The FERSA Committee is an elected student-run group that represents the graduate student community at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. This open letter, collaboratively written by the members of the FERSA Committee, responds to recent and distressing public testimony made by a number of graduate students at the Faculty of Education regarding the harm they have endured during their pursuit of a higher degree at the Faculty of Education. This letter stands as FERSA’s statement in support of the Black graduate students at the Faculty, as well as the graduate students of colour and Indigenous graduate students at the Faculty; as a public recognition of the Faculty’s failures to address systemic racism and white supremacy within its bounds; and as an initial call to action, with the recognition that the Faculty’s permanent staff are the ones who must ultimately choose a course of action to take. 

You can read the letter version with signatures here:

If you would like to sign this letter, please use the form linked below. The form will be active until Monday, 22 June. Signatures will be updated on the letter twice a day.

17 June 2020 

Dear Professor Susan Robertson,

Distressing stories from graduate students at the Faculty of Education (hereafter referred to as the Faculty), recently made public, have demonstrated the urgent need for organisations and individuals to stand in solidarity with the anti-racism campaign that is gathering momentum following the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter global movement. Graduate students from two different Master’s routes, Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature and Education, Globalisation, and International Development, have written their own letters regarding these stories to the Faculty over the past week. The Faculty of Education Research Students’ Association Committee (hereafter referred to as FERSA) acknowledges receipt of your letter to the Faculty community, sent on 11th June 2020, which seeks to address these students’ testimonies and the public testimonies of other graduate students at the Faculty. This open letter, collaboratively written by FERSA, joins those student groups in their calls for reform and accountability within the Faculty. In FERSA’s constitution, our statement of purpose indicates our responsibility to support Faculty graduate students in their pursuit of higher education at the Faculty. FERSA therefore presents you with this letter, signed by graduate members of the Faculty (the collective of which will hereafter be referred to as ‘we’), which stands as FERSA’s statement in support of the Black graduate students at the Faculty, as well as the graduate students of colour and Indigenous graduate students at the Faculty; as a public recognition of the Faculty’s failures to address systemic racism and white supremacy within its bounds; and as an initial call to action, with the recognition that the Faculty’s permanent staff are the ones who must ultimately choose a course of action to take. 

FERSA acknowledges its own past inaction regarding matters of racism, discrimination, and oppression within the Faculty and apologises to those students whose harm we let pass unremarked. As a new Committee has taken up their roles on Saturday, the 13th of June 2020, FERSA commits itself to improving our own engagement with eradicating racist practices at the Faculty, starting with this letter. This means that we must acknowledge the lived experiences and testimonies of Black graduate students, and that we hear and witness their pain as a result of harm caused by the Faculty’s engagement in racist practices and perpetuation of systemic racism. We also recognise and stand in solidarity with the harm and pain experienced by other graduate students of colour and by Indigenous students as a result of the Faculty’s engagement in racist practices and perpetuation of systemic racism. We believe them, unequivocally. In addition, we stand by and wish to amplify the work undertaken by members of the Race, Empire, and Education Collective, the Decolonising the Curriculum Working Group, and the Politics of Representation Collective. These groups have all included graduate students who have worked indefatigably, and frequently on top of their own academic commitments, to make the Faculty a better and safer place for students to learn and work.   

We recognise that racism at the Faculty is part of a larger series of incidents demonstrating the deep embedment of systemic racism, racist practices, white supremacy, and white fragility at the University of Cambridge. In particular, we would like to highlight a report from the Guardian in 2019 that shows Cambridge having almost twice the number of formal complaints about racism than the next highest universities listed. As an elected, representative body, FERSA has the responsibility to do the most that it can to address systemic racism and white supremacy in the University space most pertinent to our research and our lives, but we cannot and do not do so in a vacuum. We therefore call on the Faculty to recognise its failures, to take on board our calls for action, and to commit to the sustained eradication of toxic whiteness and racist behaviours across the entirety of its language, policies, and working procedures.

Section I: Failures within the Faculty 

The purpose of this section is to outline the ways in which the Faculty has failed its Black students and staff, as well as those of colour and of Indigenous identities. These failures include failures of accountability; failures to provide all graduate students, but especially Black graduate students, students of colour, and Indigenous students, with agency and support in the course of their studies; and failures to confront white supremacy within the Faculty. 

  • While FERSA acknowledges the Faculty’s engagement with the University’s Race Equality Charter (REC), it is also imperative that we point out that its commitments to addressing and challenging racism and oppression, in all its forms, and racists practices have remained peripheral at best. The solidarity the Faculty pens in its statement from the Equality & Inclusion Working Group (EIWG) following the murder of George Floyd must shift beyond liberal platitudes to transformative praxis. Institutionalising a pronounced, visible, and collaborative anti-racist agenda that firmly admits to the Faculty’s laxity and complicity in systemic racism should be the first step in its “pledge to drive for change”. As discomforting as it is, it is inexact for the Faculty to claim the ethos of equality, diversity and inclusion that is prominently displayed on its website when it has glaringly failed to tackle issues of segregation layered in its institution.  
  • To the best of FERSA’s knowledge, there have been a number of complaints of racism made through various channels over a number of years about a mandatory research ethics lecture undertaken by Master’s and doctoral students.  For anyone at the Faculty or beyond who is unaware, the Faculty member who has convened this lecture presents the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which unethically experimented on African American men in the United States, as partially ethically acceptable, despite the experiment being an unequivocally horrific violation of civil and human rights. While mandatory ethics training is a crucial component of responsible graduate study, the continued scheduling and requirement of this specific lecture, unchanged, with the same Faculty member at the helm, as recently as the 29th of January 2020, makes clear that these complaints have not been substantively addressed by the Faculty member in question or by the Faculty at large. 
  • To the best of FERSA’s knowledge, there is currently no procedure or process for students to report and submit complaints regarding racism or cultural insensitivity faced at the Faculty. We understand that the University’s collegiate system means that students may be more likely, or indeed encouraged, to report such instances through their colleges, or at the broader University level. However, given the racist incidents we have heard of taking place at the Faculty itself, including through core lectures, it seems that the lack of an official reporting/complaints system specifically to deal with instances of racism, including specific procedures for addressing these complaints, represents a failure in the Faculty’s duty of care to students. 
  • The texts and theorists that comprise the curricula of graduate courses at the Faculty are overwhelmingly white and Western. For example, the RMS and EdRes lectures, undertaken by Master’s and doctoral students respectively, are Euro- and American-centric in terms of the theories and concepts explored and the vast majority of the critical texts recommended in session reading lists – usually attributed to or written by white scholars. To the best of FERSA’s knowledge, the Faculty has repeatedly failed to react to suggested changes to be made to core texts, suggested reading, and examples used in lectures, despite the insistence of the ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ Working Group.
  • In order to try and counter this, the ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ collective was established in 2017, when many graduate students raised issues of racism in the Faculty, but the Faculty has failed to respond to and address this input from students and staff. There was also an open meeting on equality in the Faculty on the 28th of November 2018 with students and staff to discuss issues “(such as inclusion, diversity, gender, decolonising the curriculum), which would benefit from an open forum, and an opportunity to consider how we, collectively, at the Faculty can take action” (quote taken from an invitation email sent on the 20th of November 2018 by a member of Faculty). To the best of FERSA’s knowledge, the main and possibly only result of this meeting was the establishment of the Equality and Inclusion Working Group (EIWG). 
  • In the interest of transparency, we note here that FERSA has a student representative on the EIWG, and we recognise our own failure and apologise for not previously clarifying FERSA’s role in disseminating this and other committees’ actions to the larger graduate student body. However, to the best of our understanding, the presence of students on any Faculty-level committee or group exists historically at the invitation of the Faculty to provide each committee or group with student input, rather than to allow students to report committee/group workings back to the graduate student body at large; we therefore feel that the onus of transparency and reporting from this group to the broader Faculty lies with its university teaching officers (UTOs). While we acknowledge that the EWIG set up Race Awareness Training at the Faculty for staff (11th February 2020), it has taken no student-focused actions to address any of the failures listed in this section, to the best of FERSA’s knowledge. Although your recent letter to the Faculty community states that the EIWG is “embarking on a review of Faculty practices,” as you state in your letter dated the 11th of June 2020, we remain concerned regarding any outcome of this review due to the Faculty’s previous superficial engagement with student complaints and failure to commit publicly to concrete action.
  • The Faculty does not provide regular, sustained anti-racist training or professional development for staff. To the best of FERSA’s knowledge, the only training offered in 2020 has been one optional ‘Race Awareness Training’ session on the 11th of February 2020. We strongly feel that this lack of sustained anti-racist professional development has contributed to the occurrence of racist incidents and microagressions and the creation of a hostile environment at the Faculty in which (individual) students have not felt comfortable raising concerns about the Faculty’s aforementioned failures to address the white supremacy embedded in its structures and policies. This is especially true in the case of supervisor-supervisee relationships; the uneven power balance between supervisors and supervisees means graduate students might fear repercussions from their supervisor for raising concerns and criticisms of racist behaviour, either of the supervisor themselves or of another Faculty member.
  • There is a distinct lack of Black staff, as well as of staff of colour and Indigenous staff, at the Faculty, which represents a failure of diverse hiring practices at the Faculty. To the best of FERSA’s knowledge, no Black UTO has ever been hired at the Faculty. 
  • Even the decoration of the Faculty’s physical spaces has contributed to the creation of an unsafe environment for Black graduate students, graduate students of colour, and Indigenous graduate students, specifically through the display of colonialist photographs in the Donald McIntyre Building. Whilst we recognise that the Faculty has taken action to address this problem, after much student agitation, by removing those photographs, we feel that this instance of resolution was isolated and dependent on the good will of individual Faculty members, rather than a signal of systemic change from the Faculty as a whole. 
  • In light of the observations above, we note a concluding failure of the Faculty: that no apology has been made to Black graduate students and staff, or to other graduate students and staff of colour or to Indigenous graduate students or staff, regarding the harm and trauma they have experienced during their time at the Faculty due to the racist structures, practices, procedures and attitudes that are inherent within it.

Section II: Calls for Immediate Action, an Anti-Racist Audit and a Long-Term Action Plan 

In order to address the failures listed above, we present the following actions to be undertaken by the Head of Faculty in consultation with the Equality & Inclusion Working Group, any other faculty- and staff-level stakeholders in the Faculty, and ideally with the FERSA Committee. We do this with the knowledge that final decision-making power regarding any course of action rests with permanent members of staff and not with students. We nevertheless feel duty-bound to present them. 

  • Issue a detailed apology: The Faculty should explicitly acknowledge its complicity in systemic racism, acknowledge the hurt and emotional labour it has created for many Black students, as well as for students of colour and Indigenous students, over generations, through a formal apology. As a part of this formal apology, we ask that the Head of Faculty names the specific Faculty member discussed on page three of this letter and addresses the actions of that Faculty member described there. We would like to note that the authors of this letter deliberated long and hard about naming this individual, but we ultimately felt that the risks and responsibilities of such a move must be taken up by the Faculty, not by graduate students. 
  • Host a mandatory whole-Faculty meeting: We understand that a whole-Faculty ‘Town Hall’-style meeting was proposed at the Student Staff Consultation Committee (SSCC) meeting on 11th June 2020. While we fully support this action in principle, this meeting must be made mandatory for all staff and Faculty and should address concrete action points to be taken by the Faculty. We call for this meeting to take place as soon as possible and by no later than the 30th of June.
  • Reform the Racist Ethics Lecture: We join the long-standing calls of many other graduate students at the Faculty in demanding that the ethics lecture discussed on page three be removed from all graduate curriculums. Until the Faculty member in question no longer delivers this lecture, and until the lecture itself has been completely reformed, including directly addressing anti-racist praxis, FERSA will encourage students to boycott this lecture and attend the Social Sciences Research Methods Programme (SSRMP) ethics training instead. Although we understand that the lecturer concerned will be retiring soon, we still call for their immediate removal from delivering this lecture. 
  • Undergo an external audit and develop a long-term action plan: It is imperative that the Head of Faculty, in consultation with the Equality & Inclusion Working Group, hire an outside organisation to implement and oversee an audit of the Faculty’s current policies and working procedures, specifically with regards to racist practices, the embedment of white supremacy, and cultural sensitivity and awareness beginning no later than this Michaelmas term (2020). Such an audit must result in the production of a publishable, long-term anti-racist action plan designed to address the failures listed in the previous section both immediately and over the course of several years, with the recognition that true institutional change does not occur overnight. We call for all stages of this process, including the hiring search for an external organisation, the audit timeline, and its resultant action plan, to be made public to all students and staff of the Faculty. 

