Negotiating Social Injustice Within the University: A dialogue between Dr Jason Arday and Dr Grace Idahosa

In November 2019, I was fortunate to be able to host two scholars whose academic work I have learnt from and highly value, and to organise a seminar to share their insights with colleagues across an institutional context in Northern Ireland. Below is a recording of one of the speakers, and some notes and images from the day for your interest.

Welcoming introductions by Dr Dina Zoe Belluigi

I am Dr Belluigi, I have been an academic in critical HE studies at the school of social sciences, education and social work here at Queens for two years. I would like to welcome you all to this seminar. I hope you are comfortable and find the discussion today of value.

Universities are the strangest of spaces. Nowhere more amazing a change has there been, in the last 50 years, than the project of access – and where now, finally, author-ity is in transition in academic spaces at various contexts across the globe, and the participation of those finally in such powerful spaces is filled with opportunities for recognition of what has been misrecognised, for generating counter-narratives and counter-archives for ways of being, knowledges and groups marginalised to be centred, and more generative and equitious imaginaries to be created.

But it is also a fraught myopic place: with an inheritance rich in mythologies of itself as the bastion of colonial, imperial and essentialising notions of quality as exclusion, a resistance to nurturing and celebration, and a continued domination and domestication of nature and the peoples and groups associated with the ungodly, irrational, creative and bodily.

The continuation of the legacies of othering, inherent in the western-oriented unis notion of social formation and knowledge formation, is perhaps the most monstrous within these elite spaces many of us frequent daily; and which many choose to remain oblivious, wilfully ignorant, despite the stark numbers, the repeated pleas for graciousness, and the obvious harm from micro-insults through to macroaggressions. When will there be a rupture to the cycles of gatekeepers’ creating, reproducing and valorising images of themselves?

Just 8 days after a month of celebrating Black contributions and histories and herstories to the world, on the 8th November 2019 IRise and SSESW Education Research group were pleased to host these presentations of two researchers whose work I admire and appreciate, and whose input I seek as critical friends, to speak about their research on negotiating social injustice within the university.

I asked them because the reality is that there cannot be ‘championing’ or ‘ambassador-ing’ or whitewashing the ugly realities which face those who are not the same as the image of whiteness in the UK academy, as Jason will tell us; nor the incredible difficulties of enacting agency to affect transformations within the acutely racialised and gendered conditions of SA settler colonial and apartheid-nationalist universities, as Grace has theorised. These two researchers are not undertaking their work in the interests of the status quo nor personal prestige. Being a researcher in the field of cHEs is a precarious exhausting endeavour of double consciousness. Despite that risk, they bare their sense of moral and historical obligation to bear witness to injustice in their time and midst, and have contributed significantly in their sphere of influence.

Grace, Jason and I in front of the main building of Queen’s University Belfast just before the talk.

1. Mental health & BAME staff in the UK context: The impact of negotiating racial inequality & discrimination at university – Dr Jason Arday (Durham University)

In this discussion, Jason drew from a working paper to propose that Black students, and, more widely, BAME people, experience mental health differently. Mental health problems for BME individuals are interwoven within different systemic issues concerning access, discrimination and inequality. Often those diagnosed amongst BAME communities are treated differently within mental health services in universities and society more generally, resulting in disparities regarding rehabilitation, satisfaction and positive outcomes.

Jason offered suggestions and recommendations for how mental health support systems can be diversified for ethnic minority people within universities. Conclusions drawn also considered how existing systems can function to work against the racism and isolation in wider society that puts ethnic minorities at risk in the first place, by acknowledging that this community are more likely to struggle, and less likely to receive the support required.

Dr Jason Arday is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at Durham University; a Visiting Research Fellow at The Ohio State University in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; a Research Associate at Nelson Mandela University at the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation; and a Trustee of the Runnymede Trust, the UK’s leading Race Equality Thinktank. Jason’s research focuses on Race, Education and Social Justice.

In addition to numerous other texts, Jason is the author of the following titles: Considering Racialized Contexts in Education: Using Reflective Practice and Peer-Mentoring to support Black and Ethnic Minority educators (Routledge); Being Young, Black and Male: Challenging the dominant discourse (Palgrave); and Exploring Cool Britannia and Multi-Ethnic Britain: Uncorking the Champagne Supernova (Routledge). He is the Co-Editor of the highly acclaimed Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy (Palgrave). Jason is also the Lead-editor of the book series on Race, Social Justice and Education (Palgrave) and serves on the Editorial Board of Educational Philosophy and Theory. Jason is the recent co-author of The Broken Pipeline Report: Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Council Funding.

2. Social action & agency within South African higher education: Institutional & contextual histories impact on the conditions for change – Dr Grace Ese-osa Idahosa (University of Johannesburg)

Grace drew from her recent book Agency and Social Transformation in South African Higher Education to discuss how individuals are capable of acting to enable transformation of structures and cultures through the lens of South African higher education. The book examines the role of agency in effecting change amidst the rigid conditions within South African universities. Arguing for a focus on transformation from below, it explores transformation and agency from the perspective of academic staff. Through discussing moments at which faculty members embedded in rigid structures and cultures perceive themselves as having had the agency to interrupt and transform them, despite their rigidity, this book describes the nuances of social action and agency within the South African higher education institutional context and the ways in which contextual histories may provide enabling/limiting conditions to individuals within them. This book makes an important contribution to the field of agency and social transformation theoretically, methodologically and geographically as it details the motivations for transformation, how individuals become agents of change and the practical experiences of these individuals from a localised perspective.

Dr Grace Ese-osa Idahosa is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. With a background in Political Studies, her doctoral research was a hermeneutic phenomenological study which dealt with the subject of agency in the context of South African higher education transformation. Grace’s current research draws on the premise that if universities are to contribute to societal development, they will first have to transform themselves. She employs a structure, agency and transformation framework to understand how and under what conditions, individuals have the agency to effect transformation within their institutions. Her research interrogates how social factors like gender, race, class, sexuality and ethnicity, intersects to enable/limit agency within specific contexts. This is most recently explored in her new book ‘Agency and Transformation in South African Higher Education: Pushing the bounds of possibility’. Her research interests include, higher education, social/organisational change, institutional culture, and body politics.

Her current project, titled ‘Mid-level Managers Agency for Transformation in Post-Conflict Higher Education’ (funded by the SRHE; on which we are collaborating) interrogates the ways in which university middle-management, who are potentially in key positions to engender social change within the higher education sector in Northern Ireland and South Africa, perceive they can be better empowered to enact their agency; and in what ways this is impacted by their social location. The study hopes to contribute to comparative transnational findings regarding the challenges and possibilities for change within two post-conflict contexts.

‘Negotiating Injustice within the University: A dialogue’ was held on the 8/11/2019. The event was organised by Dr Belluigi and co-hosted by Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Social Science, Education and Social Work ‘Education Research Group’ and IRISE, the institution’s staff network of Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority staff and international staff.