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Becoming an anti-racist university

Making the transition to be an anti-racist organisation takes time, research, reflection, and honesty. For the University of Glasgow, that transition has been at times uncomfortable, but ultimately vital. Mhairi Taylor takes us through a journey in which leadership and commitment have been the key.

The University of Glasgow, founded in 1451, is one of the oldest educational establishments in the country. Such a past comes with both positive and challenging histories, and today Glasgow is trying to address these legacies in the here and now .

In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published a damning inquiry report into experiences of racial harassment at UK universities. The report detailed widespread evidence of racial harassment towards students and staff on university campuses. It also found that under-reporting of racism was a significant issue.

On reading this report, the University of Glasgow’s Principal, Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli commissioned an internal investigation into the experiences of our students and staff. As Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the University, I led this alongside Professor Satnam Virdee, Co-Chair of our Race Equality Group.

Just days into our research, COVID-19 and lockdown struck and we had to revisit our methodology remotely. Using digital channels we conducted a student survey that generated 500 responses and a series of in-depth staff interviews. We examined our employment data, reviewed reported racial harassment cases, and considered the awarding gap for students from different ethnicities.

The findings were stark, and shocking. Students and staff at Glasgow had experienced racial harassment in a range of forms, some repeatedly, from peers, colleagues, and both academic and professional services staff. Very few of those impacted by racism had reported their experiences. Their testimonials revealed several reasons for this. They feared recrimination, lacked confidence that any action would result from raising their experience and in some instances did not know how or to whom they could report.

The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the global Black Lives Matter movement saw all Higher Educations institutions rightly being asked to explain how they were addressing racial harassment and inequalities. This fuelled our work, helped shape the narrative of the report and structured the action plan to address these inequalities.

Given the global context, and deeply worrying issues raised through our investigation, I knew this report needed courageous leadership to confront and address the issues raised. Together with the Co-Chairs of the University’s Race Equality Group, I prioritised one to one discussion with all our senior leaders about the report and formulated our action plan in response to it.

The senior leadership team were surprised and disappointed at the experiences of our ethnic minority students and staff. As a University which prides itself on its values, the team wanted to act decisively and use our report as a catalyst to effect anti-racist change.

It takes strong leadership to publish a report which is internally critical and demands that your organisation to be radical in response. It was however this course of action that we took in 2018 when Glasgow became the first university in the UK to recognise its historic links to slavery by fully researching its past and then publishing these findings in full.

The city of Glasgow was a key port at the time of the transatlantic slave trade, and the legacy of this history can be seen today in the city’s design, planning, and architecture.

The University of Glasgow undertook a process of self-examination, commissioning our own historians to investigate historical links to the slave trade. When the resultant Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow report was published it included a robust programme of reparative justice to redress and acknowledge some of this injustice, and importantly, an apology.

This April, as part of this reparative justice programme, we have seen the opening of the James McCune Smith Learning Hub – named after the first African American emancipated slave to hold a medical degree after he graduated from the University in 1837.

Publishing this historical report and putting in place this programme was a bold move and did not happen without criticism. When discussing the current investigation into racism and racial injustice, we positioned it as the next stage of this progress – the University had looked back, now was the time to consider current racial inequalities.

In launching the Understanding Racism Transforming University Culture Report in February, the action plan showed personal commitment by all the senior leadership team who each agreed a personal objective that helps establish an organisation that is anti-racist. Most within the leadership team have a role as an Equality Champion, with direct responsibilities for one or more of the protected characteristics, the University’s has a Race Equality Champions (Vice-Principal Bonnie Dean). However, to embed this personal leader’s commitment and combined responsibility, they would all publish a personal objective. In addition, the senior leaders recognised that to be anti-racist, we must review all our systems and processes for racial bias.

Each leader’s objective is published, and all could identify an area relating to their work or personal interest. This means we have a diverse range of objectives which fit with specialisms, areas of concern for their parts of the business, or key deliverables from the action plan.

We have committed to a key performance indicator in our new strategy to increase the percentage of UK Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic staff as we recognise the number of our international academics can mask a local issue. We have committed to reviewing our curriculum to ensure it is reflective of global perspectives and views, whilst acknowledging that we need to support academic staff across all disciplines to do this. We will be providing training for all staff, and specialist training for cohorts. We will engage with our civic partners to play our part to ensure the City of Glasgow is a welcoming, prosperous place for our whole community. Finally, in committing to an anti-racist approach, we will review our systems and processes to ensure we are transparent, and that our whole community can participate fully in the learning, teaching, research and working environment we offer.

I recognise this is the start of a process, and there will be significant challenges ahead in our drive to be an anti-racist organisation. However, we need to talk about racism and take shared ownership to create a truly inclusive community at University of Glasgow.

Read more about Unite Students’ Black student research here, and listen to Mhairi now on our latest episode of the Accommodation Matters podcast: