In messages to you last week, Aileen O’Brien, Dean of Students, and I reflected on the shocking death of George Floyd and what has followed, which has brought home to the world the true reality of the racism that remains an everyday experience for many.
We invited students and staff to share their experiences and views, so that we can continue to listen, engage and be challenged about our local approaches at St George’s. In the last few days, a group of student societies, led by the Afro-Caribbean Society and the African Caribbean Medical Society, have written an open letter to offer their perspectives.
Their letter is clear about both the immediate effect that the events of the last two weeks have had on a large group of students and, more broadly, the challenges that they as members of the Black and Minority Ethnic community face every day, both at St George’s and as part of their lives in the wider community. There were upsetting allegations of racist student and staff misconduct which have been directly experienced by St George’s students, some of which we were previously unaware.
It saddens me to hear that students believe unacceptable racist behaviour is tolerated. There is clearly a lot more we need to do to address this and we want to work collaboratively with the student body. One, as articulated in the letter, is that students feel unable to bring complaints forward to the University. St George's fully supports students raising concerns and wants to promote a culture and structures where they feel able to do so without worrying about repercussions; we haven't been clear enough on this. Aileen O'Brien and Beth Ward are prioritising this and will work with the wider student body to find a way to improve how we encourage, support and facilitate raising of concerns. We would like to meet with the students who have told us about the experiences in the letter if they feel able to do that and can reassure them they will be heard.
There is a strong desire for change expressed beyond platitudes: a position I wholeheartedly support. Strands of work are already underway to address BME student attainment and unconscious bias in our staff recruitment practices, but with still much to do. There is no easy fix and a collaborative approach will be essential in making further progress. We want to listen, understand what will make a real difference and put procedures and policies in place which embed lasting change.
I have asked Professor Deborah Bowman, Deputy Principal for Institutional Affairs, to lead an institutional review of inclusivity at St George’s and guide our response. She will need time to consider an approach and structure that enable us to continue work that’s ongoing, whilst developing new actions that respond to the experiences which have been shared by staff and students. We will keep you updated.
Finally, we all have a responsibility to call out inappropriate behaviour, but recognise it can be challenging to come forward to share your experiences. We want to promote a culture and develop structures which support staff and students to raise concerns without fear of repercussions. There’s also more we can do to clarify how our formal processes operate, for example, how we balance the need to provide due process and protect confidentiality with the interests of the complainant in the outcome.
We will look at these processes as part of our review, but it is important you are aware of the steps you can take immediately to raise concerns. Again, I would like to stress that the University is committed to investigating any such allegations swiftly and firmly.
At a time when a sense of community has never been more important, it is critical that everyone feels they have a place at St George’s and can thrive here. Please continue to share any suggestions via email@example.com.
My best wishes,
Professor Jenny Higham
St George’s, University of London