An internal survey carried out in Hilary 2020 to assess instances of racism at Magdalen College, Oxford shows that 40% of “Non-White Students” who responded have had “negative experiences” with the porters, compared to just 12% of “White Students”.
The survey was carried out after a series of informal harassment reports were made and was designed to “determine the extent of these negative experiences”. 80% of the “Non-White Students” who reported these “negative experiences” experienced several negative interactions with a porter.
The report was based on responses from 91 students. Magdalen has around 400 undergraduates and 175 graduates, so the survey yielded an interaction of approximately 16% across the MCR and JCR communities. It stresses that it is not an academically rigorous survey and that “no firm conclusions can be drawn from the numerical data.”
In a further breakdown of the ethnic backgrounds of the respondents, 25 of the students were not of White ethnicity and 18 of these students were South Asian/Asian British/East Asian. Two respondents of Black/African/Caribbean/Black British/Mixed White European/Black Caribbean identity answered the survey. Magdalen falls into the bottom third of Oxford colleges for Black representation with 1.7% of the student population at Magdalen identifying as Black in 2019. The survey provided the respondents with the opportunity to recount their experiences and thoughts on the Magdalen porters.
One student detailed the experience of their Black friend visiting them at college: “I was walking with one of my friends, (who doesn’t go to Oxford, he was just visiting me) through college. He is black. A porter stopped us both, asked him to the side, and for me to wait where I am, and began interrogating him as to: what he is doing here, why he is here, does he go here. Overhearing this, I came over, asked what was going on, and said he has every right to be here as he is with me. It was appalling. If my guest had been my mother, would the porter have acted the same?”
Other students who identify as British Asian/South Asian/East Asian have shared their stories of unsolicited questioning and harassment by the porters, such as, “Last term I walked into college with some friends and the plodge gate was still open so we walked through without the need to swipe our bod cards. The porter then told just me to come into the lodge and show him my bod card to prove I went to Magdalen. The rest of my friends were all white and not called to show their bod card.”
Some responses went further, with one stating, “I have never seen a person of white background be harassed and violated by the porters whereas nearly every BAME friend I have has been asked at least once to prove that they are really students of Magdalen.” Another claimed, “there is one porter who is known to be racist and if I see him I turn away instantly.”
The “White Students” who filled in this section overwhelmingly reported noticing that their “Non-White” friends were harassed by the porters. One respondent noted, “I have very positive experiences with the porters, but I realize that might be because of my race.”
Contrastingly, one respondent accused the survey of absurdity and dismissed the necessity of such data collection methods, stating, “This is absurd, you should be ashamed of yourselves … I would prioritize the security of the college.”
Magdalen College has recommended changes for the future in response to the results of the survey. The recommended measures include “implicit bias training”, “a ‘Meet the Porters’ session in Freshers Week”, and the introduction of “name badges” and “visible signage”.
Only one of these measures suggests addressing any underlying racism at Magdalen through the continuation of “implicit bias training” and the addition of “race awareness workshops”. However, these protocols are described as a “welcome endeavour” and the survey report does not outline when they will be implemented or how they will be carried out.
Amber Syed, the JCR Racial and Ethnic Minorities Officer commented:
“I carried out this survey in Hilary at the request of the Tutor for Equality and Diversity and the Lodge Manager. They were both very concerned about individual reports that some students had come forward with, as well as the general feeling – well-documented across Oxbridge colleges – that experiences of being singled out on the basis of race were part of a much wider pattern. The survey was created so that we could get a better idea of the range of student experiences and how we might improve them. The student responses confirmed that improvement is needed, and consequently College has been very cooperative with the JCR and MCR in recent weeks with our extensive proposals for tackling racial inequality in College. In response to this survey in particular, we have plans for the Home Bursar and Lodge Manager to oversee changes with the Porters, including individual name badges, providing them with photographs of Magdalen students, and arranging for students to properly meet them in Freshers’ Week. College is also overseeing much wider changes within Magdalen, including amongst many others an expansion of the welfare system to include peer support training for JCR diversity reps and planned specialised counselling available for marginalised students. We further have plans to encourage diversity amongst College staff and ensure that all College staff, particularly student-facing ones, complete regular equality and implicit-bias workshops. The aim is to make sure that every student feels fully welcome at College, and that they feel empowered to speak up at the first instance should experiences like those in the survey occur. Ultimately, we recognise that there is lots of room for change in College, and that some of these changes are long overdue. Our consultations over recent weeks with students and relevant College staff, including our incoming President, were focused on thinking creatively and extensively of how to be as proactive as possible. I am very proud of the work we have done and the steps College has made for long-term change at Magdalen, and feel optimistic that in the future students will feel much better supported by College as a whole.”
Magdalen College has been approached for comment.