An open letter to fellow academics

Dear fellow academics

Since the brutal killing of George Floyd, the issue of racism has been centre stage 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 to adopt far-reaching changes to the content we provide in lectures/tutorials, etc, as well as the manner in which we deliver that material, in order to promote or endorse a politicised ‘critical race theory’ agenda.

Universities are distributing materials and instructions to staff and students on university websites and newsletters, copying verbatim racial awareness screeds from one university’s diversity officer to another. Aside from tacit plagiarism, these messages advertise events that masquerade as learning outcomes or even personal development, whereas their purpose tends to be to encourage academics into coming to terms with their discredited “unconscious bias” and “white supremacy” labels. Workshops help us, we are told, “develop practical tools for becoming a white ally and build(ing) a strong antiracist identity”.

Many universities refer to the need for staff to read “credible” sources like  “White Fragility”, “Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race”, and “How To Be An Antiracist”. We are instructed to watch “13th” or “Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap”, or even to click and donate to Black Live Matters. These all take a very specific ideological and theoretical stance which is far from universally shared by ethical Britons who oppose racism and, in the case of DiAngelo and Kendi, operate in an explicitly American context which does not transfer well to UK. When almost all universities have done this practically overnight, without any internal democratic conversation, we are bound to ask: how has this to happen? How has this been allowed to happen?

It should be beholden on universities to provide sound authoritative guidance to staff that reflects official contemporary policy on Higher Education. Ad hoc policy should not be driven by the more pragmatic concerns of the NUS, OfS – or by unmediated assessments of various administrative departments or diversity consultants within, or appointed by, each university. Universities should not necessarily re-structure at all, but they certainly shouldn’t restructure with undue haste and without full, frank, and open debate (accompanied by guarantees of no retribution to anyone speaking their mind).

ISSUES:

  • There is growing pressure for university ruling bodies to declare that they stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Whether #BLM is a worthy cause or not, it includes some very specific political aims including to disband the police force, overthrow capitalism and disrupt the nuclear family, and ought not be a position taken by a university – an institution that should treasure its impartiality and academic freedom. It most certainly should not pressure faculty to think and act in accordance with the word from on high. An individual’s beliefs should be left to individual’s conscience within and without the university.
  • Course leaders and subject heads, lecturers and tutors, and other colleagues should not be obligated to teach a one-sided political content – whether they agree with it or not.
  • Some university’s faculty – from professors through to administrative staff – are being given mandatory “race awareness” training. Staff and students are finding it difficult to oppose these impositions for fear of being perceived as overtly racist or unconsciously biased. Universities should not insist on mandatory training programmes for issues Where the academic might have to affirm beliefs, principles, or values that they do not believe to have merit or be ethical?
  • Open enquiry within a university sector is the preferred path for political debate; whereas “training”[1] is the process of learning skills needed for a particular task. Individual faculty members should not be required to swear allegiance to a set of values, or uncritically accept a singular way of thinking about an issue.
  • We are told that outside agencies – some working in conjunction with the student union – have curated and cascaded a variety of materials to educate and support both students and staff on the issue of race. Staff (and students) should be at liberty to ignore this unwarranted intervention if they so choose. More importantly, teaching materials and the creation of relevant teaching materials, including book lists, should be the preserve of teaching staff allied to each course. Mandatory thought control has no place in a modern university, for students and staff alike.
  • The Universities UK Strategic Plan notes that “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 must be sacrosanct.
  • 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.
  • Those critical of critical race theory should not be chastised or penalised for doing so, if done within the law and in the spirit of open enquiry, pedagogic clarity, and/or academic discourse.
  • Academic staff cannot present activists’ slogans such as “white privilege”, “white supremacy” and “white fragility” as unchallengeable facts, when in reality they are contested political categories, which are not only controversial but disputed academically.
  • The scientific evidence of unconscious bias – how it is recorded and critiqued – is suspect, especially through the use of Implicit Association Tests [IAT]). Yet we still find discredited IAT statistics (or its methodology and assertions derived from those statistics) embedded in university race awareness policies.
  • As universities volunteer to “dismantle whiteness”, often by removing statues, nameplates, sponsors, etc, little vocal opposition is heard, although we know that there are murmurs of discontent. Staff must be allowed to contribute to the debate without fear of retribution.
  • Under pressure from the NUS, some universities are proposing to offer leniency for BAME students distracted by the disturbing news of George Floyd’s death and their involvement in time-consuming protest activities. Under this mitigating circumstance, the marks for BAME students may need to be re-calibrated… or they may receive a blanket percentage uplift. Compassion for genuine personal and familial misfortune is necessary, this approach does a disservice to BAME students, assuming them to be unable to make conscious decisions that may impact their studies. And it may also detrimentally impact their white counterparts.

