We must support the diversification of academia’s media face

(Originally printed in Times Higher Education on 22nd August 2021)

An initiative by the University Alliance to offer training and support to BAME scholars is an important step in the right direction, says Professor Vini Lander 

The recent appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight programme of Stanley Johnson, the prime minister’s father, as an “environmentalist” caused quite a stir. After all, the UK’s universities are full of academics admirably well qualified to comment on the climate crisis. Why hadn’t the BBC given one of them a call?

But even if it had, it is likely that the figure the producers plumped for, while better qualified than Johnson to advise on how to avert catastrophe, would not have looked or sounded vastly different from him.

Too often, the voices we hear on the airwaves aren’t representative of the diverse pool of expertise available – either from the broad range of institutions within the sector or reflective of the backgrounds of those within them.

Universities have an active role to play in challenging this, and many are already doing so. Media offices are actively ensuring that the academics they offer up for media comment, across broadcast and print, represent the diversity of their academic bodies.

The UK’s University Alliance mission group has also launched a Driving Academic Diversity in our Media Voices campaign, both to highlight the growing list of diverse spokespeople already available and to develop more.

As one of the “media champions” recruited to support this campaign, I was invited to share my thoughts at the launch event on how initiatives like this can go further to drive diversity in the media, particularly for academics from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (which THE abbreviates to BAME). We know from research undertaken by Justin Shaw that academics are often hesitant to take up media opportunities and that they face barriers to engaging; this is especially true for academics of colour.

One of my initial reflections is that the challenge lies not only in diversifying the academy or the media but in institutions adapting themselves to better accommodate diversity. They need to commit to being race-cognisant and listening to and welcoming diverse voices and faces.

I have seen schemes to recruit BAME students to initial teacher training fail to retain them when those individuals face discrimination, tone policing or an absence of support, training or mentorship once within a post. In this way, being race-cognisant means not only opening the door but making sure those individuals can succeed once they’re inside.

This applies when we look at elevating diverse voices in the media. Initiatives to profile academics of colour as media champions should, of course, be welcomed, but it is crucial that we train and support them not just to relate their expertise but also to handle any hostile responses they may receive.

But before any of this happens, it’s important to acknowledge the experiences of BAME academics. If you had to deal with different forms of racism almost every day in your life, why would you put yourself in the spotlight and invite more?

We know from the statistics that BAME academics are more likely to experience hostility online or in the press than their white contemporaries and are particularly vulnerable to racialised comments and abuse. This is reflected even within academia. Academics of colour are less well evaluated and rated by students, and a contribution made by a black academic on a panel may be very similar to that made by their white colleague, but it’s far more likely that the black academic will attract derision and abuse as a result.

Hence, if universities and sector-representative groups are committing to elevating the voices of diverse academics within the media spotlight, the most important thing they can do is ensure that the support, guidance and, ultimately, protection are there for those who do step up, especially when things turn nasty.

I think this support starts with communicating directly with our BAME academics to understand the barriers they may face. The University Alliance’s Driving Academic Diversity campaign recently organised media training for more than 500 academics. This is a great start, but it is important to consider whether it meets the needs and specific experiences of the diverse group it is reaching. In light of this, University Alliance will be introducing specific training for academics of colour on, for example, how to approach a situation where there may be racialised comments, how to handle potential negative backlash, and methods and support groups to help maintain their well-being in such situations.

The peer-to-peer networks that the University Alliance is establishing are also extremely valuable, allowing BAME academics to discuss experiences and receive support from those more seasoned in media relations.

Given that universities have a long way to go towards hiring an ethnically diverse academic workforce, the burden of these opportunities is likely to continue to fall on a smaller number of academics of colour for some time to come. Universities need to be mindful of the mental health and well-being of these individuals, ensuring that they aren’t overwhelmed. Moreover, they should enable those who act as external experts to flourish professionally, offering them recognition and progression along with support to juggle internal workloads and external opportunities.

The University Alliance’s pioneering campaign is a much-needed step in the right direction. I look forward to using my role in it not only to support other academics but also to hold our institutions to account for the progress they make against the targets we have set.

Vini Lander is professor of race and education and director of the Centre for Race, Education and Decoloniality at Leeds Beckett University.


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