Mixed response from universities to the growing momentum of Black Lives Matter

While some institutions’ backing for the BLM movement is platitudinous at best, a number have published detailed plans of how they intend to better understand – and act upon – the issues at hand

“We know that for decades, St Andrews hasn’t got this right, that we’ve let down our BAME students and staff, and that our university has been, and continues to be, so much the poorer for it.”

So began a June 12 statement from professor Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews.

“On behalf of this institution, I apologise for that,” she added.

Mapstone was responding to widespread criticism of St Andrews’ posting black squares on its social media channels on #BlackoutTuesday, the Black Lives Matter campaign’s June 2 response to the death of George Floyd.

A tweet from someone identifying as a current student was typical of the objections: “The best the University of St Andrews can come up with is a performative gesture. No further comments. Not even a platitude filled statement like the other universities.”

The university’s first official response to complaints came on June 4, when an open letter from Mapstone said: “We must accept, as a 600-year-old institution, that while we might pride ourselves on our commitment to diversity and our intolerance of all racism, we have long been a part of the establishment and structures which perpetuate discrimination in this and other countries.”

We are painfully aware that racism did not occur overnight, and it will not end that way. We are taking a long-term view on effecting real change – University of Bristol

Mapstone’s letter was met with similar criticism to the university’s original posts.

”That’s lovely, but where are the concrete steps for action?” asked one student. “Your response is not meaningful enough, sorry.”

Thus, the background to the June 12 statement, and what St Andrews calls “a comprehensive list” of the actions it is taking improve BAME representation, alongside a call for “all staff and students to be active participants in driving change”.

Among the initiatives listed by the university are:

  • A race, ethnicity, religion and belief equality group identifying and addressing issues which disadvantage BAME people at the university
  • A name-blind working group examining evidence on the pros and cons of name-blind applications
  • BAME students from St Andrews giving recruitment presentations at secondary schools and reviewing all marketing material
  • An audit of inclusive curriculum initiatives currently active across the university, focusing on race and ethnicity
Professor Sally Mapstone, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews

The institution also pointed to the 2018 launch of St Andrews’ Staff BAME Network, its support of staff taking part in the Advance HE Diversifying Leadership (BAME) programme, and its claim to be “the only Scottish university to have advertised vacancies in publications including the Windrush magazine, the Black History Month magazine and website, and the BAME Education and Careers Guide magazine”.

“Every one of the initiatives underway at St Andrews exists because we want to make a real difference to people’s lives,” said Mapstone.

The university has also published, as the culmination of a year-long project, its first equality, diversity and inclusion progress reports.

“These actions are only a start, but I hope they provide a sense of depth and momentum, and the centrality of diversity to what St Andrews, under my leadership, aspires to be,” added Mapstone.

President of the university’s Students’​ Association, Jamie Rodney, said: “I echo the principal’s apology – the Students’ Association, just like the university, has fallen short of doing everything it could do for BAME – and particularly black – students. We’ll be doing everything we can to support the university’s actions and uplift the voices of our black students.”

Other universities respond

St Andrews is far from the only higher education establishment to make statements in the wake of Black Lives Matter’s growing momentum. Many, it is fair to say, fall under that “platitude-filled” label, but there are exceptions.

The University of Bristol is based just a few hundred yards from where the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled, making headline news – and sparking similar actions – across the globe.

“We fully acknowledge that we financially benefited indirectly via philanthropic support from families who had made money from businesses involved in the transatlantic slave trade,” said the university in a statement on June 11.

“We know that the Black Lives Matter campaign has served to amplify existing concerns about the university’s history and whether we should rename the Wills Memorial Building, and other buildings named after families with links to the slave trade.  We commit to reviewing the names of these buildings.  We will also review our university logo, which carries the Colston, Wills and Fry crests.”


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The university noted that it published a race equality statement earlier this year, and appointed professor Olivette Otele as its first professor of the history of slavery. It is also establishing a steering group to help “develop strategies to address individual, cultural and structural racism across our institution and to educate us all in how we can be an anti-racist organisation.

“We are painfully aware that racism did not occur overnight, and it will not end that way. We are taking a long-term view on effecting real change across our university. We firmly believe that if we all actively do our part and develop a speak-up culture that places responsibility on all of us – not only people of colour – to call out racism when it occurs, we will succeed.”

Exeter College, Oxford, released a statement on June 12 claiming that its fellows, staff and students were “appalled by the events in Minneapolis which have prompted the recent worldwide outpouring of distress. As an institution committed to education and research, Exeter is also profoundly concerned by the underlying injustices in the UK and elsewhere which have meant that this atrocity resonates so widely and so painfully.

“The events of the past two weeks have increased our desire to intensify Exeter College’s commitments to achieve racial equality, to increase diversity among students, fellows and staff, and to ensure that the college is a welcoming and supportive place for black and other minority ethnic people.”

The Students’ Association, just like the university, has fallen short of doing everything it could do for BAME – and particularly black – students – Jamie Rodney, St Andrews’ Students’ Association

As well as noting ongoing initiatives such as Exeter Plus, “aimed at increasing the proportion of students from ethnic and other groups currently under-represented in the college,” the institution listed a “number of possible projects being actively discussed”.

These include the introduction of compulsory workshops designed to educate students on BAME issues, enhanced training in equality and diversity for all students and staff, requests to tutors to consider increasing the diversity of reading lists, and the strengthening of ties to Target Oxbridge (aiming to facilitate applications from black students) and the Oxford African and Caribbean Society.

“At Exeter, we believe that black lives matter,” the statement concluded. “They enrich the entire college community, as they do society as a whole, and deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. We commit ourselves to a major programme of additional work in this important cause.”

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