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University launches Race and Equality Task Force amid criticism of launch event

The University of Oxford has launched a ‘Race and Equality Task Force’, acknowledging that “historically and currently this institution has racism to address”.

At an online presentation on Tuesday to launch the Task Force, which students were invited to attend, Dr Rebecca Surrender, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Advocate for Equality and Diversity, said: “All institutions have structural racism and our institution is no different, and without active efforts to tackle it, it will continue to exist and thrive.”

However, anti-racism groups Common Ground and Melanin released a joint statement criticising both the lack of publicity given to the launch and Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson’s absence from it. “This taskforce should strive to involve everyone, not just the minoritised individuals at our university,’ the statement said. “For real, long-lasting change it is essential that majority groups take personal responsibility in realising racial justice in Oxford. Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson’s conspicuous absence from the launch event reflects [the University’s] detachment.”

The University defended the Vice-Chancellor’s absence, telling The Oxford Blue that the “Task Force co-chairs took the decision to hold two separate launch events for staff and students, as different issues were likely to be raised at each. The co-chairs decided that the student forum should be hosted by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and the Advocate for Diversity and Equality, alongside student representatives. The Vice-Chancellor is deeply committed to the work of the Task Force and, if asked, would have readily agreed to also attend the student launch event.”

The University also told The Blue: “The student forum was promoted in the Student News on three separate occasions, via the main University website, and via the Oxford SU newsletter. It was also promoted to departmental and college communications officers to promote via local channels. We also asked student representative groups to promote it.”

The Vice Chancellor first announced the Task Force earlier in 2020, intending it to “address the under-representation of racial minorities at all levels – especially the most senior levels – within the university.” The Task Force’s membership is drawn from academic staff, professional services staff, early-career researchers, and students. The majority of its members are Black or from another ethnic minority.

The Task Force is expected to build on existing initiatives such as the diversification and decolonization of curricula, the establishment of ten ‘Black Academic Futures’ scholarships, and the trialling of a name-blind graduate admissions process.

The University says that the Task Force will provide the opportunity for staff and students to “draw on their own experiences, identify priority issues and contribute to the shaping of key actions.” The Task Force aims to report to the University in September 2021 with a set of recommendations, the implementation of which will commence “as soon as possible thereafter.”

One of its tasks will be to create a “clear programme of measurable actions”, setting hard targets against which progress can be measured. The University says it will regularly publish data in order to make itself accountable.

BAME individuals are currently underrepresented at several levels of the University, making up only twenty-two percent of undergraduates and eight percent of academic staff. Non-white students are statistically less likely than white students to get top grades on undergraduate and postgraduate taught degrees.

The University has also faced criticism for cases of racial profiling and the continuing preservation of landmarks and monuments linked to colonialism, such as Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes, the 19th-century diamond magnate, imperialist and founder of the territory of Rhodesia.