Intentions to change or just a façade? – BME Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

I attended BME Leadership in Higher Education summit hosted by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Equality Challenge Unit. The paper presented by Dr Josephine Kwhali and Dr Gurnam Singh ‘How can we make not break Black and Minority Ethnic leaders in Higher Education‘ highlighted key facts of BME staffing in higher education which are deeply worrying especially as the institutions engage with home and international students who come multicultural and racial backgrounds.

  • Academic, professional and support staff make up less than 8%
  • Science, technology and engineering have a higher number of BME staff compared to Art and design subjects
  • BME academic staff are paid 7.3% lower than their white counterparts.
  • Less are only 5% BME professors in the creative arts and design
  • 8% of black and minority ethnic female academics are employed at professor level

The presentation delivered the alongside the paper by both Dr’s was strong and powerful stating –

As I sat in the room staring at all the academic, support and professional staff mainly university equality and diversity officers and BME lectures who all came from their respective institutions I was dumbfounded about the lack of vice chancellors in the room. One of the speakers actually asked with much sarcasm if any of the audience were VCs, the silence and then and nonverbal tones echoing through room (mmmmm, obviously not) showed this seemed to be the norm at events where BME leadership issues were discussed. Is this a non issue to senior decision making figures? Is that they feel it is only appropriate to send the staff who are boxed in by their by job title or race to attend? I sense the information will be pitched to VCs asking for a need for greater change. The attendees will be tasked with a the frustrating burden to fight for great diversity and access for minority staff in their institutions.

I sat in this room with people who may genuinely wanted to fight and see changes. I couldn’t help but be exacerbated by the power of whiteness which confronted me in the conference room. In a brief conversation with Dr Kwhail and highlighted again by Dr Signh they mentioned the limitation of the paper due to some of the wording, with a back and forth power struggle they had with LFHE.

Can any paper be authentic and the true voice for marginalised groups if the gatekeeper is in control?

I think my feelings towards the event were already determined at the beginning. Alison Johns the Chief Executive of the Leadership Foundation of Higher Education, provided a thoughtful opening speech and even quoted a white man. Comical. I was so irritated. I come from a student activist background where we have lengthy discussions about the role of our white allies in BME debates. We understand we need them, our allies want to work with us too, they rightly want to help smash the white supremacist patriarchal structure which impact our day to day lives. However there is an understanding of their place in the struggle. Sometimes it is understanding that one must be silent. Not take the lead. Ironically the equality challenge unit pointed out the need to give more BME staff responsibility. It would have been great for this to be showcased. What I felt was white privilege waving a shining glittery wand subconsciously alerting the room we give you permission to discuss this issue.

During the Q & A it was asked of Alison if any funds would be directed towards improving BME leadership or if there would be a strategy around making sure the recommendations would happen at the institutions. Her vague reply was I can’t go knocking at institutions and ask them to change or to adopt the new quality assurance mark, I am not in the position to do that.

YES YOU ARE! This is your place in the struggle, Alison you have the power to make sure higher education institutions stand up and listen. You are fortunate to enough to be the leader of a foundation which holds power in guiding these institutions to transcend. You choose not to go directly to decision makers. I know it may be difficult to do so, I understand you have a number of equality issue you may have to consider and you may not want to seem to have a preference. I will remind you fighting for one issue means you are fighting for all. So waving your fairy stick to BME leaders behaving as a saviour and then refusing to go head to head with those who have the power to make decision makers is problematic and potentially weakens any ‘real’ intentions for change.

In this short video, Joy Degruy shares her experience of how her sister in law used her white privilege stand up to system inequality. Her sister in law went head to head with perpetrator of racism.

 

She pointed out the injustice and she as a result of that one single act influenced everyone in that space. But what would have happened? I can’t know for certain had the black woman said “ this is unfair, why are you doing this to me? Would it have had the same impact? But Kathleen knew she walked through the world differently than I did and she used her white privilege to educate and make right a situation that was wrong

 

Bee Tajudeen

@tajibeee

Bee Tajudeen is a content developer at Shades of Noir and is committed to challenge diversity issues in higher education.