AFRICANGLOBE – A vision of a white-haired Caucasian man is perhaps the image that springs to mind when one hears the word ‘professor’. And with recent figures showing just 85 out of the UK’s 18,510 professors are Black that would be quite an accurate picture.
Streatham MP Chuka Umunna described the numbers as “shocking and unacceptable” during a Black History Month speech in Brixton earlier this month.
He said: “Education is supposed to be the key which unlocks the door to opportunity and yet for Black people seeking to reach the higher echelons of our universities the door appears to be shut.
“For young people looking at education and academia, isn’t the danger this lack of role models tells them ‘this is not the place for you’?”
He promised, if elected next year, to “hold our universities’ feet to the fire on the unacceptable lack of diversity in their leadership and their senior staff.”
At a public talk titled Why Isn’t My Professor Black? at University College London (UCL) in March, a number of Black scholars claimed they were being viewed as “outsiders” and subjected to racism.
But academics at Oxford University, one of the institutions often singled out for its elitism and lack of diversity, say the establishment is trying to turn things around.
Oxford professor Elleke Boehmer, who has taken the lead on Black History Month events such as honouring Black alumni, including the distinguished African American writer and philosopher Alain Locke, admitted there is a problem.
She said: “It is an issue that exists everywhere. There is real lack of Black professors, both in the humanities and in the sciences and BME teaching staff across the board.
“Here in the English faculty there isn’t anyone of African background. There are three professors of South Asian descent, but for the rest it is overwhelmingly White.”
She added: “This university has taken the criticism on the chin and put in place certain policies and awareness building initiatives like the Alain Locke workshops, which reflect on his achievements and the kinds of prejudices he had to deal with, and question whether they still exist today.”
However, she warned, it was “still early days” and there is a long way to go.
Pamela Roberts, author of Black Oxford: The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars, says part of the solution is recognising the contributions of past Black scholars.
She said: “Little is known about Oxford University’s Black scholars – their contributions and presence almost airbrushed out of the famed institution’s history. For example, visit the University College in Oxford and you cannot fail to see the Shelly Memorial, a grandiose white marble statue of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the romantic poet, set behind high ornate railings, celebrated as one of the college’s most famous alumni. Surprising, given that he was expelled after only eight months.
“Contrast this to Christian Frederick Cole, also an alumni of University College, and the first African to practice law in an English court. However, there is no grand monument to Cole, and no plaque. Mention his name at the college and you will be met by blank stares and inquisitive looks.”
She added: “This is just one example of how the contributions of Black scholars are not acknowledged or recognised. When you fail to see yourself, there is the danger that you fail to see what can be achieved.
“Black children need to know that Black scholars, not only at Oxford, but at all the Russell Group universities, are not new phenomena. More importantly, this message must be reinforced to teachers who continue to perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy of low aspirations and expectations.
“When a Black child raises his hand in a lesson and says ‘I want to be a barrister’, both historical and contemporary examples can be drawn upon as a point of reference to encourage him.”
Newly appointed patron of Black British Academics Miranda Brawn, a finance barrister and director of legal and transaction management at an investment bank, pointed out that the problem is not just a race problem it was also a gender issue.
The solution, she insists, begins at home.
She said: “You really have to start right at the beginning and plant the seeds of aspiration during their early education.”
Brawn added that more and more universities are beginning to realise the importance of diversity.
She said: “I am finding that I am getting more requests to go and speak at universities and events, where I get the opportunity to share my story and inspire the next generation, and these are coming from presidents of African and Caribbean Societies (ACS).
“It’s refreshing to see we have these things in existence, helping the networking and raising the awareness that something needs to be done.”
She added: “These statistics are not going to change overnight. We are not all of a sudden going to have 150 Black professors. If we do, fantastic, but this is something that is going to take time.
“Considering the time it takes to complete a PhD and professorship, you are looking at a good decade before the work we are putting in and highlighting now has a visible impact and we can actually see the fruits of our labour.”
By: Natricia Duncan
Africans In Science (Ivan Van Sertima)