Why isn’t my professor black?

A couple of weeks ago I attended a panel discussion at UCL called, simply, “Why Isn’t My Professor Black?”. Race in academia and the experience of being a BME academic is something I’m keenly interested in: I’ve written about UCU’s report on race, about intersectionality and some reflections on intersectional experiences in teaching and learning, and the effort one expends entering spaces where I am a research subject rather than a researcher and activist in my own right.

The statistics are shocking: of the 18,550 professors in the UK, only 85 of these are Black – and only 17 of the 85 are women. This panel brought together six Black academics to not only discuss why there are so few Black professors, but to imagine the conditions where Black academics could thrive.

The six academics brought together for the panel were:

Nathan Edward Richards
Deborah Gabriel
Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman
Dr Lisa Amanda Palmer
Dr William Ackah
Dr Shirley Tate

You can watch the full panel on youtube, read the Storify of tweets here and there’s a summary of the event and each speaker’s approach on this blog. Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman‘s talk, “Philosophy is dead white – and dead wrong” is online here.

I’ve found a couple of blog responses but would love to add more – if you’ve written something, please let me know in the comments. Yewande Okuleye has a series of posts focusing on contents of the panel discussion, responses from attendees and participants, and her reflections. Leona Nicole Black also has some really interesting reflections on the event.

Predictably, I’m interested in the context informing this. Currently open in my tabs is a Guardian article reporting that only three black applicants win places to train as history teachers, an Irish Times article on the everyday reality of gender imbalance at professor level at third level, a Salon article about why white guys don’t (have to) get it and that is why dominate TV, a NYT piece on racial microaggressions in university, a Guardian article on why many academics are on short-term contracts for years, Nadine Muller’s collection of posts on academia and mental health, research showing that Black and Minority Ethnic communities are faced with double the levels of discrimination and PhD(isabled). As intersectional analyses show us, these different issues interact and compound each other: to be BME with poor mental health is not to experience two separate issues but instead to experience intertwining, inextricable issues that mean that such an experience is different from that of a white person with mental health issues or a BME person without them.

If “straight white male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is, Black and minority ethnic academics – particularly women, particularly those with mental health or disability issues, particularly LGBQ people, particularly trans* people, and particularly those whose identities encompass all of these things – are playing the academic game on a much harder setting. And it shouldn’t be this way.

I could make an argument in terms of academic labour – if the academy loses us through neglect and hostility and lack of support, it loses our perspectives. It loses our critiques, it loses our intellectual gifts, it loses what we can bring to the university in terms of funding and prestige and league table rankings. It loses our abilities to engage with and mentor students, which will no doubt be reflected in the National Student Survey.

However, I am more interested in the damage it does to those in this system – the students and scholars who must struggle in ways not expected of anyone else, and who, when we raise the issue, are told that academia isn’t for everyone, and maybe we would be happier doing something else? What does it mean to work in such an environment, and what is it doing to us? What does our labour mean when it is produced in these conditions?

The magic AAB

I was interested to read Peter Scott’s critique of the “government’s decision to allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they like, while sharply constraining the overall number of students”

To quote his article:

There are two fundamental objections to this policy – one educational and the second ethical. The first is that universities have always chosen students according to their future potential, not past performance. Of course, A-level grades are important evidence of potential. But they should never be treated as decisive evidence, even in an age of mass higher education when computer-generated offers are almost inevitable.

To rely on A-level grades alone is, in effect, further to privilege the already privileged, to give disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth. The correlation between school performance and social advantage is too plain to deny. For years universities have attempted, feebly perhaps, to level the playing field by making differential offers. Now, on the fiat of David Willetts, they are no longer so free to do so.


The ethical objection to the government’s AAB apartheid takes me back to Popper on the Viennese streets 80 years ago. The arguments for widening participation, and for (genuinely) fair access, are usually seen as rooted in ideology of the kind that Popper disapproved of (“social engineering” is the standard put-down). That is only partly true, although unlike Popper I would not disavow collective action to secure social justice. The argument is also about individuals. First, is it fair to offer students an enticement, in the shape of a generous bursary or an attractive fee waiver, in the expectation that they will get AABs, only to withdraw it if they slip a grade (and since when have A-level examiners been infallible?).

But it goes deeper still. The vice-chancellor who swept the “tail” into oblivion from that restaurant table, and the vice-chancellors now struggling to “manage” their AAB entrants, are behaving in the same way as the zealots of right and left who battled in the streets. They are putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die.

As Scott observes, these aren’t abstract decisions, made as if we were all so many players of the Sims and presiding over our tiny virtual kingdoms. Instead, these are decision that affect people’s lives – decisions that can make a huge difference to someone’s life and future.

And, indeed, I was one of those people. I don’t have great A-levels, courtesy of the kind of sixth-form experience that screams “mitigating circumstances”. I ended up doing an extra year at a sixth-form college just so I had a set of A-levels that wouldn’t get me instantly rejected from anywhere I applied. On the basis of my A-levels alone, I would be one of those students on restricted intake. However, my sixth-form college were able to give me excellent references and the University of Liverpool, having met me, took a chance on me. Three years later I graduated with a First in English Language and Literature. Eighteen months after that I graduated with an MA in Corpus Linguistics. And now, ten years after doing my first set of A-levels, I find myself writing up my doctoral thesis, presenting at international conferences and teaching. I’d like to think that despite my poor performance at A-level, I’ve not done too badly in academia.

