Cambridge and the slave trade: extended mix of a letter to The Times*

The decision by Cambridge University to establish an enquiry into how it benefited from the slave trade was attacked by Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar as setting ‘new standards of political correctness. Will the Cambridge vice-chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, be worried? I expect he will be delighted.

Inclusivity is one of the biggest challenges facing university leaders, especially at elite institutions. In A-Levels, black students significantly under-perform against other ethnic groups; fewer than 500 achieved three As or better in 2016-17. Similar attainment gaps have been identified within universities.

In this context, attracting students of black African and black Caribbean origin is a huge challenge, and creating an environment in which they will fulfil their potential is maybe even more challenging. Pressure is being placed on elite universities by the Office for Students and liberal politicians. More importantly, university leaders increasingly recognize the value, for all students, of diverse learning environments. At Exeter, I’ve been privileged this academic year to be involved in a project to address these issues.

Critics of the Cambridge decision have labelled it ‘virtue signalling’, deploying the reactionary’s suspicion that anyone looking virtuous must merely be putting on a show. And yet universities today spend much time and money on signalling their virtues, usually in the form of ‘values’ or ‘mission statements’ that are rarely read or remembered. By contrast, Cambridge is enacting its virtues, and sending in the process a much more powerful message to former, current and potential students.

One of the extraordinary aspects of the reaction to the Cambridge announcement has been hearing professional historians – outliers, admittedly – arguing that knowing more about the past might be a bad thing. Biggar himself rests his profile less on his position as a theologian than his current research project designed to resurrect the reputation of the British Empire. This all feels a little bit like proponents of sovereignty arguing that a little bit more democracy would be a bad thing. Maybe there’s just a bedrock of reactionary illogic holding some people from engaging with the rest of us at the moment.

And in truth there are few risks to this review. Broadly speaking, the outcomes are known: of course Cambridge benefited from the slave trade, as all major British institutions did. I expect the recommendations are also envisaged in advance: a package of student support, some curriculum changes and staff hires, changes to university symbolism and the built environment, and so on. Some of the trickier decisions may fall to colleges rather than the University: this thought might just have crossed Toope’s mind as well. Critics have said the University should do other things if it’s serious about inclusivity, but without explaining why doing this will prevent it from doing those as well.

Biggar turns his ire in closing on the ‘aggressively woke’ Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, whose research on colonialism takes a somewhat different approach to the topic to Biggar’s own. For an Oxbridge vice-chancellor, looking for brand ambassadors to crack the challenge of inclusivity in 2019, I would suggest that Gopal looks a better bet than her antagonist and Times columnist. If you were one of the 500 or so black students predicted three As at A Level – a cohort of interest to all the UK’s elite universities – would you be feeling more warmly towards Oxford or Cambridge this week?

  • Back in the day, we might have said ‘the twelve-inch version’. There’s only so much you can say on 200 words, so there are a few more here. Thanks to Rosemary Bennett, at The Times, for inviting a response to Nigel Biggar’s piece (which really wound me up).
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One thought on “Cambridge and the slave trade: extended mix of a letter to The Times*

  1. Thank you so much for the comments contained in the letter published in today’s Times. I wonder if you could extend this by explaining why those born of Indian descent do so much better educationally than those of Pakistani heritage? Perhaps you could also apply your impressive intellect into the gap between white and east Asian examination results. If you get stuck, please feel free to contact me (clue ‘heritable I.Q. first cousin marriage and parental expectations’).

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