In addition, we present the following specific action steps to be taken both concurrently with the above items and in response to the results of the audit: 

  • Anti-Racism Training: The Faculty must institutionalise anti-racism training by outside resources for all Faculty members, including both lecturers and administrators, yearly or twice yearly. Anti-racism training should be a regular and ongoing component of staff membership at the Faculty. In addition, anti-racism training should be embedded in graduate student curriculums in order to better prepare Faculty research students–particularly white research students–so that they may engage with diverse learning communities in the UK and around the world as educational researchers with an increased understanding of their own positionality, any privilege they might carry with them, and of cultural sensitivity and competence. 
  • Improve communications with students: In the interest of improving Faculty-student communications, we invite the Faculty to termly accountability meetings involving the Head of Faculty or another leading member of the Faculty with the FERSA Committee, in order to update the Committee on the Faculty’s progress towards undertaking an audit and later towards its audit-established goals. 
  • Improve public accountability: We feel it necessary for the Faculty to review its performance on diversity across a number of metrics, including hiring, admissions, curriculum, funding, and staff policies and practices, and publish the results. The Faculty must also report its own performance, over the past five years, around what proportion of complaints of racial harassment by staff and students were upheld and offered some kind of redress, with discussion and approval with oversight from the EIWG. We also call on the Faculty to work with the graduate student body, through the FERSA Committee or otherwise, to develop safe reporting mechanisms within the Faculty for students with guaranteed follow-up and accountability. These mechanisms, rather than making students “feel heard” and making sure students “understand” any “actions taken” as a result of a complaint, as you state in your letter dated the 11th of June 2020, should instead position the Faculty, particularly the Faculty leadership, as responsible for engaging in action that generates outcomes that redress student concerns and any harm done to students. 
  • Decolonise the Curriculum: We wish to amplify this long-standing aim from the Decolonising the Curriculum Working Group that the Faculty restructure the curriculum of all Master’s routes and of doctoral research training such that they integrate and promote scholarship and theory by Black authors, authors of colour and Indigenous authors. This restructuring should not treat these scholars and texts as additives but visibly integrate them as part of the core curriculum. We also call for this new curriculum to use inclusive pedagogies to challenge white supremacy, and being cognisant of how whiteness structures the dialogue in any given class, lecture, seminar, or supervision. This also means providing space for discussion, dialogue and inquiry on topics that are now seen as marginal and marginalised, including but not limited to race/racism in education, critical race theory, decoloniality, black feminism, postcolonial critiques of development studies and Indigenous perspectives on social scientific research. 
  • Reform hiring, promotion, and retention practices: Decolonising the curriculum also requires decolonising the Faculty’s hiring practices.  Although FERSA does not represent Faculty or staff, we recognise the significant impact a diverse faculty and staff has on creating a safe environment in which a diverse graduate student body can work and learn. A more diverse faculty and staff would bring new expertise and knowledge, as well as valuable lived experiences, that the current majority-white Faculty lacks.  We call for the Faculty to review its application processes for unconscious bias led by an external auditing procedure as described on pages six and seven As part of a long-term action plan, we hope to see systemic changes to the Faculty such that the hiring, promotion, and retention of Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour throughout the Faculty infrastructure becomes standard practice with consistent oversight by the EIWG (and any other accountability committees pending an audit) and not isolated, tokenistic events. We would also hope to see a critical review of hiring oversight at the Faculty as the result of an audit. All progress made towards this systemic change should be reported on transparently to graduate students and to the Faculty community at large.
  • Faculty Displays: We ask that the Faculty continue its work in critically evaluating the way imagery of people of colour is used around the Faculty and in its publications. We acknowledge the work already done by the Faculty Display Committee on this front and hope that the Faculty at large will approach its overall systemic reform so as to prevent Faculty spaces from telling a single story of Black people and people of colour–one that is myopic and refuses to acknowledge their agency.
  • Extracurricular activities: We call for the Faculty to offer extracurricular activities such as external, paid guest lectures to highlight work done by Black scholars, scholars of colour and Indigenous scholars in the field of education throughout the academic year and also commit to engaging in celebrations and events for Black History Months.

We conclude with a specific plea to white Faculty members. We implore white members of the Faculty to take this letter on board with an open mind and a desire to introspect about your own role in the bureaucratic machine of the University of Cambridge. Please consider how your whiteness may be contributing to conversations you do or do not have, actions you take or don’t take, and your reaction to this letter as you read it. We ask that you realise how important it is to name the problem as it is: systemic racism, racist practices, white supremacy, white fragility. We ask that you do the work to locate yourself in the system and avail yourselves of what tools you can to fix the toxicity of the place we should all be able to call our academic home. Please show up to be the leaders of change we need, not just at the Faculty but also in the broader University. 

