‘The COVID-19 crisis just goes to show how things can go wrong’
Ijeoma Uchegbu is Professor of Pharmacy at University College London (UCL). As a female scientist of colour, she was initially reluctant to play an active role in the university’s diversity policy. Until, that is, she had a radical change of heart: ‘I knew it; I had to become an evangelist.'
Registration for the Diversity Symposium (22 January) is open until 13 January.
You are one of the keynote speakers at our annual Diversity Symposium on 22 January. What is your lecture about?
‘I’ll mainly be speaking about race equality in higher education in the United Kingdom. Only 13 percent of UK university academic staff have a different ethnic backgrounds. This applies to around eight percent of professors, only 0.7 percent of whom are black. Obviously this is low compared with the population percentage.’
So why are there so few black professors, particularly when you compare it with the number of black people in British society as a whole?
‘According to official statistics, this discrepancy is “unexplained”, but in reality racism plays a role. When I studied the statistics, there appeared to be a “grades gap”; on average, white students got better grades than coloured students. The data also show that academics of colour are less likely to be promoted, even when they are equally suitable, and they are therefore less likely to reach their potential.’
When did you start to become involved with this issue?
‘I wasn’t particularly interested at first as I was busy concentrating on my own career. But once I’d seen the data, I just knew I had to become an evangelist. The years I spent in Nigeria played a crucial part in this respect. I found myself in a society where it was perfectly normal for people like me to hold high positions and be on television all the time. That showed me how things could be.’
Emancipation is often also a question of time. Do you not think that in time the percentage of black professors will increase naturally?
‘We don’t have that time. At UCL, nothing has changed in the past ten years. Even after our intervention, the percentage of academics with different ethnic backgrounds only rose by a mere 0.1 percent. So if we do nothing at all, we could easily lose a couple of precious decades in which we could have otherwise made a difference.’
In addition to your roles as Chief Scientific Officer for a pharmaceutical company and Professor of Pharmacy, you are also UCL’s Provost Envoy for Race Equality. What have you achieved in this time?
‘Last June we renamed several buildings, something I am immensely proud of. You see, those buildings were previously named after the eugenicists Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. These eugenicists believed that certain races were inferior to others. A name change like this might just seem symbolic, but, as you can imagine, it must be awful for a black student to have to attend lectures in a building with such a name.’
Read also: Why a ‘sense of belonging’ is so important
The American physicist Kerstin Perez reached the position of Assistant Professor of Particle Physics at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For people from minority groups, this is by no means a common experience. At the annual Diversity Symposium, Perez explains how improvements can be made. Read the interview.
What could a better reflection at the university ultimately lead to?
‘The current COVID-19 crisis just goes to show how things can go wrong. The disease affects people from bicultural backgrounds far more severely than it does white British people. Why didn’t we see that coming? Britain has the best virologists and epidemiologists in the world. The answer is, of course, that we have a blind spot when it comes to people with different ethnic backgrounds. No-one came to the simple conclusion that poor, often black people live in closer proximity to each other than the rest of the population, and are therefore at much greater risk. So we need to train more black doctors; it is literally a matter of life and death.’
I can’t imagine it’s easy drawing up a diversity policy for a university. How does this job make you feel?
‘It certainly takes an emotional toll. You constantly have to adjust people’s expectations. People still sometimes ask me when the professor is coming, because they don’t realise that I myself, a black woman, am the professor. And then I think to myself, here we go again. But you have to be the change that you want to see take place.’
Main image: UCL main building (from Wikipedia)