Edinburgh’s decolonial decline

How did a university that set out to fight racism end up promoting it?

Artillery Row

This is the story of an institution, steeped in the glories of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose alumni include Hume and Darwin. An institution which, in only a few short years, went from introducing a sweeping equality agenda to promoting radical “decolonial” ideology. The story of how many of this university’s teachers took to social media, some of them on the very day Hamas was slaughtering women and children, to apologise or excuse atrocities. Of why this same university, committed to liberal values, invited a virulently anti-semitic speaker to address its students. And of how it came to appoint a professor who called for the toppling of the statues of suffragettes and defended the rape of white women. So just how did a British university that set out to fight racism end up promoting it?

The University of Edinburgh’s faculty of History announces on its website that “The History department at Edinburgh University is committed to working to decolonise history”, that “a colonialist curriculum is not only a distorted but a damaging curriculum, that perpetuates and legitimates racialised disadvantage in the present” and has promised to “contest imperial ideologies”, “expose and challenge the racial, colonial and civilisational hierarchies that have shaped, and continue to shape, western approaches to the past”, and “uncover and overcome racialised disadvantage in our classrooms and our department”. 

Nor is it alone, the Department of Informatics (yes really), is also committed to decolonising the curriculum, declaring on its website that “Silence and inaction makes an institution complicit in systemic racism” and that “It is recognised that we must challenge and rework the current pedagogy, which was rooted in imperial and colonial ideas about knowledge and learning, and make the syllabus more diverse, more international or more inclusive.” 

Each of the University’s schools is instructed, as part of the plan, to set up working groups on decolonising their subject area’s curriculum

This approach is happening university-wide, through something called the “UoE Race Equality and Anti-Racist Action Plan for 2020/21”, a process steered by the Race Equality and Anti-Racist Subcommittee (REAR). Dear reader, I can only repeat, yes really, truly. REAR itself was formed in response to yet another report from 2019 which called for a “new approach…more about developing spaces for discussion and raising awareness rather than legislation or training.” This “discussion” would include questions such as “What are racial microaggressions and how do they impact on staff-student and student-student conversations? What does a racially relevant pedagogy mean and why does decolonising the curriculum matter?” 

Framed as an open-ended “discussion”, this process, like America’s “racial reckoning”, was clearly anything but. It ran on rails towards its inevitable destination. Issues like microaggressions and decolonisation are briefly phrased as questions for debate before proceeding at warp speed into declared departmental policy. 

Under the aegis of a legally mandated University “Equality and Diversity Strategy” with its corporate language of aspiring to be a “a place of first choice for some of the worlds [sic] most talented students and gifted staff”, and meeting the “diverse needs of the customer/client”, a far more radical strategy is being carried out under the banner of “anti-racism”. In the language of the “racial reckoning” it is not sufficient to treat people equally and not judge people by race; rather, institutions like universities must be actively “anti-racist” (and who could argue with that). 

But being “anti-racist” involves regarding minor misunderstandings and rudeness as racist abuse (so-called “microaggressions”), and more sinisterly, treating the entire curriculum as sullied by deep-seated imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy. The former may seem trivial relative to the latter, but it’s precisely the unsettled defensiveness produced by the concept of “microaggressions” that silences dissent, and acts as an effective ratchet for more radical proposals. Student complaints about lecturers making jokes, mistaking PhDs for undergrads, or a lack of trigger warnings, allow for a case to be made, both logically and commercially, for the existence of widespread concealed racism, and the need for total structural change. 

Leading from the REAR

As an advisory subcommittee, you might imagine REAR was a talking shop with little practical power, but its “Anti-Racist Action Plan” seems to carry the full weight of the University’s administrative authority. Reading through the plan, it becomes clear that every aspect of the University from recruitment, to teaching, to marketing, to the curriculum itself is being subject to a substantial reform led by REAR. Each of the University’s schools is instructed, as part of the plan, to set up working groups on decolonising their subject area’s curriculum, with instructions to report back to their heads of school on their progress. (For those curious as to what this looks like, I found at least one statement that came out of this process, from the School of Art, which began, grandly, by noting that “The University in the Global North cannot be decolonised as its very existence is based on colonialism, but we – as academics and teachers – can work towards decolonising our pedagogies”) The University’s Institute for Academic Development (IAD), is directed to “provide seminars and training on introducing culturally relevant pedagogies in relation to race equality.” And the plan calls for different bodies to appoint a “lead person to champion the adoption of an anti-racist approach”. 

RACE.ED was far more than an affiliate research organisation

Also mentioned frequently throughout the plan, in an integral role, is an organisation called “RACE.ED”. A key part of the “Reparation and Reperative Justice” element involves instructions to “Set up Web page and content to link to RACE.ED and Universities Studying Slavery work”. Also mentioned in this section are plans “To identify immediate changes that can be made to better represent BAME contributions and successes (e.g. busts in Playfair, re-naming of the David Hume Building)”. That latter may sound familiar, because this part of the plan was duly carried out back in 2020. The event occurred, naturally, in the hysteria that followed the killing of George Floyd, and the importation of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement to the UK. 

It was also around that time that “RACE.ED” was established as “a cross-disciplinary hub…for research and teaching on race and ethnicity”. According to the plan, RACE.ED was far more than an affiliate research organisation, with Heads of Schools and EDI Convenors instructed to “Promote and support RACE.ED as a hub for the University’s work on teaching, research and knowledge exchange on matters of race and antiracism”. Not only was RACE.ED an integral network to the new “anti-racist” revolution, it was also, extraordinarily, put in charge of teaching students, running a course entitled “Understanding Race and Colonialism (SSPS0801)”. It’s hard to determine just how much influence RACE.ED has in practice over shaping curriculums, but the teaching section of the website lists dozens of courses across multiple Schools as advancing decolonial studies, and takes time to “congratulate those in the RACE.ED network for making this content matter and matter meaningfully in our courses and pedagogy.” 

Edinburgh’s keyboard warriors

Recent events in Palestine and Israel have, as reported by the Critic’s Ben Sixsmith, thrown a spotlight onto the ideology of decolonisation in universities. Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel and killed hundreds of civilians, with over 200 bodies removed from the site of a rave, in one of the worst attacks ever committed by the group. Allegations have surfaced of rape, and the killing of entire families including reports of dozens of babies, some of them decapitated. Videos [a warning to readers, these are extremely disturbing] of fields of corpses, and bloodstained women stuffed into jeeps, posted by Hamas militants themselves, seem to incontestably confirm war crimes, even if the full extremity of the atrocities alleged await confirmation. 

Attacks on civilians were defended as “guerilla war tactics” undertaken by “resistance fighters”.

As these events were witnessed live on social media, academics, many of whom are encouraged by their institutions to have a presence on Twitter, were commenting in real time. A number of decolonial academics shocked the world by appearing to celebrate the atrocities. Ameil J. Joseph, Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, McMaster University, declared that ‘“Postcolonial, anticolonial, and decolonial are not just words you heard in your EDI workshop.” “what did y’all think decolonization meant?” asked Najma Sharif, a Somali-American writer, “vibes? papers? essays? losers.” Mahvish Ahmad, Assistant Professor in Human Rights and Politics at the London School of Economics, tweeted (and subsequently deleted) “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Jairo Fúnez-Flores, an Assistant Professor at Texas Tech University, tweeted: “PALESTINIANS HAVE THE RIGHT TO RESIST SETTLER COLONIAL GENOCIDE, PALESTINIANS HAVE THE RIGHT TO RESIST OCCUPATION & APARTHEID, PALESTINIANS HAVE THE RIGHT TO LIVE WITH DIGNITY IN THEIR OWN LAND”. Jairo has also denounced other “decolonial scholars” who have remained silent over the past few days, describing them as “white ladies” with a “fuzzy bunny” attitude, and labelling his critics “Karens”. 

Closer to Edinburgh, Scottish Green MSP Maggie Chapman quote retweeted a post to her followers, which read: “The OPPRESSED are fighting back for their rights.. Don’t let the western media fool you into thinking it’s terrorism, this is decolonization..” and herself blaming the violence on “Israeli apartheid”. 

The issue is not that many academics sympathise with the plight of Palestinians and are critical of Israel — it’s that in the face of Hamas terrorists openly glorying in an orgy of violence against civilians, an important and institutionally influential subset of decolonial idealogues within the academy either stayed silent, or actively endorsed the violence as a decolonial liberation struggle. There is a strong sense of a see-saw like balance between a desire for institutional power and respectability, and revolutionary fervour amongst this group.

Which brings us back to Edinburgh. Dr Kate Davison, a “Queer historian of sexuality, psy-sciences & Cold War”, a lecturer at the Edinburgh history faculty and a vocal advocate of trans rights (who recently approvingly tweeted about calls to suppress a gender critical book launch), took the events of the past few days as an opportunity to express her solidarity with Palestine, retweeting a UCU tweet doing just that, and tweeted that “Palestine & trans human rights are the litmus test and most of you are failing half of it.” She also retweeted a post arguing that Palestinian violence must be understood in the context of Israeli occupation and that “Eventually people will snap”. Most shocking of all was her her support for a statement by academics of Berzeit University (a Palestinian institution in the West Bank) which unequivocally celebrated the Hamas attacks, speaking of the “blood of our martyrs”, arguing that Israel has “no right to self-defence”, denouncing the global reach of the “zionist media coverage”, defending attacks on civilians as “guerilla war tactics” undertaken by “resistance fighters”. 

Nor was she alone, another Edinburgh academic, Dr İdil Akıncı-Pérez, a lecturer in social policy, also liked the Berzeit statement, as well as a post celebrating the toppling of the border wall and another quoting a statement that “calls Hamas’s attack a ‘legitimate right’ of the Palestinian ppl resisting settler occupation & says ‘we pray for victory, oh heroes of the resistance.’” One PhD student, who I have chosen not to name, on the assumption that graduate students are below the age of reason, simply has a “Free Palestine” poster as their departmental bio photo. 

Julie Gibbings, a history lecturer at Edinburgh and the director of EDI in the faculty, appeared to denounce the violence, retweeting a piece by Naomi Klein in the Guardian attacking those who celebrated the massacres by Hamas. Granted Klein speaks out of both sides of her mouth, saying that “we can recognize that when Israeli Jews are killed in their homes and it is celebrated by people who claim to be anti-racists and anti-fascists, that is experienced as antisemitism by a great many Jews”. It’s mealy mouthed stuff (experienced as antisemitism!), but at least it does denounce murder as murder, even if it absurdly pretends that Jew hatred is a matter of appearance rather than fact. But dig into what has Dr Gibbings pounding the like button, and you discover that days before she was playing at being even-handed, she was liking tweets by Dr Fúnez-Flores, specifically ones in which he writes (on the day of Hamas’ massacres of Israeli civilians) “Academia loves to decolonize everything besides occupied land. Its silence on Palestine is enough to know how decolonization has become a metaphor signifying everything besides material change and collective resistance” and another in which he disputes the civilian status of Israeli settlers, writing: “Decolonization isn’t “social justice.” That’s why Tuck & Yang wrote that ‘The absorption of decolonization by settler social justice frameworks is one way the settler, disturbed by her own settler status, tries to escape or contain the unbearable searchlight of complicity’”. 

Another Edinburgh academic, Dr Sarah Liu, a Senior Lecturer in Gender and Politics at Edinburgh, and the Chair of the Staff BAME Network, chose the occasion of Hamas mass murder to retweet (only one day after Hamas’ bloody border crossing) the quote “The oppressor makes his violence part of the functioning society. But the violence of the oppressed becomes disruptive… because it is disruptive it’s easy to recognize, and therefore it becomes the target of all those who in fact do not want to change the society”. And she retweeted a post (written on the day of the attacks) that read “Academics, largely, as a class, aren’t in favour of revolutionary action, but many revolutionaries are also scholars so they offer academics an opportunity to associate themselves with revolutionaries under the guise of study, w/ no real intention of extending it into practice”. She also liked a tweet (likewise posted on the day that Hamas stormed across the border to murder civilians) which reads “did some people just think Palestine had to like file paperwork or something to be freed. this is what oppressed fighting the oppressor looks like”. 

A history of anti-semitic controversy

The most superficial survey of social media from Edinburgh academics was enough to unearth this material, but it does not exist in isolation. Edinburgh University has for some years now been at the centre of controversy over antisemitism.  A number of academics, and the UCU, condemned the university for accepting the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-semitism which they claimed would have a “chilling effect” on debate over issues like Israel-Palestine. One associate professor wrote “The IHRA definition of antisemitism is weaponised to silence critical conversations on Palestine”. This same Edinburgh academic, one Nicola Perugini, has been on Twitter in the past few days attacking the EU for “punishing”  Palestinians who “democratically elected Hamas in 2006” arguing that “what the EU wants is a politically obedient Palestinian society.” On the day of the Hamas attack on civilians, he tweeted “Context: Palestine is brutally colonised”. He has also liked tweets describing Hamas kidnappings as “misinformation and manipulation”, and a further tweet reading “Deafening silence from academics who have made careers from talking about decolonial theory and held round tables on Fanon and Said, as one of the most significant moments of decolonisation unfolds today in Palestine.”

“The Zionist god of this Israel has an insatiable lust for blood. Its altar must be anointed by the blood of innocent Palestinians.”

Whilst right-wing tabloids were vaguely alerted to the revolution at Edinburgh by the renaming of Edinburgh’s David Hume Tower to “40 George Square”, few other than the Jewish Chronicle seemed to have noticed the invitation of a Dr Salman Abu Sitta to address students on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Introduced by Professor Hugh Goddard, Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World, and Dr Shaira Vadasaria, Lecturer in Race and Decolonial Studies, the good doctor raised the unquiet spirit of former Chancellor of Edinburgh University Arthur Balfour, whom he subjected to an hour long rant about the plight of the Palestinian people victimised by his declaration. The talk, organised under the benevolent auspices of, and I quote, “RACE.ED, in partnership with the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) – Kenyon Institute (Jerusalem), and in co-sponsorship with Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), the Centre for Research Collections (CRC), History, Sociology, Politics and International Relations Middle East Research Group (PIR-MERG) and Islamic and Middle East Studies (IMES)” (phew!) unfortunately transpired to have been given by a raging, frothing at the mouth, vile anti-semite

In an article for the Middle East Monitor (some months before addressing Edinburgh University for those keeping track), Dr Sitta wrote “The Zionist god of this Israel has an insatiable lust for blood. Its altar must be anointed by the blood of innocent Palestinians.” Don’t think, however, that he had forgotten the sufferings of the Jewish people — oh no. “Let nobody throw Auschwitz at me” he writes. He’s good enough to recognise it as an atrocity, though he’s keen to qualify it as a “wartime crime”. Comparing the Jews to the Palestinians, he writes: “Those wartime victims should have been as courageous as the Palestinians. They should have fought back against the aggressor, even against the odds, as we do. They should not have fled and, like cowards, attack innocent people in a faraway land who have done them no harm.” The video of the talk he gave at Edinburgh is still on the RACE.ED website, which describes Dr Sitta as an “eminent cartographer and historian”. 

Of course to invite a lunatic speaker is one thing, and could perhaps be excused as a gross error in judgement. But how does one account for appointing someone with fantastically offensive and violent views to teach students at Edinburgh University? I am speaking of Tommy Curry, who holds a distinguished personal chair in “Africana Philosophy & Black Male Studies” at Edinburgh’s faculty of Philosophy. Professor Curry was also keen to express his views on Palestine, writing on Twitter that “Phallicism or the simultaneous construction of racialized males as the rapist while they are subject to rape & sexual violence remains an undertheorized aspect of race/gender theory despite being observable in every theatre of war & colonial oppression such as Palenstine[sic]”.

Edinburgh’s anti-feminist Professor

Tommy Curry was appointed in 2019, and his academic career can best be described as an extension of Black nationalist anti-feminism. On the RACE.ED (them again) blog he wrote a piece calling for the toppling of the statues of white suffragettes. Curry may say the quiet part out loud, but he is only channelling Franz Fanon, a figure widely admired and cited by many of his more apparently moderate colleagues. In one article he approvingly quotes Fanon, “does this fear of rape not itself cry out for rape? Just as there are faces that ask to be slapped, can one not speak of women who ask to be raped?”. In the same piece, entitled “This Nigger’s Broken: Hyper-Masculinity, the Buck, and the Role of Physical Disability in White Anxiety Toward the Black Male Body: This Nigger’s Broken”, Professor Curry writes that “the white woman cries out for rape” and presents black men as victims of “white women’s sexual appetites”. In an interview, Professor Curry also relates how “In order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people might have to die”.

Was Edinburgh University aware of these remarks before hiring Curry, or in the course of his employment? Well the recording in question was published in 2012, and came to widespread attention in 2017. And the article in which he describes white women as “crying out for rape” was published in the same year, 2017, in the Journal of Social Philosophy. Curry was appointed in 2019, not long after these controversies. Did nobody note the remarks about killing white people, which were widely covered, including in the UK press. Is it possible that his outrageous comments, which predictably attracted harassment by white supremacists, including Richard Spencer, were actually an aspect of his allure? It also seems likely that colleagues must have been aware, at some stage, of the piece about the rape of white women, as not only is it a publicly available article, listed on his research profile, but it is also listed on Edinburgh’s own research portal. Can Curry be dismissed as an anomaly, unrepresentative of his institution? Hardly, given that he is a member of REAR (remember them?), the “anti-racist” sub-committee tasked with carrying out the university’s radical decolonisation agenda. 

I spoke to one academic at Edinburgh (who asked not to be named) who despaired of what had happened to his once-respected institution. He spoke especially of how hiring practices had been hijacked by a radical agenda. I was able to at least partially confirm this with reference to Edinburgh’s own publicly stated policies. I looked through recent job adverts for posts at Edinburgh University. Though many were innocuous, several actively advertised for minority candidates. A position for Head of Research Cultures was advertised with the note that the University wishes to “particularly encourage applications from women and from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic candidates, who are underrepresented at this level.” Similarly, a position as Lecturer in Latin American History, mentions that the School “wish to particularly encourage applications from women and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic candidates, who are underrepresented at this level within our School.” In the same advert, it is claimed that “All appointments will be made on merit” and that applicants are welcomed “regardless” of various protected characteristics. 

How did a world-renowned Russell Group British University end up putting a racist, misogynistic extremist at the heart of its “anti-racist” agenda?

The tension between non-discrimination and “anti-racism” is clear, and no less present in the University’s EDI advice on hiring, which notes that one should “Make sure all those involved in recruitment understand the difference between lawful positive action and unlawful positive discrimination”, defining the former as “actively seeking candidates from underrepresented groups and encouraging them to apply; setting diversity targets and challenging yourself to achieve these; taking forward candidates from disproportionately underrepresented groups over other candidates of equal merit” and the latter as “appointing an unqualified or less qualified candidate solely because they have a protected (equality) characteristic; and setting quotas (versus setting targets) for appointment of candidates with particular protected characteristics.” Yet in the very same part of the website, in the section on “Shortlisting”, staff are advised not to favour “any experience of studying and working at particular institutions or publishing in particular journals”, which is apparently “known as prestige bias and serves to disadvantage candidates with diverse backgrounds and experiences.” So don’t (illegally) hire a minority candidate over a more “privileged” one who is better qualified, but also, by the way, you can disregard the quality of qualifications as a factor in hiring as a form of “prestige bias”. If you’re wondering how, given this proviso, you would possibly establish an objective criteria of merit that had been unfairly ignored, then so am I. Which, one suspects, is exactly the point.

This same unnamed Edinburgh academic wondered, “Why should institutions receive taxpayer funding if they are so determined to place, at the heart of their teaching — from sociology to mathematics — corrosive doctrines of racial strife, with violent and murderous applications? This isn’t some harmless eccentric intellectual theory — as academic celebrations of the pogrom in Israel make very clear”. 

I had questions of my own too. How did a world-renowned Russell Group British University end up putting a racist, misogynistic extremist at the heart of its “anti-racist” agenda? How, indeed, has British academia come to be captured by America’s “racial reckoning”? What are we to make of numerous decolonial scholars ignoring, apologising for, or even actively supporting the massacre of civilians by Islamic terrorists? Perhaps I should ask the highest paid man in Scottish higher education, Edinburgh’s Vice Chancellor Sir Peter Mathieson, who took the helm of Edinburgh in 2018, shortly before the University’s sweeping decolonisation agenda? 

As I immersed myself in soul-destroying, jargonistic admin documents and mindless, grotesque social media feeds, I felt a sharp sense of two apparently conflicting worlds. On the one hand there was the administration, the ongoing bureaucratic revolution that has reduced once independent professionals to mere functionaries, and the university itself from a centre of learning to a business (albeit one reliant on state-subsidy). On the other was a feverish realm of far left delusion, a fantasy land of armchair revolutionaries cheering on bloody conflicts in which they have no stake or natural interest. I don’t seriously think that Curry, for all his self-indulgent adolescent romanticisation of rape and murder in the cause of liberation, is capable of hurting a fly. But the proliferation of such ideas in the academy will do insidious violence to young minds, who rather than learning moral seriousness, will be poisoned by group think, resentment and chauvinism. Students will be taught to have contempt for and a false sense of superiority over the great writers and thinkers of the past, especially those closest to home, in Scotland and Britain, who helped build and develop the institutions of which young scholars are now the beneficiaries.

Even as real academic freedom is crushed to nothing by the neoliberal transformation of universities into giant quangocracies, a group of resentful, self-indulgent bourgeois radicals are quite happy to take on academic sinecures. In a sense, both groups authorise the other. For the radicals, their extremism gets a steady stream of subsidy, and hides behind the veil of respectability that is a major university. For the administration, they gain a halo of radicalism, even as they grind down academic freedom, prestige and scholarly independence in service of an ever more marketised and routinised higher education system. And what do the poor Palestinians and Israelis caught up in a brutal conflict get? More empty Western words and far-distant cheerleaders, and no end in sight.   

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