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Director’s Letter on Anti-racism Activity

Director’s Letter on Anti-racism Activity

One year ago, against a backdrop of COVID-related health inequalities, consistently shocking police brutality and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement, OII students, staff and alumni came together to challenge us to do more to eradicate systemic racism in academia.

Their open letter to the department presented an ambitious template for institutional change. The thoughtful and constructive spirit of that letter was such that it has already been shared in other academic institutions, including other departments in Oxford, the Ada Lovelace Institute in London and universities in the United States. In keeping with the spirit of that letter, in my role as new OII Director and continuing Chair of the Department’s  Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee, I would like to provide an update on what we have achieved in the intervening twelve months, what we still have planned and where we know we have more work to do.

The open letter challenged us to work quickly to provide a response identifying areas where we could implement meaningful changes. In order to move as fast as possible, staff and students came together to establish four volunteer working groups, looking at issues around recruitment, student admissions and funding, teaching and curricula, and institutional accountability. Each of these groups developed recommendations for improving department practice across a range of areas, the majority of which have, over the course of the year, progressed through relevant departmental committees, starting with the EDI Committee and moving on to others such as the Graduate Studies Committee as appropriate. All the agreed recommendations have now been incorporated along with other new measures in a draft departmental anti-racism action plan, which we will continue to fine-tune over the summer before seeking approval from OII’s Steering Board at the start of Michaelmas 2021.

Insofar as that action plan is yet to be approved, there is clearly still much to be done. But change is already underway. To take just a few of the recommendations as examples:

  • Over Trinity term we are conducting a review of our admissions data and processes to assess the suitability of current OII admissions practices and policies in the light of our public sector equality duty, with specific reference to, but not limited to, BAME applicants.
  • We have secured a Teaching Development and Enhancement Project grant of £6000 to pay for the development of more diverse bibliographic resources to support curriculum and research development.
  • Our HR personnel have been exploring best practice and the possibilities for positive action in recruitment, and new posts advertised over the past term have included permitted language signalling that we welcome applications from women and members of BAME communities as these groups are under-represented in Oxford. We have also used our academic networks to circulate new academic posts more widely to reach a more diverse set of applicants;
  • We have hired an external consultancy firm to conduct a review of departmental culture, with particular focus on our inclusivity. Findings and recommendations about how to further improve departmental culture are due over the summer;
  • An anonymous student survey will be conducted at the end of term to gather data on experiences of gender and race in the department;
  • We have piloted a community-led process to diversify curricula, with students and alumni invited to give feedback on core course reading lists. In the 2020-21 academic year, course providers have reflected on issues on equality, diversity and inclusion as they pertain to their own course content and pedagogy, and we have begun to collect feedback on how inclusive students found the classroom environment in each of their courses in our termly surveys.
  • We have ensured that over the past year, our various academic speaker series have invited a diverse range of excellent speakers;
  • Following divisional policy, we have asked all staff to take an online course in ‘Tackling Race Bias’ by the end of this academic year.
  • We have added a new section to the OII website to cover EDI matters which will include progress reports on this and other equality concerns.

In other areas, we have agreed recommended changes to policy and process which have yet to be implemented. After fifteen months of working amidst a pandemic, we have not prioritised those actions which create substantial new duties for administrative and support staff, recognising that merely maintaining the current level of service has been a strain. We will return to these issues in the next academic year, considering how we can provide support for goals such as:

  • Expanding the provision of information about funding sources for students, including those specifically relevant for BAME applicants or applicants from the Global South;
  • Developing new outreach resources or events for admissions purposes;
  • Compiling an annual summary of recruitment data for positions advertised over the course of the year;

We did not agree to all the recommendations of the working groups. For example, we declined to set up a separate anti-racism advisory board, but remain committed to seeking external guidance and critical advice. It was also not possible to agree to any changes in recruitment practice which would be illegal under current employment law, whilst other changes such as providing reporting data on recruitment had to be altered to ensure we could abide by our data protection responsibilities.

Others of the goals, such as achieving a more diverse faculty body remain but will take some time to achieve, however we are determined to embrace the full implications of our equality duties in all our institutional practices. Given the University’s increasing focus on this topic, such as with the Anti-Racism Task Force and the expansion of divisional EDI resources and guidance, we will be both better supported and more forcefully encouraged in progressing towards these over the next few years.

In conclusion it is worth noting that it has not been an easy year. Whilst I am proud of what we have achieved so far, we have not achieved consensus on all the issues discussed under the anti-racism heading, and virtual meetings are not always conducive to honest and forthright debate, leaving many feeling their voices were unheard. I know that some members of our community will feel disappointed that we have not achieved more, whilst others feel we have focused too much on this topic at a moment where other forms of inequality have been starkly highlighted in a pandemic that has stolen incomes and exposed asymmetries in caring responsibilities. Opinions may thus differ on the best way forwards at times, but I am grateful that we are united behind the vision of building a department that is maximally inclusive and treats all individuals with fairness and respect.

As I look forward to my next three years as Director, I see the past twelve months as a steep, but valuable learning curve. They have shown me how vital it is that we continue to devote time and resource to mitigating the effects of the structural inequalities which mean that many have a much tougher time even getting to Oxford let alone thriving here. For this reason, we absolutely must press ahead with our work on anti-racism and we must also embrace our responsibilities to look at questions of income, access and gender equality as well. I can’t promise a revolution, but I am committed to careful and certain change.

Professor Victoria Nash

Director, Associate Professor, and Senior Policy Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute