Pilkington, A. (2012) Are universities institutionally racist? Panel Presentation presented to: British Sociological Association (BSA) Annual Conference 2012: Sociology in an Age of Austerity, University of Leeds, 11-13 April 2012.
The Macpherson report in 1999 claimed that public organisations, including universities, were characterised by institutional racism. This paper examines the response of the academy and one specific university in the UK over a ten year period to this charge. The main factors prompting universities to address race equality have been external to the sector. The government cajoled universities to address race equality through two strategies for higher education, notably those concerned with widening participation and human resources; and the state required universities to develop race equality policies and action plans following new race relations legislation. Government strategies for higher education did initiate some changes but had little impact either on the sector’s or the case study university’s approach to race equality. By contrast, the legislation did have an impact, with many universities developing for the first time specific race equality policies and action plans. Resistance, however, to an agenda concerned with race equality has grown within the sector and the university, as external pressures to promote equality and celebrate diversity have subsided and other agendas concerned with community cohesion have taken primacy. Throughout the period under discussion there was a reluctance to identify race equality as a priority and to take corresponding action because of what has been called ‘the sheer weight of whiteness’ (Back, 2004: 1). A comparison of Midshire University with Midshire Police reinforced this perception. While it identified contrasts in the occupational cultures of the two organisations, at the same time it pointed to surprising parallels in their approaches to race equality which stemmed from a taken for granted white norm