Despite efforts to rid society of racism, this hurtful and unnecessary scourge remains part of our culture with examples now part of everyday life. However, if cases of discrimination are remembered we could learn from the past. This blog tells of an episode that occurred over thirty years ago at my own place of work – St George’s, University of London, formerly St George’s Hospital Medical School.

I am writing this story now because I have just discovered that the incident, which took place in November 1986 appears to have been lost from the School’s conscience. Over the last few years, when the School has celebrated Black History Month, the issue has never been broached. This year, the School’s celebrations have been more ambitious than before but again it went unmentioned. I know of this silence because, for the first time, I have received emails listing the various events that were planned.  Here then is what happened in 1986 – lest they forget.

The story actually starts in 1982 when a computer programme was introduced to help senior staff members process application forms from students who wished to come and study at the School. The process was seen as time-consuming, and by using the programme, which replicated decisions the staff had made in the past, things might be easier.

There was, however a problem – many members of staff were racist and sexist and so, in replicating their behaviour the new programme systematically reduced the chances of women and black and minority ethnic applicants being called for interview and potentially offered a place. Before it was formally adopted, the programme, with its inbuilt biases, was reviewed by a senior committee of the school who saw nothing wrong! 

In all, the programme was used for four years. There were some worries, but these were quickly suppressed. In 1984 William Evans, a junior administrator, raised concerns internally about how it discriminated but, according to a confidential internal St George’s memo, he was told by his line manager that these “matters should be kept confidential”. Silence was important “lest Dr Collier should hear of it in view of his known interest in racial questions”, here referring to the fact that I had worked on issues of discrimination for years. The manager went on to say that he “did not think that Dr Collier would have taken the right actions and used the right procedures.”

At this time I knew nothing of the computer programme, but leading up to November 1986 I wrote several letters to the then Dean – Richard West – asking how students were selected. I was worried about discrimination and was particularly interested to discover the origins and implication of a handwritten number on each student’s application form which I would see at the time of their interview. Somehow I knew it was a score which had determined whether the student would be asked to attend. In response to four letters I received only one response and it did not actually address my concerns. In the corridor the Dean did, however, tell me that first, I would not understand the computer programme and that second, everything was under close review. 

The breakthrough in November 1986 came out of the blue. By chance I walked past the open door of an office where William Evans was actually using the computer programme to process student application forms. When I was invited in I noticed on the screen questions relating to an applicant’s gender and ethnicity. William was half way through a particular application and I asked him to make the applicant ‘male/Caucasian’ and with this adjustment appeared an eligibility-for-interview score of ‘19’. Then I asked that the same candidate be made ‘female/non Caucasian’ and the score switched to ‘37’. William then told me how, on these rankings, candidate 1, the ‘white male’, would be called for interview, while candidate 2, the ‘black female’ rejected. He also told me how, in calculating the eligibility score the programme was weighted much more heavily against ‘non Caucasian’ students than against women. 

Key revelations then followed. First, William confirmed that he had known about this programme and its implications for years. Second and by chance, Dr Geoffrey Franglen, the person responsible for creating the programme, entered the room and asked me what I was doing. I told him that I had just discovered that the computer programme he had developed for the School was ‘illegal’, ‘outrageous’ and ‘must be stopped immediately’. In response Dr Franglen, whose face turned  pasty white and sweaty replied ‘It used to be worse’ – his comment was all the confirmation I needed.

For many years I had worked on race issues with Dr Aggrey Burke, a close St George’s colleague whose work on racism is renowned. Importantly, we had recently published an article accusing several of London’s other Medical  Schools of having racist and sexist student selection procedures. I had now discovered that it was happening in our own back yard – what should we do? The school had behaved illegally and if we remained silent we would be condoning its behaviour. Moreover, in instances of illegality we had a greater responsibility to the state than to the perpetrator.

Next day we wrote to the UK’s then Commission for Racial Equality with a copy to the then Equal Opportunities Commission telling them of our findings. We also delivered a copy of the letter to Dean West.

Predictably, the next days and months at the School were difficult for me, and would probably have been too much had I not had the support of Rohan, my wife and of Aggrey, a real pillar. The period was probably more difficult for me than for Aggrey. As he pointed out, I was bound to be treated as a traitor to the School’s white tribe. He, as non-tribe, would be relatively spared.

Most of my ‘colleagues’ acted in unison as I was vilified, ostracised and made invisible. I was told that my actions had brought the School into disrepute; that the School would have to bear the costs in terms of finance and reputation; that the School would now run the risk of being overrun by poor-quality, black and minority ethnic students. Moreover, by my behaviour I had forfeited any chance of being made a professor. 

After making contact with the Equal Opportunities Commission, it was the Commission for Racial Equality that undertook an Inquiry into the episode. In their conclusion they found that the School, through the operation of its computer programme to select students, was guilty of systematic racial discrimination. 

