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Reflecting the value of equality

Professors Anne Trefethen and Martin Williams reflect on the University’s progress on diversity and inclusion, and the work of the Race Equality Task Force.

Equity, diversity and inclusion are high priorities for many of us at the current time. As the Race Equality Task Force, which we co-chair with Dr Rebecca Surender, moves into its important engagement phase, this term provides an opportunity for us to take stock of the progress we have made, and to consider what more we can do to increase the pace of change and create a welcoming and supportive community for all.

Progress over time

Each year we publish the University Equality Report, which provides a comprehensive view of data and activities focused on all aspects of equality during the preceding academic year. It is clear from this report that there are many and varied activities, and the trends in the data indicate that the effort is having impact. For example, over the last decade there has been an increased representation of women both in staff roles and in governance, and we have admitted many more female and Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students, particularly at undergraduate level. When it comes to data specific to BME staff and students, while in some areas the picture has changed, in other areas we have not made great strides. We recognise the ongoing discussions on the use of the term ‘BME’, and with the Task Force we are seeking to identify the most appropriate term(s) for our context and work.

Since 2000 the University has had a half dozen or so Race Equality working groups or steering groups that have engaged with staff and students to develop action plans. It is interesting to see how the very context of the discussion has shifted over the two decades, and how the questions and language of 20 years ago do not always fit well with our discussions today. Nevertheless, reading the student and staff experience collected through those various exercises, there is no question that in some areas there is a slight feeling of groundhog day.

While there have been changes to policy and practice over a number of years, the last year has seen a focus on this issue across the collegiate University; race equality action plans have been published and events held throughout our institution, some of which are captured in the Equality Report, but many more are not.

Recent initiatives

History and place are important and reflection of our past is essential; the Oxford and Colonialism Working Group (OCWG) created the Oxford and Colonialism website, which publishes departmental and college reflections on our history and brings together the wide range of ways the collegiate University is engaging with its colonial past. The Oxford BHM 100 highlighted the particular contributions and impact of black people nominated by members of the University’s student, staff, alumni and donor community. Museums are working on reinterpretation of our collections, addressing the silences of the past and placing relevant objects into their colonial context.

There have been new initiatives to diversify our staff and students. The Black Academic Futures positive action scheme to fund and mentor up to ten black British doctoral students each year was introduced, and we also obtained additional philanthropic funding for other positive action bursaries and scholarships, including the Oxford-Arlan Hamilton and Earline Butler Sims Scholarship for black British undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds, and doctoral scholarships in Law for UK BME students. We’re shining a spotlight on best practice for inclusive recruitment through the Inclusive Associate Professor Recruitment project, which will result in a toolkit and process for departments and colleges to use. And new initiatives such as An Introduction to Inclusive Teaching at Oxford have been launched to help tackle differential degree outcomes between students in different equality groups. The libraries have created a reading list of Black Lives Matter and anti-racist online resources.

Initiatives have been taken forward by each academic division and by GLAM; a new network for academic and research staff and graduate students in STEM was launched to foster social and professional connections, to highlight the contributions of People of Colour in STEM and to help raise awareness of racial issues and shared experiences; the MPLS Division has a project to support the diversification of STEM curricula, while departments across the University continued working to make their curricula more inclusive and diverse, including further development of the English Faculty’s new website – Postcolonial Writers Make Worlds – to support the teaching of the works of Black and Minority Ethnic authors. The libraries and museums are working with communities to reflect the history of their collections and the Counselling Service has employed several black counsellors to offer more choice to students. This is in addition to the huge amounts of energy devoted at departmental level to anti-racism action plans and initiatives.

Race Equality Task Force

As is often the case at Oxford, the efforts being made at departmental and college level are hard to capture, and are in many cases happening in isolation of neighbouring efforts. Through the work of the Task Force we aim to surface these activities to share good practice and learn from each other, as well as learning from other institutions and sectors.

It is likely that it will take years before we see the full impact of many of the initiatives that are already in flight. The work of the Task Force is to identify where we can take action so as to accelerate change in terms of the quantitative picture of the representation of BME staff and students, but perhaps even more importantly in the experience that they have in their daily lives at Oxford. Our colleagues and students do not always experience the University as a welcoming place where they can be themselves, thrive and enjoy their time here fully – that is unfair to them and makes us a weaker institution.

Our aim is to have a strategy with clear priorities to put to Council in September that will be open for consultation with staff and students across the collegiate University next Michaelmas term. We will then undoubtedly need sustained effort to deliver on the plans that will emerge from that consultation. At present we are busily dissecting data that we have, filling gaps that have been identified, learning from other institutions and sectors, trying to understand how we might better approach issues around harassment, and reviewing the governance and support that are in place.

Opportunities to get involved

Last Friday we listened to the first of a series of Conversations on Race. The session, led by Dr Rebecca Surender, was a discussion with Professor Saleem Badat, who is now a Research Professor in Humanities at the University of Kwazulu-Natal but was the first black Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, South Africa. It was an inspiring conversation that shone a light on some of the issues that we face here at the University. His history and place are rather different from ours but his key message that nothing can be changed until it is faced is as true here as it is in South Africa. This term will see the formation of focus groups of staff and students to hear concerns, ideas and suggestions. We invite you to join the rest of the Conversations on Race. Please take a look at the Get Involved webpage, where you can indicate your interest in joining a focus group to reflect on your own experiences, help identify priority issues and contribute to the shaping of actions.

We hope the efforts of the Task Force will make a positive and sustainable change to our environment that will be of benefit to all in our community, and we hope you will help achieve that too. Many thanks to all who are contributing to this work.