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Tales from the Ivory Towers, No. 5 of 6

Updated: May 8

Institutional racism illustrated: how an HR department helped USMT downplay, deny and cover up a racist EDI committee

DB Roberts

University boardroom racial homogeneity. Copyright of author.


This blog post is a case study assembled from our 2022 survey on institutional racism in UK universities. The exercise is very useful for three reasons. First, it was referred to by 5 respondents at one university, so the data can be cross-corroborated. Second, it is emblematic of less detailed experiences reported at 26 other universities. Third, it makes tangible and real the key data and concepts the research and previous blogs enunciate. It illustrates how White Elites in UK university senior management teams - USMT - collude with HR and how this unaccountable malpractice undermined the authenticity of the REC process. The case study concretizes the notion of the Colour-Power Matrix. It helps us see how institutional racism happens in the real world.

‘Nobody said sorry’: deny, double-down, downplay and suppress

There were numerous stages to the event, which ‘spun out of control’ over several months and into the following year. The event directly involved four of the survey respondents, two Union reps, a Dean, two heads of HR, external lawyers, a Chief Operating Officer and two Pro Vice Chancellors (the last three being University Senior Management Team, or USMT). The latter was backed by the university’s lawyers. One of the survey respondents was a White whistle-blower who had full access to the email exchanges involved, and who secretly passed material between HR, Senior Managers, People of Colour and external lawyers. At one point, the Wall Street Journal was involved. It has some of the hallmarks of a Netflix conspiracy docudrama, with all the shenanigans one might imagine in such a show.

Docudrama playlist on Netflix. Copyright of author.

In accordance with the usual academic conventions on research methods and ethics, care has been taken to ensure no evidence is presented that reveals the employer of any of the involved respondents, and the survey itself did not ask for respondents’ names. I'm using a unisex pseudonym for one of the primary respondents, who I shall call Zia. Neither institution, nor any respondent, is discernible from this post. The case will be published in the peer-reviewed press in 2023, similarly anonymised, like the characters in the image below

Anonymised people in primary colours
Anonymised people in primary colours. Copyright of author

The case ran over two years. Late in 2021, a White Dean created a new Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) committee in the School over which s/he presided. The committee was composed ad hoc (specifically for dealing with the REC, but without an expiration date) and ex officio (on the basis of existing appointment and status). Prospective members volunteered without reference to an apposite contribution they could make. One volunteer wrote simply, 'I'd like to be on the Committee' and was thus appointed. None joined on the basis of a race-relevant skill-set. It was all-White, an issue one USMT member of the institution later declared to be ‘not necessarily a problem’. This degree of unhelpfulness and impropriety this comment exhibits was indicative of the extent to which USMT would later go to prevent the committee's leadership and composition being acknowledged as a problem.

It isn't hard to see why the committee could have come as far as it did, composed as it was. It must have felt inclusive and equal to those sitting on it. Perhaps the diverse range of disciplinary backgrounds, research interests, ages and even gender, implied diversity even as everyone was White. It would perhaps have been hard for the committee to immediately see anything was awry, because their racialized identities would have been self-reinforcing.

This is an example of White Dominion, or 'ownership of the home ground', the first element of the Colour Power Matrix. The process was owned, shaped, defined, managed and later defended and suppressed by White elites in the University in question. That dominion was challenged by a PoC in the same School, and what had already started badly began to spiral. The leadership

scrabbled to make sense of why they were in trouble for appointing themselves, from positions of power owned by White people, to an all-White panel whose rationale was equity, diversity and inclusivity

After some internal conversations, the EDI committee was to be reformed, but in a manner 'worthy of a Fawlty Towers fiasco, if it hadn't been so corrosive'. People of Colour in the School in question were invited to suggest, over two pages of A4, reasons they should be appointed by the White Committee. Said one respondent:

It’s a bit hard to fathom, that anyone could be so disconnected from reality as to create an all-White committee to look at racism, then create hoops for black people to jump through so they could join it. Oh yessum, massa.

The Dean, the HR officers defending him, and members of the University Senior Management Team (USMT) would strenuously deny that the two groups’ appointment processes were different, or that there was any evidence that this reflected dimensions of institutional racism. After a fashion, four PoC applied. One person was appointed. The all-White EDI committee handling the applications from People of Colour to join their all-White self-appointed ranks rejected 75% of the applicants of Colour because 'any more members would have made the committee too big'. When the Dean and HR were confronted with the idea that some White seats could be surrendered to make space for the people the Committee was meant to support, there was silence, and a promise by USMT later that the composition would be revisited soon. No such undertaking happened.

A respondent declared that 'the right thing to do would have been to throw their hands up and say:

We’re sorry, we’ve really ****** up. How can we fix this?’

Instead, the Dean, USMT and HR had doubled down on their position. In response, a grievance was taken against the Dean, using as evidence internal emails about the committee’s formation provided by the White Ally. Union reps supported the employee, and HR supported the Dean and USMT, per the axis of malpractice identified in the previous blog post. White Power aligned and prevailed; this was institutional racism condoning White cronyism.

Things continued to slide. Multiple USMT actors became involved, as did the two most senior members of HR. They faced off against Zia and the Union reps, making ‘increasingly bizarre’ claims about rights, laws and confidentiality, which turned into open hostility, intimidation, and threats. Outside legal guidance was brought in by Zia which temporarily challenged the USMT, but the grievance was ultimately defeated by the university’s ‘all-White legal team’. In the end, 'errors' regarding minor offences were 'noted' (not ‘admitted’, it seems) but 'any notion of any racial wrongdoing was entirely rejected'. The matter was closed and the activist told to ‘move on’.

In none of this were Human Resources neutral arbiters or mediators. They represented and supported USMT to the extent of participating in denial to protect the EDI committee's leader from criticism. No HR rep was appointed to support the academic's grievance, yet HR reps supported, guided and protected the Dean and then USMT as the complaint was taken higher and HR were then subject to a grievance claim by the academic. This effectively closed a loop: both HR and USMT had been aligned at the outset and HR supported USMT, but when HR was challenged for multiple failures, USMT came to their defence. The closure of that loop revealed the accountability lacuna; with HR protecting USMT, the processes of complaint were compromised. USMT is less accountable than lower levels, with cronyism tainting appointments to Councils owning oversight of USMT members. Later, when the university, seeking Race Equality Status, invited employees to write blog posts on their experiences, posts identifying institutional racism at work were monitored, challenged and suppressed in acts of White collusion that went almost to the top of the university, again.

Meaning beyond the detail

My intention in deploying this case study is to show how in daily life the Colour-Power Matrix works. But it is also to unpick the processes of institutional racism at work in elite UK bodies like universities, and it will not be greatly different in other institutions. The fact that an EDI committee was formed from self-appointing White Folk who then made PoC jump hoops to get membership of a cronyist committee reveals White Dominion at work. The fact that this travesty was protected by an all-White elite shows White Dominion as institutional. It's not the apple, it's the cart, the fruit, the environment and the driver too.

That Dominion extends to backlash and complicity. The exposure of the Dean’s failings (he was in charge, the committee’s character was on him) resulted in a backlash against those who objected. The activist faced powerful, intimidating White elites, organised corruption in conjunction with HR, and threats to their job, including attempts to buy Zia off. All-White HR was complicit in this process; there is no doubt that defending multiple White elites was part and parcel of the job description, to protect the errant Dean and the USMT who defended him/her.

This raises the question of how authentic that university’s commitment was to ending racial inequity in line with the mandate of the Race Equality Charter to which they aspired. I suspect, from reading the respondents' stories and remarks, that it all started off honestly, and that it was just a lack of experience of being anything other than White, entitled, privileged and getting what you want, that determined this outcome. If that’s what you’re conditioned to expect, it’s not surprising that’s what you’ll seek and recognise. It was likely not intentional racism. It began as little more than inexperience and incompetence that turned into an own goal and a scandal.

It would not be the first time a powerful body covered up an instance of wrongdoing to protect its reputation. But in being that way, authentic commitment to ending institutional racism foundered on perceptions of the economic cost attached to genuine truthfulness. A reductionist cost-benefit analysis relegated an actual racial inequality incident behind a potential commercial liability. An admission could have been forthcoming instead, and an apology could have been forthcoming, with an agreement to reform that particular process immediately, and further agreement to see how institutional committee forming could be bolstered. It could have been an excellent learning and teaching moment. Instead, Zia got told to move on again.

Last words…

This was reported by many people at one institution. But other cases like this littered the survey responses. They all share common themes of petty ignorance, failure and denial. Beyond this, they are linked by themes of neoimperial White Dominion over the ‘races’, of collusion within institutions and across mostly White-led departments, and of a lack of authenticity regarding their commitment to racial equity beyond anything that doesn’t ask change of them. Orwell put it like this: White People will not be able to

abolish [racial] distinctions without making uncomfortable change in their own habits and ideology

This case study shows how resilient institutional resistance to racial change in UK universities can be, and how chronically persistent institutional racism is.

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