Updated: May 2
Universities in the UK are institutionally racist, admits Prof David Richardson, chair of Universities UK’s advisory group on racial harassment. But that is about to change with the implementation of the Race Equality Charter (REC), designed to end institutional racism in HIgher Education. Broadly speaking, institutional racism occurs when
Racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions
The task of changing this has fallen to university Vice Chancellors. They are aided and abetted by another hierarchy of power which, combined, is referred to as a University Senior Management Team, or USMT. They are overridingly White and mostly male. The Higher Education statistics body, HESA, found that of all the ‘managers, directors or senior officials’ in UKHE, 475 identified as white, 25 as Asian or other and none as black. Such dominion concentrates institution-wide decision-making in spaces lacking racial diversity.
USMT have almost no experience or understanding of racism and institutional racism at the structural level, or of its amelioration. But by virtue of them being in charge, they have been tasked with creating that very change by the Race Equality Charter. This is a new body and process in the UK that rewards transformation of institutional racism with public status and recognition that further help universities compete in the marketplace. The privilege of taking charge of something they do not properly understand happens in this instance because of the status these White elites already enjoy, rather than merit, capacity, experience, or proven competence. The appointment is known as being ex officio, or 'on the basis of position'. It is those positions that have presided over a century of institutional racism, and have done, to date, almost nothing to change that. For Ian Law:
many academics, university administrators and Vice Chancellors fail to grasp the significance and power of racism in their own organizations and practices and lack the motivation and creativity necessary to respond to this challenge.
They, and their forebears, have maintained a stasis of which they have been barely aware, and are now tasked, without acquiring pertinent competencies, with changing. Given these conditions, there are at least two discernible areas in which USMT’s lack qualification to lead change: conviction and consciousness. These work to both mask and reveal the presence of grandiosity that disguises a lack of substance. The post proposes that one way to change this is to engage USMT in a process of conscientization through a Trojan Horse mechanism.
Conviction and institutional racism
Conviction refers to the extent to which USMT’s are willing to act against institutional racism. Conviction is a form of conditionality: of the advancement of a putative objective being subject to other objectives being met or maintained. In respect of racism, Derrick Bell talked of ‘interest convergence’. He argued more than 40 years ago in the Harvard Review that
the interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites.
It is this stark: Blacks will only get what they want when Whites want the same thing. This is important, because HE management takes its lead from Liberal government setting the tone for benchmarks that business and public sector bodies are compelled to follow. Presently, the UK government is set on denying institutional racism, preventing people from understanding institutional racism, and penalising people who try to teach it. The message is clear: we're not behind the idea of ending institutional racism beyond rhetorical propaganda whenever the matter becomes too big to ignore.
This does not mean there can be no convergence of interests. USMT's need to ensure they do not take any status 'hits', since failing to acquire Charter recognition impacts the institution's reputation in the marketplace. The process for USMT becomes a search for the paths of least resistance: the easiest way to meet REC benchmarks, without getting into something that could call such an outcome into doubt - like a public bun-fight over institutional racism, for example.
USMT’s manage this gap between competing Bourdieusian fields of power in order to integrate externally-driven directives in ways that do not compromise public and professional reputation. Lund et al referred in 2020 to the idea of Academic Potemkin Villages: institutions decked out to look like something they are not.
They wrote that
HEI’s are driven by ‘rational imperatives to the forces buffeting higher education, bringing unintended consequences when they are driven mostly by short-term, marketing-based, revenue-enhancing considerations.
There is too little will to concede an outcome that might harm the reputation of a university in a competitive market place. Far easier to create from new web-pages and expanded sub committees a Potemkin Village made of superficial micro-successes, than admit the necessary new foundations for racial equity haven’t even been laid. USMT’s do not prioritize the importance of racial equity because their corporate agendas are ‘disconnected from both staff and students’, according to McCann et al. Instead, organizational leadership in this framing
is about the preservation of prevailing sexual, racial, imperial and class hierarchies
USMT’s commit to only a superficial, non-damaging variant of racial equity. This reduces anti-racism to ideologically-fetishized, -ritualized and -metricated tick-box exercises for USMT purposes. Such approaches sideline the structural dynamics of institutionalized racism reflected in the White, elitist, masculinist, heterosexist, able-bodied and Eurocentric culture that dominates UK universities. The cheaper, faster route to benchmark alignment and impression management results in
well-worded mission statements and some minor cosmetic changes, leaving structural racial inequality intact
USMT conviction with regard to racial equality, then, is determined by the extent to which the processes deployed do not compromise market priorities, and by their limited capacity to engage with and comprehend their own roles in masking and perpetuating institutional racism. There are two faces to this process.
Consciousness and institutional racism
A second area of under qualification concerns consciousness. Consciousness in this context means recognizing, acknowledging and interrogating the power dynamics of racism. Paulo Freire, pedagogue and resistance scholar extraordinaire, proposes that consciousness is not a natural phenomenon, but one that arises as the outcome of recognizing and comprehending the fluid context within which oppressors, oppressed and oppression function.
Freire argued that oppressors may not know they are oppressing consciously, but may instead be acting through socially-acquired histories, positions, institutions, structures, beliefs, bodies and values. Similarly, oppressed groups may not perceive of themselves as being oppressed when such oppression is the law. Segregation and slavery were both legal constructs until recently, as was Apartheid. The UK went as far as to ban slave-trading but maintain slavery as a legally-codified right (if you were White), and later compensate White slave owners for their losses. Freire argued that because oppressors rarely see themselves as such - think of any modern excuse for Empire - only the oppressed could liberate themselves from their oppression, and correspondingly liberate their oppressors from the dehumanizing effect of their actions on themselves. In the context of the Race Equality Charter, however, it is clear that continual structural oppression prevents actions taken in the Charter's name to have the imagined effect, and little of substance changes. USMT remain oppressors and PoC remain oppressed. USMT remain racially ignorant. This lack of consciousness, competence and conviction is a major impediment to challenging institutional racism in UK universities. How are such nationwide failings at large, prestigious bodies like universities not more apparent? Why do we not see them more readily?
Grandiosity and institutional racism
The elephant in the room is the superficiality of a process requiring institutional change wherein the institution does not recognise or accept a need to change. Speaking about the Royal Family in the wake of the Christmas racism row of 2022, Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff wrote that the monarchy was at that
painful stage of corporate evolution when an organisation knows it needs to diversify, but is aghast to discover that means it actually has to change, rather than making a few token adjustments and blithely carrying on much as before.
Instead of changing, university elites grandstand with micro-change. Grandiosity is giving the impression of great progress that simultaneously masks a lack of meaningful change, to paraphrase Derrick Bell. In universities around the world, grandiosity refers to the misrepresentation of the mundane as exceptional. In 2016, Alvesson and Gabriel exposed the notion that in order to get ahead, institutions increasingly exaggerate the value and significance of what they do through the use of hyperbole to stay ahead of the competition.
In open, equality-oriented societies [progress is] socially controlled, semi-realistic and confined to loading an increasing number of phenomena with strongly positive, exaggerated associations that emanate attractiveness, success and distance from the paltry mediocrity of everyday life
'Managers' become 'leaders', modest business is now ‘entrepreneurship’, 'strategic visions' and 'missions' have replaced 'objectives' and 'plans' and so on. A new language exaggerates the significance of old performances, although the notion of grandiosity itself is not new. What is new, however, is the narcissism that
suffuses late-capitalism where people become obsessed with trying to build a positive self-image, often through consumption of objects, experiences and brands.
The failings of micro-changes to affect institutional racism are recast, perversely, as successes. Roxanna Baltaru identified in 2020, how universities were presenting anti-racist credentials and progress from an increase in the number of web pages and links to external EDI sites. Universities suddenly ‘celebrating’ (noting) Martin Luther King Day, holding (advertising) a Black History month, instigating reading groups concerned with Asian/African/insert minority here literature, making public statements supporting the taking of knees (without having to do so themselves), condemning racism in cricket and football in institutional statements (performatively), introducing an EDI element to employee performance reviews and making Allyship performative, making non-specific public statements about rejecting institutional racism (agentically), adding pronouns to their email tails (easily), showing which gender and race networks they claim to support, implementing ‘training’ (avoidance) events, adding Black authors to reading lists, mentioning intersectionality here and there, adding entreaties to respect cultural difference in conversation styles, quoting Audré Lorde without having read her work, integrating new initiatives that secure the impression of an anti-racist process - these all present the look of change without properly addressing and undoing underlying racist structures. It is an illusion.
This is easy to manage: add more Colour and stir. It is easy to measure: it provides ready evidence for benchmark tallying. It is acceptable for USMT: minimal repositioning of Black Faces on White Committees provides quantitative data for managerial objectives. But this is illusory. Scholars refer to the McNamara Fallacy, which cloaks social inertia in the presentation of numbers that imply social change, when in fact, only the numbers have changed (there's more to it than this; wilful misreporting of numbers and selective application of subjects to count are central to this phenomenon). It embraces the ‘politics of presence’, the well-documented notion whereby ‘racial presence is synonymous with racial justice’. Simply re-rigging the number of People of Colour on committees does not mean the inputs of those people of Colour reduce institutional racism in a dominant White Culture. Nor does it mean that appointing a Black Pro-Vice Chancellor to head of EDI represents anything more than a stooge for White Power.
