If you ever believed that the world is not deeply intertwined, 2020 has disabused you. A virus is transmitted across species, almost certainly in a Chinese live animal market, and within a matter of months economies around the world are closed down in response to a global pandemic. A man is killed by police on a Minneapolis street and within days mass demonstrations spread to cities around the world protesting racial injustice. The interconnections ricochet across the globe, between the economic and the social, the personal and the political.
Sheffield Hallam is a university which in 2017 adopted as its strategic goal a commitment to transforming lives. Embedded in the institution – and one of the things which drew me to it as vice-chancellor – is a commitment to social justice, through widening participation in higher education and working to secure success for all our students – equipping them to thrive in whatever they choose to do. Like all institutions, we have our challenges: our student body is highly diverse, but there are embedded differences in student attainment which we are striving to eradicate. Our staff population is insufficiently diverse, especially at more senior levels, and we are working to make it more diverse. On both of these indicators, we can report progress, and progress worth having, but we have not made progress fast enough. We need to do more.
Black Lives Matters protests across the world have made the point that action is needed at every level. We live in societies which are scarred by racial inequality. Inequality breeds distress. We live in societies which have been shaped by appalling historical experiences: slavery, imperialism, colonialism, discrimination and prejudices. I was a teenager in the 1970s. I was appalled by the casual racism which was rife in everyday life as I grew up. I remember a science teacher in my secondary school who used an appalling racist nickname as the way he routinely addressed one of my best friends. But the events of the past fortnight powerfully make the point that the progress we think we have made is not enough. We need to do more.
My first degree was in history. I look back on history lessons in school, and for the most part at university, which were Euro- and Anglo-centric: I studied history at university at a time when Hugh Trevor-Roper, one of the most eminent historians of the day simply declared that Africa was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, that “there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness”. It’s a shocking statement, but perhaps no more shocking than that we live in a country which, certainly until two weeks ago, was apparently comfortable with leaving in place statues of slave owners. Removing such statues may not be the main issue, but leaving them in place is clearly indefensible: we cannot change the past, but we can debate the way we represent it. In the words of the great social historian E P Thompson “what we may do…is identify with certain values which past actors upheld and not others…we [can say]… that these values, and not those other values are the ones which made this history meaningful to us and that these are the values which we intend to enlarge and sustain in our own present”. We need to do more.
One of the most powerful recent statements of the societal and personal challenges is Renni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race. It’s a bracing, full-throated statement of the challenge of what she calls white privilege: ““When I talk about white privilege”, write Eddo-Lodge, “I don’t mean that white people have it easy, that they’ve never struggled, or that they’ve never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life’s trajectory in some way. And you probably won’t even notice it.” I am – of course – a fortunate highly-educated white male. The responsibility I have is to understand the consequences of that for me, and for others, and to lead action. Again, as Eddo-Lodge writes, “every voice raised against racism chips away at its power. We can’t afford to stay silent.” We need to do more.
This university is a large, diverse community. We are committed to understanding, and making progress toward eradicating inequalities. For the avoidance of doubt, neither racism nor intolerance of any kind has a place in this community. We have, over the past three years, made progress. We are, now, one of the few universities which has brought together issues of staff and student equalities in a single place, under the leadership of an outstanding and committed Chief People Officer, Dr Sally Jackson. But we need to do more.
The Academic Development and Diversity Team are working on improving diversity in the curriculum and to narrow the awarding gap. Staff from across the University are engaged on plans to improve racial equality amongst staff through better inclusion and diversity. We are working to make the university more inclusive so that anyone – regardless of who they are – can study, work – and feel they belong. I want people to thrive here. I want people to be able to call out inequality when it is experienced or witnessed. I want students and colleagues, especially students and colleagues of colour in this institution to know that when they raise issues of racism, they will suffer no detriment and that such issues will be dealt with.