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.