After the immediate backlash, fair-minded people in the School started to rebuild as they adopted the measures demanded by the Inquiry in order to avoid discrimination at every level of the School in the future. That was the then; I see it as important that they continue to guard against backsliding. Institutionalised racism is insidious and powerful and, as I discovered, its momentum is difficult to stop. Being aware of their own racist record and how racists can infiltrate should help. As I see it, the School’s ‘Black History Month’ in 2021 has at least one subject that deserves an airing!

By the way, several years after the event I was made a professor and, later still received a public apology. 

The illustration shows a photo of the logo of  St George’s, University of London. It is interesting to note that the saint himself was from a minority ethnic group. 

For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Aggrey, Caroline, Rohan and Vivien.

18 thoughts on “A Racist Episode – A Necessary Reminder

  1. Joe this was fascinating.. congratulations for blog.. episode should definitely be remembered and not forgotten!!

    Like

    1. Dear Elona, Thank you for your kind comment. I just hope that, by being a reminder, the blog might serve to help people fight against such discrimination. Love, Joe

      Like

  2. Joe this is such an incredible story . I knew about your work in the 80’s regarding discrimination and equality with women in your profession, such a brave stance to take at the time ( and one of the many reasons I have such admiration for you ) , but did not know about calling out the racism at St George’s as well . I know you’d never seek this , but now I admire you even more.

    Like

    1. Dear Sally, Thank you for you most generous comments. I did no more than any right-minded person would do, assuming they had the support of the equivalent of a Rohan and an Aggrey. Joe

      Like

  3. Dear Joe (Babar)…

    I learnt about your personal crusade from Rohan decades ago and as I got to know you, you told me in more detail. Reading about it again triggers the feelings of the hurt, isolation and blocks to your career you had to endure, as well as the impact on Rohan and your family. It is with a strange sadness and joy when I think back to when you were ‘allowed’ to become a Professor… you may remember that I gave you an elephant brooch and wrote you a card saying thank you on behalf of all the black, Asian and ethnic minority doctors who had the opportunity to study at St. George’s, because of you.

    St George’s, the students past and present should never stop saying, thank you Joe.

    Like

    1. Dear Carolyn, Thank you so much for your very generous comments. You very kindly refer to my part in the story, but in my view the blog, as the title suggests, is about a particular episode from which St George’s must learn. Accordingly, I am of secondary interest. Love, Joe

      Like

  4. Dear Joe,
    Incredible. Chilling.
    They should not be ignoring such a huge moment, but celebrating it!
    I’m so proud.
    I’m glad you told this story, I want River to know how brave and strong you are. I’ll try to raise him to follow suit.
    Thank you for always standing up for what’s right and I’m sorry it was so hard on you.
    Sending all our love.

    Like

  5. Dear Ali, Thank you for your warm and generous comments. As I said in my response to Carolyn, the part I played is secondary to the event itself which I hope will ensure that St George’s and other institutions never get caught in such an episode again. Love, Joz

    Like

  6. Dear Jo

    I knew some of this but so good to hear even more of the story/history. Hope we meet soon.

    Love Jeanette

    Like

    1. Dear Jeanette, Thank you for your kind comment. When this viral nightmare is over you are high on our list for a meal together. Next March perhaps? Love, Joe

      Like

  7. Thank you Joe for sharing this episode with us. This unfortunately happened in so many public institutions. History is important for the next generations that follow us. We need to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.
    Lots of love Grace.

    Like

    1. Dear Grace, Thank you for your comment. I am sure you are right. The difference here was that the part played by racist people, at least at St George’s, was quantified. Love,Joe

      Like

  8. Hi Joe
    Your post was wonderful. I read once that if you haven’t made enemies then you haven’t stood up for what is right. It must have been awful for you at the time and subsequently, and I suspect that you replay things in your mind. But, good on you for doing the right thing.

    Like

    1. Dear MOS, Thank you for your kind comment. There is a second adage that I have lived by: if you openly stand up for what is right, for every enemy you make there will be someone else who becomes a friend/supporter. What do you think of that idea? Yours, Joe

      Like

  9. Dear Prof Collier, Greetings from Sri Lanka. I am Chandanie, and was the Secretary, SLMA when you visited us in 2017 for the Anniversary Sessions on Prof Gita Fernando’s invitation.
    Thank you for highlighting the importance of standing up for one’s principles and for what is right, even if it means losing some personal benefits.
    Tc and keep writing, I enjoy your blog immensely.
    Chandanie

    Like

  10. Joe, a little belatedly, many thanks for your detailed account of what happened here and so well done for sticking to your principles and winning through in the end. We knew about your fight back then but not the detail or the full horrors, and it is inspiring to learn more. Thanks too for your previous blog about the problems of distance communication and your grandson’s wonderful demonstration of the human need for touch and proper ‘seeing’!
    Best, Vanessa and Sam

    Like

  11. Dear Sam and Vanessa, Thank you both for your kind and generous comments. If the article reduces racism in general and at St George’s in particular, it will have served its purpose. Love to you both, Joe
    PS It is extraordinary how much our grandson teaches me.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.