A-levels are just one way to predict someone’s future performance, but they don’t necessarily map onto academic ability. They’re a crude index at best – and at worst, fail to distinguish the students who will thrive in a university environment from those that won’t. Ultimately, it’s in universities’ interests to attract the students who will flourish in the academic setting they offer, and fetishising A-levels above other ways of evaluating potential students does not necessarily do that.


A year and a month ago I was sleeping inside a university occupation. The temperatures were subzero, there was snow lying on the ground outside, and the heating and electricity in the hall we were occupying had mysteriously suffered faults. At the time, it was sometimes hard to gauge the support we had – we certainly had support from all kinds of people both within and outside the community. However, there were also people who regarded us with a certain detachedness, as if we were overreacting in ridiculous fashion.

And so I found this recent report on growing anger about higher education reforms interesting, particularly the following:

There have been three responses […] The third is to regard the government’s reforms as heralding the death of the university as a public and liberal institution. Key academic values are under attack, whether scholarship in the humanities or curiosity-driven science. So are key social values such as widening participation.


It is the third response that seems to be gathering force. No longer confined to the “usual suspects” such as the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, it is gradually becoming established as the dominant response among the academic rank-and-file and high-profile public intellectuals. Not so long ago, the much-despised “chattering classes” shared the politicians’ low opinion of universities; now they are rallying to their defence.

However, as well as defending our universities’ existence, there’s also an opportunity to ask what we want our universities to be. Jennifer Jones and Martin Eve discuss this as “angry young academics” who want universities to be more than just consumerism. Mark has recently been posting material about the neoliberal university and I’ve found it really thought provoking.

As a young academic in the arts and humanities, I am aware of what we lose because of this neoliberal model of the university, particularly when it comes to funding young researchers. The important and fascinating PhD theses not written because the applicant couldn’t get funding. The scientists who can’t work on non-commercial projects because there isn’t money to support that. The ways projects that don’t have an immediately obvious economic benefit are devalued. The scrabbling about for limited amounts of funding which means that interesting and valuable ideas never get explored. Collaboration across departments or institutions that doesn’t happen because it’s difficult to work out who should be funding it.

And more and more, I’m led to question whether I want to fight for this system. I want to work in a university that is visionary and creative, rigorous and challenging, nurturing and supportive. The university I want to work in values research regardless of its economic usefulness, and values curiosity and exploration. The university I want to work on is aware of power and privilege, is critical and reflexive. Perhaps it’s the stage I’m at in my PhD (the despair, wailing and general hideousness stage), but at the moment I’m doubtful this happens on a university level.

I’m probably hopelessly idealistic about this. I am glad, though, that there are the beginnings of a debate about whom universities should serve, and I hope it does led to a change.

New College of Humanities

Been a bit of a busy few weeks. I’ve been attempting to write more of my methodology (it’s been in progress since Jan 2009 and I’m at the stage of loathing and despair) but I also went undercover (my cover name: Jo King) to a dating seminar aimed at heterosexual women (it would have been full of lulz but for the fact that women were taken in by this gender essentialist, heteronormative, frankly insulting crap and were spending some £500 to go on a weekend filled with more of the same).

However, the post-apocalyptic maelstrom of higher education has just got a bit more turbulent with the announcement of the New College of the Humanities. Dan Rebellato summarises it as:

A C Grayling has announced the formation of a new private college of Higher Education. The New College of the Humanities will charge fees of £18,000 and students will be taught be such renowned media dons as Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin, David Cannadine, Niall Ferguson, Steve Jones, and Peter Singer. There will be core courses in scientific literacy, applied ethics, and critical thinking, and then students will specialise in law, philosophy, economics, history, English literature, or some combination of those.

Other people have written about this:
Tery Eagleton: AC Grayling’s private university is odious
Research Blogs: Is the New College of the Humanities a good thing?
Crooked Timber: If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re trying to sell an undergraduate arts degree that costs more than an MBA?
Student Theory: New College for the Humanities: Emperor’s New Clothes
Dan Rebellato: New College of the Humanities

I spent some of yesterday talking to friends about this, one of whom went on to write Thirteen ways of looking at the New College of the Humanities.

My initial reaction is wariness, on both an ideological and academic level. Is the solution to chronic underfunding of the humanities one of making them the preserve of a rich elite? It’s already happening at undergraduate level and pretty widespread at doctoral level. This is neither fair nor good for research.
Academically, I can’t really see those top academics taking first-year tutorials – and, indeed, at least two academics will only be lecturing for one hour in the first year and the minimum for most professorial staff is five hours in the first year. Despite being a typical Arts undergrad, I had most contact hours than that a week! Admittedly six, but still… So who is going to be teaching? And, if you’re going to be taught by academics who aren’t media stars, i.e. the kind of academics you’ll find in universities up and down the country, what are you paying for?

The things I do find interesting are the focus on critical thinking and scientific literacy, and the way these degrees are aimed at those who don’t want to go into academia. Critical thinking and scientific literacy are important (although teaching critical thinking to people who are paying twice the going rate for a UoL degree could be…interesting). While I did not enjoy my Biology and Chemistry A-levels At All, they’ve come in useful when discussing variables, p-values, research design and, er, cisgenderism.
I’m also intrigued by the focus of a degree that is aimed at passionate, engaged students but isn’t an elaborate pyramid scheme and doesn’t just flail about going “um, transferable skills! yes! those are useful!”. I didn’t apply to study English because I wanted to develop excellent communication and time management skills – I did it because I loved words and language and wanted to know how they worked. This, to me, is one of the interesting things about arts and humanities degrees. While some degrees have more obvious applications – economics, for example – how do you make a passionate love for seventeenth century literature applicable in a job market? Never fear though, Grayling’s on the case.