A Letter to the University of Exeter and the Student’s Guild: The Unlearn collective
In light of renewed discussions of racism in the UK, an anti-racist collective of the University of Exeter has written an open letter to the university and Student’s Guild with demands to foster a greater anti-racist culture within the institution.
To the Vice-Chancellor, University management, and the Students’ Guild,
We are writing to you to express our frustration at the current university culture around race. We are encouraged by the measures outlined in response to the open letter published by the BME Staff, Students and Allies Network, with signatories from Exeter UCU, Exeter Students’ Guild, LGBTQ+ Staff Network, Exeter Staff Decolonise Group, History Department, Psychology Head of Department and Deputy Head of Department, Law Department and English and Film Department. However, in the interest of fully diffusing anti-racist rhetoric and policy into the University, we would strongly implore consideration of our proposed actions detailed herein – efforts thus far still have not gone far enough:
Given the current conversation around race relations both in the US and here in the UK, the impetus on white members of the University, both student and faculty, to educate themselves on their privilege and their need to be better allies has never been higher. The University must seize this opportunity to effect real change and become a leader in the sector.
The mobilisation of individuals on social media, petition pages, and physical action through protests has been nothing short of inspiring. The exchange of ideas and perspectives is vital in bridging the gap between different communities.It is time that the University of Exeter leads by example in driving this mentality forward, to create a truly inclusive, compassionate environment to work, study and teach. A university, by definition, is an institute of learning. A facilitator of the very actions mentioned above. Thus, it should be a responsibility that the university gladly undertakes for the betterment of society to champion the anti-racism movement.
At the University of Exeter, there have been several racist incidents that were highlighted to the local, and often national communities. Every word in this sentence hyperlinks to incidents of bigotry here. And this only within the last four years. This is not to say that effort has not been made to request that the University both acknowledges the problem, and takes concrete action regarding solutions. Students have tried, staff have tried, and alumni have tried writing open letters.
The murder of George Floyd has brought the brutalisation of the black community to the fore, and we have a duty to continue the dialogue and solidarity we have seen in the aftermath of this tragedy.
Compounded by the well-documented racism faced by students on campus, we demand the creation of an initiative at the university to provide an intersectional platform for open and frank discussion of race relations and minority-ethnic histories/perspectives. This “Learning to Unlearn Initiative” would serve to amplify the voices of BME staff, students and external speakers and encourage the presence and education of white students on effective allyship. It is imperative that the current wave of action be sustained, and actions taken in the long term. By amplifying the voice of BME staff/students/speakers, we do not mean University merely ‘platforms’ them, but rather that they engage proactively and take concurrent action from the feedback received at these events. It is not enough to merely support our BME friends and colleagues when acts of bigotry are perpetrated against them. We must foster the kind of environment that renders the views at the root of these acts of bigotry obsolete.
In addition, we currently have a list of working suggestions, as listed below:
- Make diversity training compulsory for ALL societies.
Currently, diversity training amongst societies is optional. This is not good enough. All societies must be fully prepared for the potential for racial discrimination, fully equipped to spot both overt racism and the microaggressions so frequently overlook at present. It is also important to be conscious of who runs this training, and what is being ‘taught’: a textbook definition of the Equality Act is not the answer, but rather fostering an environment where the zero-tolerance policies extends to within societies.
- Use of TV screens to showcase essential materials on the topic of race relations and white privilege
We have a wealth of screens and monitors widespread on our campuses. It would cost nothing to use this network to showcase pertinent resources on the topic of race relations and white privilege, as well as carry some of these resources prominently within the University bookshop. The online resources advertised by the Library in the aftermath of the current turmoil were welcomed, but again the accessibility can certainly go further than 1-day licences that have to be renewed by the reader.
- A commitment to decolonising the campus.
Whilst the University has previously expressed support for academic departments looking to decolonise; it is vital for the University to understand that the campus must also be decolonised. The Senior Management structures of both the University and the Students’ Guild are entirely white. Without acknowledging how these power structures play a role in the day-to-day running of the University, the campus cannot be fully decolonised through only the efforts of academic staff. It is important that the University and Students’ Guild understands its own hiring practices at managerial level. In addition to this, the University must be committed to financially supporting the decolonising efforts of academic staff, who will be taking on extra labour to decentre whiteness and reductivist Western perspectives from their modules.
- Yearly registration to include pledge against prejudice – and subsequent ZERO tolerance.
In order to emphasise an outright commitment to anti-racist values, Freshers and returning students must sign a pledge against prejudice. If we are truly an open and inclusive institution, any deviation from this affirmation should be categorically incompatible with our shared values. There must be a zero tolerance to confirmed racist/xenophobic acts, and this must be reiterated yearly rather than a single questionnaire.
- We demand the university recognises that there is a racism issue on campus and that there is room for serious change
This change in culture has to come with facing some harsh truths. Many of us must admit in our complicity to the current paradigm in which our minority-ethnic communities have been marginalised. This goes for individuals as well as organisations. The University of Exeter is not exempt in this and must show humility going forward; there is serious room for change, and this must be recognised. You have been implored in the past by the English Department and Alumni on this issue (twice) a few months ago. Thus far, what change have we seen from their concerns? Without concerted action, the only message we can infer is that of apathy.
- We demand the university emphasizes transparency in investigations of racist harassment and abuse
Too often, investigations of alleged incidents of racism and/or xenophobia have been obscured by red tape. It is in the public interest that the details of these incidents are transparently conveyed to students and faculty for the protection and awareness of the community at large.
- The university must have BAME officers at all points of management and within the Wellbeing services to ensure inclusion and the amplification of marginalised voices.
BAME perspective is absolutely essential at all points of management within Wellbeing services. We are a diverse community with diverse issues and diverse requirements of this service. True understanding of these requirements undoubtedly resides with those who have lived in the same shoes. Our wellbeing officers must have BAME representation to fulfil this essential need.
- We demand that the university sets procedures and systems to look after the vicitims of harassment and discrimination. This includes reforms to the current system and ensuring that BAME staff are involved in investigations.
- Introduce Stage-wide, yearly, COMPULSORY equality and diversity events.
At the start of each year, great importance is placed upon the ExFactor Employability events, with attendance highly encouraged (practically mandatory). We argue that such importance and insistence should also be placed on introductory events based around equality and diversity, with a significant focus on race relations and the BME experience. If the University wants to demonstrate a commitment to the current and future prosperity of their students, it must place as much importance in such training and information dissemination of this ilk as it does for student employability.
Writers such as Rachel Elizabeth Cargle of The Great Unlearn Community and Layla F. Saad of Me And White Supremacy and the Good Ancestor Podcast have been clear that a significant proportion of the responsibility to effect change lies firmly at the door of those who benefit from a white supremacist patriarchal system. The BAME community has been vocal from the start and our university didn’t listen enough, and the solution lies in our hands. We cannot allow the swell of outrage and the desire to change brought on by the needless killing of a valuable human to simply fade away with no change in the status quo. It will only happen again, and we cannot stand for that.
We hope that you will value our collective voices and demonstrate your commitment to bringing all opinions, from student to faculty to senior leadership, into your concerted efforts to make the University the more inclusive, compassionate, open-minded institution we all want it to be.
The Unlearn Collective
As of publishing, the letter has 1000 signatories and is increasing
On release, a link to the University response can be found here.
On release, a link to the Student Guild’s response can be found here.