Readers of New APPS may recall Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman as the author of a powerful piece last March in Times Higher Education that drew attention to the discipline of philosophy’s overall, systemic failure to critically engage its own Whiteness. And now, DailyNousdraws our attention to a piece in The Independent, itself sourced (again) from Times Higher Education, in which Coleman announces that he will lose his position at University College London—along with the chance of that position becoming permanent—as a result of the rejection of a proposed MA in Critical Race Studies, which he had been hired specificallyto develop over the past year.
One important consequence of Coleman'sTHE piece, which is now illustrated by his current plight, is to connect the problems that are specific to the disciplinary constitution of philosophy to a set of structural and systemic factors, present throughout the academy, constraining Black scholars’ ability to engage critically with material that is of importance to them, including Whiteness and White Supremacy. These factors remain operative despite the at least rhetorical—and at times much more substantive and sincere—welcome given to these scholars and their work, especially under the sign of diversity. And because they do, not only has representative diversity remained problematic but also the more fundamental distribution of power and privilege centered around Whiteness has remained substantially intact.
Coleman holds up the fate of his proposal for an MA program entitled "'Race': Difference and Domination" (documents related to the program can be found here) and his position as examples of how a still structurally White academy resists a sustained investigation and critique of Whiteness and White Supremacy, especially within its own institutional boundaries. Such an investigation has an important place at the center of a critical approach to 'Race,' insofar as Whiteness functions as the privileged, organizing term around which racial power structures, racialized subjectivities, and racisms—scientific and otherwise—have been and continue to be constituted. And there can certainly be no doubt that Coleman proposed such a critique, or that he framed it in terms that would have provoked institutional self-reflection, given that one of the modules for the program would have been devoted precisely to "a critical study of the origins, histories, and legacies of National Eugenics at UCL within the broader context of the European colonial invention, and constant contestation, of racial whiteness." And indeed, this initiative would have had an important role in UCL's ongoing efforts to appropriately confront its legacy with respect to the eugenics movement.
The rather predictable response to Coleman's claim has been to say that the decision not to approve the program was about local factors—"the university is not ready to offer a strong program at this time," being a frequent refrain. Looking at the documents linked above, one finds a market research exercise that comes to pessimistic conclusions—which, this week, certainly echoes the crassly 'capitalist' rationale expressed by one member of the UNC Board of Governors for savage cuts in many programs that, among other things, resulted in the elimination of both women and gender studies and Africana studies at N.C. State.
What unsurprisingly goes unmentioned, both when considering the supposed incapacity to offer a 'strong' program and the possible lack of a strong market for one, are the systemic patterns of marginalization and exclusion of Black academics, despite the fact that these patterns are as well established in the UK as they are in the US.*
By now, everyone should be familiar with this dance, which is about producing plausible deniability.
Coleman had a one-year research position** at UCL, during the course of which he published his remarkable THE piece, and gave the talk that is referred to in the THE article linked above. The institution’s response to the challenge embedded in both was perfectly pitched to appear serious while in fact preventing any real change: offer Coleman a junior, temporary job—the duties of which were to design an MA program that the university would turn around and cancel, apparently in part on the basis of the fact that there were no permanent, senior faculty to teach in it.
'Sadly,' we are effectively told at the end of this exercise, 'things didn’t work out, despite everyone's best efforts, which are truly appreciated. But we really want to do something like this, sometime in the future, when we’re really ready. Just not now.’
But let's consider the structure of what's going on here more carefully, since it reflects a series of choices about how to situate Coleman within the institution, the duties that would be assigned to him and the standards according to which he would be assessed. First, rather than hiring a promising young scholar on a permanent line, he was offered a fixed term appointment—contingency. Second, rather than constructing his appointment in a way that tended toward the development and extension of his scholarship, he was tasked principally with teaching and very substantial institutional service—precisely the sorts of things that programs aiming to develop junior scholars try to keep within limits so as not to 'eat their young’—non-professionalization. And third, the principal requirement for his position to continue was not something that someone on a one-year temporary line could reasonably be expected to accomplish: creating an MA program for which he is the only genuinely qualified or expert faculty member in the home department—unrealistic expectations.
It would be difficult to write a better recipe for blocking someone’s progress and setting them up to fail. To return to the dance metaphor above, it’s the second phase in a classic two-step: the institution is challenged, so it offers the person issuing the challenge a limited, poorly constructed, and unrealistic ‘opportunity’ to ‘shake things up’ and bring about real change, only to see them fail a year or two later.