Institutional change is much harder than this. As Forbes put it in 2020:
leaders have largely sought to develop the race equality agenda, without the acknowledgment that there are no effective solutions for systematic and behavioral change
People merely presenting as more respectful, and otherwise paying lip service to equality, doesn't correct the disparities that are at the heart of institutional cycles of oppression. Such superficiality, argues Forbes, is a substitute for meaningful engagement and transformation that
not only minimizes the importance of the anti-racist practice, but also acts as a catalyst for the redesigning of processes that change the veneer, that further reinforce exclusionary practices.
The adoption of EDI, the exaggeration of the character of engagement and the persistent lack of diversity within USMT structures merge to misrepresent technical and local change as social and structural transformation, whilst disguising both the extent to which the old order persists, and the lack of qualifications of those who have shaped EDI in this fashion. USMT permits a tinkering at the edges and leaves the rotten core of its forebears’ making untouched. USMT is instead
preoccupied with preserving the corporate image at all cost, cutting corners in anything that does not seek to directly enhance their organization’s profile, cutting corners and believing that they are accountable not to their followers or public opinion
Solutions to institutional racism?
A key approach to transforming racism has been the use of implicit or unconscious bias training. This involves educating people 'about the knee-jerk preconceptions they hold and how these beliefs may affect their actions'. Its formal absorption into institutional practice presents as active engagement with anti-racism, whilst at the same time becoming an opportunity to make profit from training. But it doesn't talk about racism, and the structure and rules of racism, and the integration of such rules into institutional culture: it's just about stopping people doing something they've been doing, instead of getting to the roots of why, where and when it happens and how those inbuilt prejudices persist despite legislation outlawing their persistence. Complaining of this anodyne, reductionist, facile approach to institutional racism, the outgoing head of Institute of Race Relations, Colin Prescod, declared that it wasn't creating means to sidestep and avoid being racist that was a solution to racism. It was instead:
racism we want to talk about, it’s systemic behaviour we want to talk about, institutionalized racism we want to talk about, not unconscious bias or racial awareness. It’s the stuff that kills that we want to talk about, the stuff that stunts lives that we want to talk about, the stuff that deforms lives that we want to talk about
Further, training is not a neutral process. It is undertaken to bring people in line with managerial edicts. It involves:
telling people what to do, bending them to shape, or filling them as if they were empty vessels
The literature shows that racism is not something that can be trained out of people in time-limited disciplinary regimes. Indeed, there is evidence that anti-racism training risks ‘promoting more adaptive racism… through the coaching of participants’ on how to behave. In contrast with helping people recognize and understand underlying prejudice, training will have limited effect if the recipient does not believe in the rationale for the training, thereby reinforcing already fragile race relations and prompting resentment and backlash. Training is transactional not transformational, a criticism levied more broadly at universities as a whole. Education has been reduced from the means by which students 'learn to live [their] adult lives fully and well in a society of intense change, immense opportunity, and great hazards', to a means to mobilize a pliant, submissive, uninformed, unconscious and profit-orientated workforce.
Instead of ‘training’ USMT officers, there could be more chance of creating change through the process of conscientization, or critical consciousness raising, since a fundamental structural problem is the lack of consciousness displayed by USMT.
Conscientization in broad terms is the process by which we come to understand our position and condition in relation to loci of power we do not consciously register. Corporate business managers Berglund and Johansson described it as
a type of learning that is focused on perceiving and exposing contradictions and [taking] action against the oppressive elements of reality
It brings into our conscious thinking the existence and sources of the inequalities and social harms built into dominant systems and the rules with which they govern us. It is the ability to act to understand and recognize one’s own role in oppression and thereby be better situated to effect change in the real world where harm is being constructed or reproduced by those in power.
Long-term conscientization can be designed and delivered by properly-qualified, impartial agents of structural transformation, through embedded participation in anti-racist understanding (programmes that, for USMT, could form part of the employment contract and Professional Development Reviews (PDR), in the same ways that EDI is becoming embedded in PDR for the lower ranks). This has the potential to help USMT understand, acknowledge and accept the routine persistence of racist practices embedded in everyday management practices, in HR codes of conduct, in pay inequalities, in appointment and promotion processes. It helps them to see where this has come from, how without change it must persist that way, and how that persistence continues to be harmful. It helps USMT see their own roles, in their own institutions, reinforcing their own structures, rules and practices, perpetuating, unintentionally, racism across the board, in all HEI's. It helps them come to terms with privilege and power as historical conduits of daily racism, and in so doing, it forever scotches the carefully-propagated myth that it's only ever just a few rotten apples. It's the cart, the driver and the apples.
Conscientization at the top, evaluated and monitored competently by impartial agents, can cascade through the institution, revealing and reforming oppressive rules and structures more equitably. This reshapes USMT, weakens the historical grip on power and forms a more representative and equitable senior leadership. None of this is new; it just isn't being applied in UK universities in an organized sense. The problem is, those most in need of change are those who decide whether such change is permitted. The road block is the top.
Conscientization for racial equity will be resisted for the same reasons that training will be supported. Conscientization happens over a long period, requiring investment in external support, time and cash, and it will add to busy managerial workloads. Training, however, can be done in-house, in time-frames favoured and dictated by USMT, and it doesn’t guarantee USMT participation since the terms of training are decided internally. Conscientization is harder to quantify and measure, because recognizing value changes in managerial psyches takes a qualitative from of evaluation and may be better accounted for using approaches like ‘Most Significant Change’. Training is easy to quantify, goals easy to identify and metrics easily testify in tick-box exercises calibrated to enhance external impressions and managerial agendas - rather than complex concepts like equity and race. Conscientization engages with deep structural issues that have been buried in inherited norms created from power and inequality. Training engages with daily adherence to norms, and training is directed by those who perpetuate norms of power and inequality. Training may eradicate rotten apples. Conscientization upsets the whole apple cart.
For these reasons, and other well-documented concerns with White Fragility and Privilege, conscientization would have to be reframed to make it more palatable and less threatening. There is already a Trojan Horse mechanism available that is widely accepted by USMT, especially in Business Schools and in business thinking. It's mindfulness building. Management Studies and especially MBA’s increasingly require ‘constructively altering worldviews and behaviours’, a process for which ‘traditional, knowledge-inculcating [methods] are inadequate’.
are also known to reduce the intensity of negative emotions, enhance emotional recovery [and] increase reinterpretation of stressors as less personally threatening
Since this model has business and management credibility already, it may be adapted to integrate racial conscientization into USMT development paths. If successful, mindfulness may achieve what training cannot for USMT: a competent and professionally-guided, honest conversation in safe spaces acknowledging institutional race power, its invisibility perpetuated by denial and ignorance, and the means to identify and reform such institutional injustice.
Problematically, however, mindfulness will most certainly be decried as 'woke' by any Tory government and all Far Right commentators, and may also be folded agentically - per Baltaru's findings - into wider neoliberal agendas, just as EDI and virtue-signalling Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) have been. However, by that stage, there may have been at least some desired change inculcated. Persisting with current leadership approaches is getting us all but nowhere, slowly. I'm tired of waiting for those who grant permission for change, to grant permission for change and accept they also need to be the subjects of change themselves.
The process in which HE senior managers are engaged requires the unpicking of centuries of prejudices. Leading this sort of change requires more honesty, responsibility and courage from USMT. To overcome this crisis, mindfulness can be introduced as part of Professional Development at all levels, beginning with USMT, who should publicly and accountably lead by example. Respected, autonomous, external parties experienced in the development of this state of consciousness can provide longue durée programmes focused around race self-consciousness and race consciousness (among others). These processes can be understood not by the act of participation alone but by introspective and evaluative processes like ‘Most Significant Change’. The transformations required to understand racism with empathy rather than ego defensiveness can be evaluated through self-reflection diaries, group therapies and many other variants of change review. It is the difference between, for example, a meaningful engagement with what racism is and how institutional racism functions, and the tendency of 'corporations and service institutions alike... to conjure up slogans and marketing strategies [while] skipping the critical steps of institutional reflection and fundamental paradigm shifting'.
It is quite possible that such a process will also be subverted and reshaped agentically by the juggernaut of neoliberal education. This is perhaps less unsatisfactory than prevailing approaches to institutional racism in Higher Education that fail because the agents of change are neither conscious nor competent. The institutional racism so easily acknowledged at the general level by virtue-signalling elites cannot be undone without those who impose such structures becoming self-aware, since the course of change is defined from above. At its core, real change requires recognition that we cannot use the same means to dismantle oppression, that were used to create it. We cannot use the same people and mindsets to dismantle racism, that were involved in its imagining and maintenance. And we cannot refer to Audré Lorde's metaphor without ensuring it has not been subverted and folded into virtue-signalling, impression management, and White Power.