This weekend, Jesus College, Cambridge announced that Sonita Alleyne was to be their new master, the most senior role at the college. The Barbados-born academic will be be not only the first female master of the college, 40 years on from the first admission of women, but also the first black Master of any Oxbridge college. As former racial equalities officer at Jesus, and former president of the Cambridge University Student Union’s Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign, I can say, wholeheartedly, that this appointment cannot be celebrated enough.
When I started Cambridge at 2013, I was arrived to a university where 14.9% of black applicants were offered a place, compared to 29.3% of white students. When I matriculated at the college, the Jesus College Student Union had no racial equalities officer, until I pushed for the position to be established in 2014. At the time, the I, Too, Am Cambridge movement was in full-swing, which aimed “to highlight incidences of discrimination and stereotyping that occur within Cambridge University”, inspired by Havard’s I, Too, Am Harvard campaign. As time when on I witnessed racist incidents, such as the discovery of what appeared to be a National Front logo on campus, or racial profiling of ethnic minority students of staff when trying to enter university buildings.
Of course, issues surrounding race in academia are not just limited to Cambridge. In the academic year 2016-17 there were just 25 black women as professors out of a total of 19,000. In 2018, the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated there is a “growing body of evidence” of racism towards students and staff at universities, and elsewhere an investigation showed a 60% increase of racism at universities. With this considered, we begin to see how important Sonita’s achievement is. For the first time ever, black prospective students looking to apply to Cambridge will finally be able to see a senior black academic in one of the most respected roles at the university. Indeed, on a personal level prior to starting Cambridge, I felt the overwhelmingly white Oxbridge universities had no place for me. This fear was proved to be not unfounded when a student led campaign revealed that just 38 students out of 3,449 identified themselves as black in the academic year 2015/2016.
So, while Jesus has taken a step in the right direction, it is important to recognise that there is a lot more work to do. For example, Christ’s College continues to don symbols of racism in their dining hall, happily hanging a portrait of Jan Smuts, “an architect of laws which were later to become the framework of apartheid”. He also described black people to be “children of nature” who “have not the inner toughness and persistence of the European”. Despite campaigning by ethnic minority students for its removal, the college proudly continues to hang the portrait, stating when questioned that “the portrait is in the same position it has been for many years.. in its prominent place in the hall”; a hall where black students eat and socialise. Behaviour like this demonstrates how its echelons of Cambridge remain complicit in racism.
Of course, it’s not simply Sonita’s ethnicity that is important at Cambridge. Her impressive and successful career in diversity and inclusion will be invaluable for the university. She served as a judge for the Precious Awards, which celebrates the successes of entrepreneurial black women. While at the BBC Trust, Sonita worked within the areas of inclusivity and diversity aiming to give a voice and representation to communities from all ethnic backgrounds in the United Kingdom. In a BBC blog in 2016, she describes that “by creating a new centre for excellence in Birmingham and taking in more BAME trainees the BBC is planning for the future but we would also like to see more progress on diversity at senior levels”.
It is difficult to describe how desperately needed perspectives such as Sonita’s are at university like Cambridge which has struggled to tackle racism. While the lack of diversity will continue to be an issue at Oxbridge as elsewhere, with top Russell Group universities twice as likely to admit white students than black students, this is clearly a positive step. I look forward to, and commend, Sonita’s vitally important tenure at Jesus, and sincerely hope that this is a sign of the beginning of a tide of change for British academia.