When I studied at Glasgow University, more than a few of my fellow undergrads used to giggle about what they called the “darkie’s walloper”. Apparently, some extraordinarily large specimen of an African male’s genitalia was on display in the Hunterian Museum. I cannot say whether this was just a Gilmorehill myth because I never felt moved to check it out. Nor, it shames me to admit, did I call out any of my pals for their racist banter. Casual racism was rampant on our sylvan campus in the bohemian West End, as was homophobia. In the early 1980s the GUU was the only students’ union in the whole of the UK that banned the Gay Society from holding meetings on its premises. I campaigned against that when I edited the student rag and was threatened with a “guid hammering” for doing so. Mercifully, the situation has improved a lot since then. But not entirely, it would seem.
In February a report came out showing that half of all ethnic minority students at my alma mater had been harassed in the course of their studies. A quarter said they felt the institution had a serious problem with racism. The survey also found a lack of confidence that such incidents would be treated seriously, combined with a fear of reprisals from fellow students and staff. Not surprisingly, Glasgow University’s principal and vice-chancellor issued a public apology for all of this and gave an assurance that he and his colleagues would address the problem. Professor Anton Muscatelli needed to engage in a rapid damage limitation exercise, not least because he’s an economic adviser to Nicola Sturgeon, herself a Glasgow graduate.
Due to Covid-19 emptying campuses across the planet, there hasn’t been a chance for anyone to try to alter significantly how students of different backgrounds physically interact at Glasgow University or anywhere else. Nevertheless, clearly anxious to avoid further adverse media coverage, Prof Muscatelli has made sure of some swift, headline-grabbing responses. The problem is that seems to be all he’s managed to achieve so far.
Doubtless in anticipation of its embarrassing racism report card, Glasgow University announced the the appointment of a ‘curator of discomfort’ to address how the Hunterian’s collections have helped perpetuate the legacy of ‘white supremacy’. Zandra Yeaman came on secondment from the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights. I’m not sure if this lady will have to arrange the removal of the ‘darkie’s walloper’ (if such an exhibit ever existed) but she will be spared the ordeal of dealing with four severed Maori heads. Those were repatriated to New Zealand with full tribal honours back in 2009. A development which might have had Sir William Hunter birling in his grave: in his will, this eighteenth century anatomist and physician made a massive bequest of substantial and varied collections “most conducive to the improvement of the students of the said University of Glasgow.” Some of the items he acquired came from Captain Cook’s voyages to the South Seas.
The museum still named after him is far from the only legacy of white supremacy at Glasgow University. Something acknowledged in August 2019 when its bosses garnered a lot of publicity about becoming the first university in Britain to atone for historical links to the transatlantic slave trade. Commenting on its much trumpeted Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow report, one of the co-authors Professor Simon Newman commented:
The University of Glasgow is an institution that grew in a city tied to the trade in tobacco, sugar and cotton, all of which were initially produced by enslaved Africans. Launching an in-depth investigation to look at how the University might have benefited from the profits of racial slavery was, in my opinion, a brave decision. But it is a decision rooted in the core values of an educational institution dedicated to the pursuit of truth and social justice.
An institution dedicated to truth and social justice? You wouldn’t know Prof Newman was on the university’s payroll, would you? But he’s clearly been wasted in the history department. He should have been heading up the corporate communications unit.
Just so you know, Glasgow University’s definition of ‘reparative justice’ is pledging to raise £20m to create a joint research centre with the University of the West Indies – chiefly from future grants and gifts. Nothing much seems to be coming out of its existing coffers, which contain ample reserves and assets. In other words, pure marketing guff from a massively-endowed institution that has itself admitted it might have benefited financially from Scottish slave traders to the tune of up to £200m in today’s money. Putting thousands of fellow human beings in leg irons gave a lot of Scots a princely education.
