Dr Winston Morgan: Why we need more black professors on campus

By Dr Winston Morgan

Dr Winston Morgan is Reader in Toxicology and Clinical Biochemistry at the University of East London. He splits his research between bioscience research and research into the outcomes for Black Asian and Minority Ethnic Students and Staff in Higher Education.

A successful higher education journey takes students through a number of stages; admissions, retention, progression, completion and culmination with the award of a degree. At all these stages there are less favourable outcomes for BAME and in particular black students.

This is worrying for both BAME students and the universities they attend as nationally over 22% of all students are from BAME backgrounds. One possible explanation could be the low number of BAME academics in many of our best universities, particularly at the level of Professor.

There are less favourable outcomes for BAME and in particular black students

At Durham University only 7% of all staff are BAME, compared to a Russell Group average of 14%. The national average is also 14% according to a recent UCU report based on HESA data. The same report also revealed that nationally 16% of academic staff are BAME but this drops to only 7% and 9% for professors and academic managers respectively.

So how could these BAME staff numbers affect the outcomes described above for BAME students?

Despite the obvious opportunities and advantages universities like Durham offer, they still struggle to attract BAME students in significant numbers. The BAME students who do join such institutions are less likely to be retained beyond the first year, which many argue is due to a lack of belonging rather than any academic challenge.

Despite the obvious opportunities and advantages universities like Durham offer, they still struggle to attract BAME students in significant numbers

Those BAME students who complete their programmes are on average likely to be awarded a lower class of degree compared to their white counterparts in what is termed the ‘university awarding gap’ or ‘attainment gap’, which stands at 13% for BAME and 22% for black students nationally.

Ironically the solution to many of these challenges may not be found in the staff data, but in three powerful campaigns initiated by BAME students at Russell Groups universities over the last five years. These campaigns are a cry for help from BAME students who believe they are being failed by the sector.

The “Rhodes must fall” campaign addresses the issues around the legacy of colonialism and white supremacy which BAME students regularly encounter on campus. Without appropriate counter-narratives these relics from the past help to create and maintain a non-inclusive environment.

These campaigns are a cry for help from BAME students

“Rhodes must fall” is not just about physical symbols but also the profile of the staff students encounter on campus.  The “Why is my curriculum white?” campaign shines a light on the widespread use of colonised curricula in the sector which continue to propagate a Eurocentric view of the world and reinforce whiteness.

In asking “Why isn’t my professor black?” BAME students are highlighting their lived experience which is confirmed by the HESA data. The reality is that many students at some of our best universities can go through their entire higher education journey without ever being taught or just encountering a black academic in their department.

To improve outcomes for BAME students, Durham University must start by increasing the number of Black professors (academics) on campus. More black professors would provide the counter-narratives to the numerous metaphorical “Rhodes statues” on campus.

A decolonised curriculum would improve the student experience, progression rates and ultimately attainment

This alone is likely to improve both the admissions and retention of  BAME students.  Having black professors designing and informing the curriculum will reduce the Eurocentric content of the curriculum and make it more engaging and relevant for all students graduating in this globalised world.

A decolonized curriculum would improve the student experience, progression rates and ultimately attainment.  The benefits of having more black professors on campus are not limited to BAME students. White staff and students will experience counter-narratives about race and are then less likely to racialize the BAME students they encounter or BAME people once they leave university.

More black professors would facilitate their white colleagues in producing and delivering a less Eurocentric curriculum and this would have a big impact on the university awarding gap.

To increase the number of black professors is a major challenge particularly if extra funding cannot be found. The HESA data tells us that there are over 300 missing black professors in the sector. This means that a university like Durham should have at least 5-10 more black professors.

There are over 300 missing black professors in the sector

In all these cases there are suitable black professorial candidates waiting to be appointed but the chairs are currently occupied by white professors, who have no intention of giving up these posts to a black colleague.

Even where funding is available and suitable selection policies are in place, the reality is that in practice the appointment process always fails the BAME academics, primarily because those making appointment decisions value and appoint people who look like them and the status quo.

Given the overwhelming arguments, institutions who want to increase the number of black professors must use the employment laws effectively to make posts available and then take more positive and direct actions and simply appoint more black professors.

Those making appointment decisions value and appoint people who look like them and the status quo

Another simple solution is use external agencies with a track record on equality and diversity issues to take charge of academic and management appointment processes.

Photograph: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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