities will be starting the academic year in unprecedented circumstances, such claims are even less likely to be subjected to the critical scrutiny and informed consent necessary for introducing new institutional procedures and curriculum content.
For the same reason, universities must resist the growing pressure on ruling bodies to declare solidarity with BLM. Such declarations imply fidelity to very specific political aims and ought not be a position taken by an institution that treasures impartiality and academic freedom. An individual’s beliefs on addressing racism should be a matter of conscience within the university in keeping with the Universities UK Strategic Plan which states, “The success of UK higher education is built on a history of voluntary collaboration among diverse autonomous universities to…further the free exchange of ideas”. Open enquiry, not training, is the preferred path for debate within the university sector, and must be kept sacrosanct.
Decolonising the Curriculum
The same principle of open enquiry should also be applied with regard to programmes to decolonise the curriculum. While some academics use the term ‘decolonising curriculum’ to refer to expanding content and range of interpretations, other programmes contain not only a criticism of hierarchical relationships but also an insistence that science, reason and empirical research are inherently ‘white’ ways of knowing. They reflect a particular intellectual and philosophical outlook, not a universal view that all academics should or do adhere to. Academic freedom around these issues should not be constrained by universities’ or departments’ value statements, training or guidelines.
In some cases, training events and resources, based on critical race theory, are being introduced almost overnight as mandatory tenets without any internal discussion. Even where such measures have not been taken, the unprecedented pressures facing the Higher Education sector make it less likely that concepts of ‘white privilege’ and ‘implicit bias’ will be subjected to the critical scrutiny necessary to legitimise the kind of changes which are being widely implemented. The scientific basis for ‘unconscious bias’ is insecure, and the use of Implicit Association Tests (IATs) is suspect, yet we are being asked to accept these as self- evident truths. Such assumptions are implicit in the claim that not being a racist is insufficient; only this particular form of anti-racism will do.
The dissemination of these tenets by department and administration teams makes it difficult for individuals to raise questions because they risk being seen as racist. Consequently, if there is little opposition when universities volunteer to ‘dismantle whiteness’ by, for example, removing statues, nameplates and sponsors, this may not be because there is a consensus to this effect; it is more likely that management has listened to a small cohort of activists, and others from outside this clique have not been encouraged to speak up. Yet a concerted effort should be made to involve wider layers of stakeholders, and views, before such directives are issued.
Compassion for genuine personal and familial misfortune is, of course, necessary. However, blanket proposals for BAME students to be offered extenuation/mitigation on the assumption that they will have been traumatised by George Floyd’s death, does a disservice to such students by suggesting that they have been rendered unable to take responsibility or make autonomous decisions about their studies.
Promoting any agenda that focuses on skin colour and ethnicity as the determinant of attitudes or aptitudes is dangerous: it risks creating confusion and guilt among white students, and anxiety among black students about the validity of their educational achievements. Fear of either transmitting, or receiving, microaggressions is likely to fuel mistrust and undermine students’ relationships, self-worth, engagement and intellectual achievement. This all works against the spirit of Universities UK’s desire to engender a sense of belonging within higher education.
We all hopefully have students’ educational interests at heart. We also want to maintain the prestige and credibility of the educational process; and the integrity and independence of the staff who deliver it. Students want a good education and a trusted source of learning. Pillorying the ‘wrong’ opinions and disciplining staff does not seem the best way to achieve any of these aims.
We hope that you, or your colleagues in your faculty and university administrators and managers, might help start a constructive discussion by sharing this statement by Don’t Divide Us https://dontdivideus.com/ among your friends, colleagues, disciplinary networks and students.
Our call is for prompt and open debate on the contemporary situation.
Concerned academics in support of #Don’tDivideUs