Inside Track: One year on – tackling racial inequality

Today marks one year since the shocking murder of George Floyd. His death sparked ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests all over the world and started a vital conversation about racial inequality in society.

University of Leeds Vice-Chancellor Simone Buitendijk poses in front of one of the buildings on campus. August 2020.

Twelve months on, I want to carry on that conversation – by reflecting on what we are already doing to advance race equality for our staff and students here at Leeds, and to look to the future.

Like any good conversation, you can’t just talk – you need to listen. I’m grateful to those who have shown courage and determination to speak up and share their ideas and opinions of what needs to change. They have enabled us to collectively start the journey to making things better.

These voices have helped the creation of our Equality and Inclusion Framework 2020-25, where we underlined our commitment to equality of opportunity, respect, fairness and inclusion. Our framework is also grounded in the aspirations set out in our University Strategy 2020-30 – Universal Values, Global Change.

Driving forward our vision

Given the importance of addressing inequalities, I appointed two outstanding colleagues as our inaugural Deans for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Professors Iyiola Solanke and Louise Bryant are driving forward our vision to create an inclusive environment that attracts, develops and retains the best staff and students from all backgrounds, and from across the world. Iyiola and Louise’s roles underline our commitment to equality and inclusion for all students and colleagues, and the valuing of diversity of thought and experience, and they will be publishing a dedicated EDI strategy later this year.

As well as listening, conversations need to lead to action – and pace of change is important. Our established Advancing Race Equality Group is concentrating energy around two priority areas: lived experience and reporting. Through dialogue, we are building a stronger sense of what racism can ‘feel like’, which helps us improve the structures we have in place to support individuals and find out how and when discrimination is happening.

Whilst many of us have been working from home during the past 12 months, we have been able to come together as a virtual community. This has worked well, and we are planning more ‘town hall’ style conversations, also specifically around race equality. That way we can hear the opinions of many, openly talk through scenarios, and decide how together we can create the structures to support those who are vulnerable to racism.

Addressing the awarding gap

We know that at the University of Leeds, Black and Asian students are less likely to be awarded an upper second class or first class degree, or a merit at Masters level, compared to their Leeds peers. This inequality has to be addressed urgently and, through work led by Louise Banahene, Head of Educational Engagement, on our Access and Student Success Strategy, we are examining the learning experience, which is an important step towards addressing the awarding gap.

In the past year, we have appointed two Fellows who will concentrate their work on understanding the awarding gap for our Black and minority ethnic students. Dr Iwi Ugiagbe-Green will work on data gathering to understand the disparity levels, and Dr Nina Wardleworth is focusing on inclusive curriculum design that can be applied across all our programmes and modules.

Decolonising our curriculum

With the support of Femi Owolade from the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence, we are creating a glossary of terms that will help everyone in our community understand the principles on decolonising our curriculum, as well as different ways to train and empower our staff. Femi will also be the host of our new decolonisation podcast, which begins in June. He will engage staff and students in conversation to dispel myths and misconceptions around decolonisation.

It is early days and there is more to do.

But by continuing the conversation and taking action, I am hopeful that our community can face the challenges of racial inequality and ensure that regardless of their skin colour, everyone can thrive during their time at our University.

Inside Track: One Year On – Tackling Racial Inequality. May 2021

Professor Iyiola Solanke explains why university campuses can be hubs for change

Comment: Professor Iyiola Solanke – Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

The global response to the murder of George Floyd suggests awareness that black men are policed like no other social group.

One year on, as we mark the anniversary of his death, it is no longer controversial to state that policing keeps black boys and men not only locked up but also locked out – black men are hypervisible in society as criminals yet hyperinvisible in organisations across all sectors, roles and levels as valued members of society.

Policing of black men isn’t conducted just by the police – decision-makers in other positions of authority also determine whether black men fail or succeed, such as educators and employers in schools and universities. The pipeline for black men runs from school exclusion to prison: there are more young black men in prison than in our universities as students and staff.

This did not change one year ago, on the day that George Floyd died. It will also not change because of the conviction for murder of Floyd’s killer, police officer Derek Chauvin, a month ago. An end to the policing of black men requires more than holding one man accountable; it demands a cultural change to reverse the message that black men do not belong.

Hubs for change

Universities have an important role to play in this: campuses are a microcosm of society but instead of reflecting social norms, campuses can be hubs for change, replacing the culture of policing black men with a culture of care. As the Vice-Chancellor has set out above, the University is already taking steps to achieve this and, as one of two new Deans for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, I am pleased to play a part in this ongoing process.

Candour – defined as ‘the quality of being open and honest’ – is integral to care. It is an act of care to openly acknowledge when things are not as they should be. That acknowledgement is the first step to putting things right. We saw candour on day six of the trial of Derek Chauvin. Medaria Arradondo, Chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, testified that the actions of Chauvin – pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds despite Floyd being in handcuffs and discomfort – violated department policy. He said Chauvin’s behaviour was against “our principles and the values that we have” and was in “no way, shape or form” part of department policy or training and “certainly not part of our ethics and values”.*

His testimony is historical – he is one of many senior police officers who have broken the ‘blue wall of silence’ to openly condemn Chauvin. Their actions illustrate candour and are worthy of emulation in universities that seek to care about racism. Candour imparts sincerity to care – care without candour is just symbolic. I believe that by likewise frankly acknowledging the ways in which we tell black men that they do not belong, universities embed care in campus culture and contribute to eradicating the policing of black men – and women – in society.

Associated Press

Posted in: