The tragic and abhorrent circumstances surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis make clear yet again that racial inequality and discrimination exist at the very heart of our societies.
I’ve been contacted by students and staff in the past few days who have shared with me their anger, pain and frustration regarding this situation and at not being listened to, not being recognised; being afraid of what is happening in America, but also in the UK. And how these things just go on and do not change.
I understand this pain and this anger. I have my white privilege and thus there is so much I do not know and have not experienced, but I am a human being and I’m sickened, saddened and horrified by what I see and hear, and what I have seen and what I have heard. George Floyd’s death is part of an appalling history of racist harassment and violence, witnessed if not felt by us all, regardless of our colour or background.
Our response to these tragic events needs to be anger and outrage for sure. But it also needs to be a collaborative and constructive one that looks at the problem at its source. Though we quite rightly pride ourselves on our multi-national, multi-cultural campus here at Brunel, we have a long way to go to transform our University into a place that truly represents all students and staff equally. Allow me to talk about that for a while.
There is, at Brunel and at every University in the country, an attainment gap between black and white students. We can address this partly through initiatives like our Student Success Project; our widening access activities, which take students from some of the lowest income and lowest participation areas in London and introduce them to Higher Education; our professional mentoring programme, introducing business mentors from across the local community to ethnic minority students; and our STEM Centre, which draws from a broad range of students. There is still so much more we can do.
There is a huge challenge facing universities to address the lack of Black representation in their leadership teams, and we are no exception at Brunel. Our Ethnic Minority staff network has helped bring this to our attention as well as raised concerns around health and safety due to the impact of COVID-19 on the BAME community. In 2017, we introduced our Diversifying Leadership management programme and we are working hard to improve our Ethnicity Pay Gap too – but again there is so much more that we can do.
Brunel stands, and will always stand, side-by-side with the Black community and I want to make it clear that all staff and students at our University should feel safe, equal and included - all of the time. Without exception. We are working to develop a university culture that can truly embody this.
Students who are struggling or need someone to talk to, can make use of our counselling and support services. I would encourage staff to become familiar with our Dignity at Work guidance and contact our Harassment and Bullying staff network or our anti-harassment advisors. We also have a Report and Support mechanism in place where our community is able to raise issues. You can do so anonymously or in strictest confidence.
Finally, to show our support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement we will be asking staff and students from the Black community to take over our social media accounts all next week, so that they can share their stories. Please support them. We will also be hosting a virtual event, entitled ‘Let’s Talk About Race Equality in HE’ on Monday 22 June where our Equality and Diversity Manager Sanchia Alasia and the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team will discuss accounts of white privilege and how it impacts on Higher Education, and there will be more opportunities to talk about this.
I want to end by saying something personal, if I may. I know we have real problems with racial discrimination and with racial harassment all around us. It breaks my heart to see it and to understand how it affects people’s lives. We cannot stand for it any more. We must change; we must make a difference. This is, I hope, the moment.
We must not keep quiet on this issue. Rather, we all need to join the conversation if we are to make progress, and my door, though virtual, is always open.
Prof William Leahy
Vice Provost for Students, Staff and Civic Engagement