Moreover, the 'failure' in this instance belongs to a longer history which repeats substantially the same pattern. Looking a bit more closely, one finds that UCL could have had permanent—and in some cases senior—faculty specializing in Critical Race Studies. Two important UK Critical Race Theorists, Nicola Rollock and David Gillborn, left the Institute of Education for Birmingham University in 2012—shortly before the Institute of Education was merged with UCL. In doing so, Gillborn left behind the UK's first professorship in Critical Race Theory; but Rollock, despite her significance, only got her first permanent lecturership as a result of the move. Nor should we forget that while Coleman was not hired on a permanent line, three others were (see comment 95). UCL is not directly responsible for all of these cases, but all of them can certainly be seen to have contributed to its inability, this year, to find on staff permanent and senior faculty expert in Critical Race Studies.
It should be emphasized, moreover, that these cases display the same structural elements: the maintenance of BME academics in contingent positions for substantial periods of time, despite their making significant scholarly and institutional contributions;*** the employment of such staff in positions that may involve significant responsibility without the benefit of academic rank—and of course, the endless reliance on people in these sorts of precarious positions to take the lead in 'fixing' a fraught problem like that of race in the academic institution.
All of this is, of course, only one example. But it provides a particularly clear illustration of how academic racism works—as much in the UK as in the US. While we tend to focus on explicit bias—documentable instances of which are quite rare—it is easy to overlook what is happening at the level of these structural underpinnings, which create conditions that all too often make the positions of critical Black faculty untenable—or at least extremely, disproportionately difficult, stressful, demanding, and emotionally and physically unhealthy.
Moreover, nearly all of the structural factors are likely to intensify as a result of general trends in academic management, which are towards increasing contingency and increasing expectations of faculty productivity and 'impact.' Those who have already been marginalized through these means, and who are least likely to find real understanding and support from established, powerful agents within the institution seem all too likely to continue to be disproportionately affected by these same trends.
This must change, and it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that making that happen is going to require a real effort to bring about some fundamental alterations in the way the university as a whole functions—especially at the levels of working conditions, the structure, barriers to entry and sustainability of the academic profession, and distribution of power and responsibility within the institution. All of this, of course, in addition to the work that needs to be done in the discipline of philosophy to confront the challenges which are more particular to it.
*The Equality Challenge Unit's Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report 2014 shows that Black and Minority Ethnic academic staff are 7.3% more likely, when employed full-time, to be on fixed-term rather than permanent contracts (see p. 132). The same chart shows that across the board (considering both full time and part time staff), UK BME staff are less likely to have permanent or open contracts than fixed term, which is the opposite of what is the case for White staff. The pie charts on the next page provide a particularly striking illustration of the differences. And few pages later, one also finds documentation of the fact that BME academic staff are much more frequently to be found near the bottom of the salary scale than they are at the top.
Moreover, another report from ECU, this time concerning academic flight from the UK by BME academics, points to a number of working conditions issues, including difficulty finding a permanent post, excessive pastoral duties (i.e., mentoring and advising) and high teaching loads, moving goalposts, and failure to recognize and support work in the "areas of race, inclusion and diversity," which respondents claimed "were not given equal validity or respect by their white colleagues, compared with other areas of research" (see p. 21). In addition (see p. 30-31), respondents report being pulled to US institutions by things like "institutional space, and institutional support, for black studies," which they find to be lacking in the UK. (Needless to say, this is a remarkable result, given how often Black studies seems to be under threat in many US institutions at the moment.)
Finally, the significance of all of this for those racialized as Black (as opposed to the aggregate BME) is made extremely clear by Robbie Shillam's discussion of "Black Academia in Britain," which makes considerable use of the ECU's 2013 report, and his update concerning the data of the 2o14 report, linked above.
**It is worth clarifying the nature of a 'research' position, which may be obscure to those not familiar with the UK system. There are three different statuses into which one can be hired, Academic, Research, or Teaching Fellow. Each has different sorts of duties and its own path to promotion (UCL's version is spelled out here). Academic, which combines teaching and research, is the one most of us are likely familiar with, with the career path leading from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Reader to Professor. The other two are meant to be focused on either teaching or research more or less exclusively, and one is promoted based on criteria in those areas. It is worth noting that Coleman's actual duties don't really fit very well with the 'research' description of his position.
***In this connection, one should not ignore the case of Dr. Cecil Thompson, former Principal Research Associate in the Department of Surgery at UCL and Chair of the UCL Race Equity Group (See also, here, for a sense of how the REG fits into a larger institutional network, and Thompson's place therein). Thompson, whose position was eliminated last year, had been kept on a string of one year long temporary contracts for so long that he was used as an example by representatives from the Association of University Teachers during a 2005 parliamentary inquiry about problems in academic working conditions.