When the Covid restrictions lift, you won’t find many students from the West Indies wandering around the leafy West End of Glasgow. A programme of scholarships has been launched to allow a few young folk of Afro-Caribbean descent to study at the University, but no one can seriously expect this to alter the composition of its student body to any noticeable extent.
Founding but not itself financing a research centre was easy, symbolic stuff, the final ceremony of which neatly coincided with the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. A perfect day for Prof Muscatelli to proclaim: “Talking about any institution’s or country’s historical links to slavery can be a difficult conversation, but we felt it was a necessary one for our university to have.”
In truth, he and his assorted minions have done nothing brave or difficult up to now. They have only just started to tackle a few of the many hard issues they need to confront in this regard. Yet already they’re beginning to stir up serious resentment. An initiative across the UK university sector called ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’ is starting to create frictions at Glasgow. Particularly in the School of Social & Political Sciences, where some faculty members consider themselves most eminently qualified to debunk the concept. Many of them are based in the Adam Smith Building, named after the university’s most celebrated alumnus, who not only pioneered laissez-faire economics but spoke out against the futility of slavery (which was nice of him).
A virtual symposium was arranged on Zoom a few weeks ago to try to defuse the mounting tensions between staff and students based in that breeze block eyesore. After ploughing the same narrow research furrows for years, if not decades, many academics are deeply reluctant to adapt their act – especially when funds are being diverted from their courses into a whole range of PR-driven initiatives, such as the appointment of a Professor of Decolonisation. To some, this drive to ‘decolonise’ is a highly suspect political agenda that wouldn’t stand up to honest and open, intellectual scrutiny. Others suspect it is a clever cost-cutting ruse by uni bosses to drive ageing academics into retirement.
A properly informed and balanced discussion about this complex topic might be possible if more permanent academic posts at Glasgow University were held by people with black or brown skin. The aforementioned study found ethnic minority staff are between two and three times more likely to be employed on fixed term contracts. As well as being in the most precarious positions, non-whites currently have no representation whatsoever on any of the three major decision-making bodies of the University – senior management group, court and senate.
Perhaps surprisingly, the clamour to decolonise the curriculum isn’t being led by overseas students but predominantly by Scottish undergraduates who want the content of their courses to reflect the world in which they they have grown up in the digital age. Internationalisation at Glasgow, as in many other UK universities, has largely involved hoovering up highly conformist Chinese applicants, who tend to regard their vast homeland not as a former colony but well on its way to becoming the world’s predominant superpower. That said, the large Asian influx is a welcome change from when I was at Glasgow Uni. Studying there back in the 1980s you were regarded as coming from the Far East if you were from Edinburgh or, in my case, the Middle East because I went to a school in West Lothian.
I am happy to report that the atmosphere on the campus is far more cosmopolitan today but, even in recent times whenever I have wandered up University Avenue (which was fairly frequently before the pandemic), it never felt like somewhere people from all parts of the globe had gathered to share their diverse cultural perspectives.
Creating such a genuinely global university, and offering real reparations for white supremacy and slavery, would involve truly tough decisions I suspect Glasgow University’s high head-yins will slide away from making – especially if it might make their own lives less comfortable. So they’ll carry on issuing ultra-PC pronouncements and pursuing the ‘decolonising the curriculum’ agenda until the seventh or eighth sub-committee set up to explore the issue forgets what they were meant to be tackling in the first place. Meanwhile, thousands of students will continue to lose out on the comprehensive, cosmopolitan education they deserve in today’s increasingly integrated world.
Having done my first degree at Glasgow University (and at a Canadian university that was leagues above it), and having worked for almost two decades as a media academic in various ‘new universities’ across these islands, I can tell you our highest seats of learning have long been a cosy racket. Ingrained racism among white wallopers (sometimes on whopping salaries) is just one of many campus scandals that needs to be addressed – rapidly.
Jaggy.blog is keen to subject Scotland’s higher education sector to proper journalistic scrutiny so, if you’re a whistleblower or just got a wee tip-off, please email email@example.com Your anonymity is guaranteed.