Posted by:fersacambridge

2 replies on “Addressing the Systemic Racism and Racist Practices within the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge: An Open Letter

  1. This open letter raises a range of very serious issues, so please excuse my limiting myself to the correction of a claim that involves me directly. I am the member of faculty who has given the lecture on ethical considerations of research to many of our graduate students, perhaps about two dozen times over the last decade. The lecture includes a range of examples highlighting different aspects of research ethics, which are related in the class to the BERA guidelines and faculty procedures. One of these examples is indeed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (sometimes referred to as the ‘bad blood’ study) as suggested in the Open Letter. I do think that some of the examples discussed in the session are not clear cut in terms of whether we should consider them ethical, and I think there is value in exploring such ambiguity in the context of graduate level study. However, the Tuskegee study is not such an example.

    The Tuskegee Syphilis Study is probably the most extreme example of disregard of research ethics I have come across (if we exclude certain Nazi ‘experiments’ from being considered research, and some experimental research (actually, torture) using prisoners as living cadavers in the more distant past). It is a complex study, where there are multiple ethical issues – but it is clear that those involved in the study were abused in the name of research. I was shocked when I first read about this (publicly funded) research, and found it hard to believe this could have been allowed to happen – and consequently I thought it was important that others should know about it. I have never considered that this study should be considered ethical – although it obviously was considered so at the time by those charged with commissioning and funding research in the US public health service. I do not think, or teach, that we should consider this study as “partially ethically acceptable” if that is meant to suggest that we may not be able to reach a clear view on whether or not it was ethical. It was by our standards absolutely, definitely, unethical.

    However, if we are to learn anything from such examples which can inform our thinking about our own research today, then we should seek to understand why this might have been thought acceptable by those involved, and why it was allowed. There is an argument that a study following the course of a disease for which there is currently no effective cure might be of value in providing knowledge that might later inform treatment (but it would still only be ethical if it was subject to such considerations as, for example, voluntary informed consent – which did not happen here). Of course, as pointed out in the lecture, there are multiple issues about the relationship between the researchers and those they were using as little more than experimental subjects (rather than genuine study participants).

    To my mind it is even more difficult to understand how anyone could have condoned the continuation of the study once antibiotics became widely available – and yet the research continued for many years after the point when all those suffering this horrible disease could have been easily treated. At that point, any suggestion that the value of what might be learnt could justify not offering treatment in order to allow the collection of further data became incredible. That certainly does not imply that the research was ethical up to that point (it was not) – but it provides something else for us to try to understand: how researchers can become so invested in ongoing research that they lose sight of the wider picture. As researchers, we must not only consider ethics at the planning stage, but at all points in our research. If something in the context changes during a study, we have to revisit the ethical basis of the work. If there was such a thing as a calculus of research ethics, then it would show that this research became even more unethical at that stage. Had the research been undertaken with a sample of highly educated, socially diverse people who had been fully informed about the work they were participating in (and of course it seems unlikely that would ever have been allowed – even if anyone would have volunteered), we would certainly expect the research to have been stopped at that point, and everyone involved offered the new treatment.

    Perhaps some people attending the lecture thought that we know how this was allowed to happen given the historical and social context of the study, and the ingrained racism at work, and therefore a study like this could never happen again. Perhaps, and I would certainly hope so: although given recent events in the United States (and elsewhere of course) we very much need to remain on our guard against racism. But the purpose of presenting, and inviting exploration of, a range of past studies is to abstract more general themes from those specific examples (which are unique studies and will not be repeated) to develop an awareness as researchers of the kinds of misjudgements we could make in our own work. This is more likely to be achieved if we try to appreciate what the researchers involved in studies we judge unethical were thinking that – in their minds – justified their actions. We are all prone to implicit bias. All research contexts raise issues of power imbalance. Most researchers tend to obsess about their particular research to some degree and so there is a danger of losing sight of the perceptions and experiences and best interests of others – especially when it may be considered that the dissertation/thesis depends on completing data collection as initially planned.

    So, I completely reject the suggestion that this study was presented as ethically ambiguous. But I do nevertheless think that we can totally reject someone’s beliefs or actions, yet still learn something valuable to inform our own thinking by trying to understand their rationale. If we want to learn as much as we can from past injustices then we need to understand how those mistakes could have been allowed to happen, as well as condemn them as clearly wrong.


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