RACE RELATIONS:

While Universities UK has made clear that they want to engender a “sense of belonging” within Higher Education, we would urge you to consider the dangers to race relations of promoting any agenda that focuses on skin colour and ethnicity as determinant attitudes or aptitudes. This is not to deny the personal experiences of students, which could indeed include negative experiences due to their ethnicity.

Higher Education establishments might choose to explore racial identity alongside other identities; but they should not teach specific political racial identity politics – the achievements of one racial group over another – without the rigour of an academic context.

Ultimately our contemporary problems demand a kick-back against the new form of diversity strategy that focuses on race –  black and whiteness – that seems likely to fuel division rather than solidarity. It could well be counterproductive. Some white students are likely to feel, at best, confused and unnecessarily guilty at their alleged white privilege. Some black students could feel that their achievements are due to their skin colour rather than their efforts and talents or conversely become discouraged from attempting achievements. White staff may feel intimidated to speak to black students for fear of vindictive allegations of racism; BAME staff may feel that their appointment is tokenistic. It all risks fostering unspoken resentment amongst staff and could undermine students’ relationships with each other, as well as their perception of their own worth, engagement and intellectual achievements.

SYLLABUS:

There is a creeping acceptance that the university (and all the practices within it) ought to be decolonised. The Guardian newspaper recently published a survey that argued for Decolonising the Curriculum in the UK by “challenging and remaking the current pedagogy, which was rooted in imperial and colonial ideas about knowledge and learning, at an institutional level.”[2] It is a movement that seeks to “remake” the current pedagogy. It is an explicit criticism of hierarchical relationships, and one that insists that science and reason and empirical research are inherently “white… ways of knowing”. We cannot accept these divisions.

This interpretation is dangerous, racist and devalues the rigour of scholars and students… regardless of race. It fragments the collegiate atmosphere. It leads to animosity rather than solidarity. Universities also now spend huge amount of time, money and energy delivering diversity messages that  politicise education, restrict critical minds, silence staff with different views (many of whom are not white), and compromise academic integrity. It risks compromising the entire Higher Education sector by curtailing open-minded enquiry and free and frank discussion.

Similarly, mandating Reading Lists (for staff as well as students) undermines a fundamental part of the course/year leader’s ambitions for the syllabus. Reading lists should demonstrate scholarship in a particular field but also reveal to the student a range of opinions on contentious issues. It should not set out to reinforce the idea that there is a single, uncontested perspective on political matters.

For those teaching and/or researching colonialism for example, there may be a rich history of slavery to explore, including the variety of different approaches to understanding racism, inequality, and socio-historically-specific prejudice. Other academics may decide that race does not feature in their plans for the course, in which case they should be allowed to carry on, unhindered. Criticism of an academic’s work should be based on a lack of academic prowess or incompetence, not on political divergence from university training programmes. This is, after all, the Academy, not McCarthy’s Star Chamber.

We 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 dissemination. Pillorying the “wrong” opinions and disciplining staff is not acceptable.

We hope that you, or your colleagues in your faculty might start a constructive discussion by sharing this statement by Don’t Divide Us https://dontdivideus.com/ among your friends and colleagues. It is a prompt for an open debate on the contemporary situation in which we find ourselves so that we have some clarity about the problem and the security of academic and student allies in order to argue back.


____________

[1] Anon, (2019), Black, Asian And Minority Ethnic Student Attainment At UK Universities: #Closingthegap, Universities UK (UUK) and National Union of Students (NUS). https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2019/bame-student-attainment-uk-universities-closing-the-gap.pdf

[2] Batty, D. (2020) Only a fifth of UK universities say they are ‘decolonising’ curriculum, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/11/only-fifth-of-uk-universities-have-said-they-will-decolonise-curriculum

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