Open Letter from Deputy Warden Jane Powell


Dear colleagues and friends

I am proud to have spent two decades working at Goldsmiths, a university whose ethos of inclusivity and activism renders it a true force for progressive values; I feel profoundly fortunate to be a member of a community whose diversity in all dimensions gives it energy and vision.  My varied roles here, from the junior lectureship to which I was appointed 23 years ago to my more recent departmental and college management positions, have exposed me either directly or indirectly to many of the challenges that women experience all too often as they try to progress within their careers.  This is the case even though Goldsmiths is distinctive within the sector for its preponderance of women students and staff, including at senior management level.  We likewise have more students, academic staff, and professors from BME backgrounds than do most other universities, though we still have a long way to go on this front. 

Although women outnumber men here in our staff and student populations and in our leadership teams, we are far from having broken down the barriers to equality, progression, and empowerment. I am pleased that a third of our professors are women, compared to fewer than a quarter nationally, but this is markedly lower than we should expect.  It is not good enough. 

And has the high ratio of women on campus and in our leadership been sufficient to eliminate the sexual harassment, sexually abusive, or other forms of sexually inappropriate behaviour which remain so depressingly prevalent in wider society and which are increasingly manifest in social media as well as elsewhere?  Clearly not.  Just as elsewhere, it remains disappointingly the case that some of our own staff and students behave in ways which are at odds not only with our policies and regulations but with our prevailing ethos.  

We know that there are many reasons why students and staff may hesitate to report behaviour that most would recognise as unacceptable.  These have been articulated eloquently and powerfully by numerous colleagues, in particular by members of our world-leading Centre for Feminist Research: under Professor Sara Ahmed’s directorship, this has brought together a constellation of staff and students at all career stages whose expertise and experience stimulates and informs debate within and beyond Goldsmiths.   It is clear that we must not only respond rapidly and effectively when incidents are reported, but shape our environment and culture to ensure that we all feel unafraid and supported in doing so.   This means ensuring confidentiality where appropriate, to reduce the anxiety many feel about the consequences of bringing their experiences to attention and also to ensure fair treatment of those against whom allegations or concerns are raised.  This is as true at Goldsmiths as it must be anywhere else.   

An absence of complaints is absolutely not indicative of a healthy, thriving, organisation; more often the reverse, as it all too often reflects a blindness of eye or institutional unwillingness to listen.  So when cases arise here, as they have, it is simultaneously dispiriting and encouraging.  People should not have had these experiences, but when they have felt able to report them it has given us the opportunity to try to address them and importantly to learn from them in ways which enable us to enhance systems, processes and attitudes.  I have observed first-hand not only the genuine consternation that such reports elicit in the colleagues receiving them, but the speed, commitment, and thoroughness of subsequent responses to them. We must continuously monitor and review our mechanisms for reporting harassment, investigating complaints, and dealing with the consequences: cultural change takes time and effort.

I am personally committed to working with colleagues across Goldsmiths to continue evolving our culture and systems, to making changes which will make it less likely that people will have problems to report but more likely that when they do, they will tell us about them.  This was one of my personal drivers for stepping out of my academic trajectory and into a leadership role at this vibrant and challenging university, whose senior team is united in its commitment to Goldsmiths’ values and to learning constantly how best to enact them.

When I look around me right now I see much uplifting activity of many different kinds.  Along with numerous staff, students, and guests from other universities, late last year I attended the inspiring "Celebrating Diversity and Advancing Equality" event which marked the launch of our reinvigorated Equality and Diversity strategy (PDF download) and the associated Together We are Different campaign.   I also have the great privilege of chairing our Academic Development Committee whose members stimulate, review, shape, and approve proposals for new taught programmes.  These define Goldsmiths, reflecting the interests and expertise of our staff and of the students who want to come here.  At our last meeting the whole committee was excited to see a raft of proposals for programmes focusing thematically on gender, race, and sexuality; each was designed specifically to attract and engage a diverse student body and, perhaps even more importantly, to enhance representation and influence practice in the professional occupations to which our students progress.  They will further expand our burgeoning and sector-leading portfolio of programmes with such themes, drawing on interdisciplinary expertise from our whole range of departments but notably including Media & Communications, History, Theatre and Performance, Sociology, ECL, Computing, and Educational Studies. 

We have recently launched a series of events designed specifically to explore, understand, and address gender-related issues in our own practices.  This is linked with, but extends beyond, our development of an Athena Swan submission: this scheme, which comes under the aegis of the HE sector’s Equality Challenge Unit, focuses universities on foregrounding the existence of any gender-related barriers to the career progression of their academic and professional staff and then on taking actions to mitigate them.   There has already been a pleasingly high level of interest and responsiveness.  Last week we ran the first of a series of open seminars, with talks from internal colleagues on issues including the workplace experiences of trans people and factors differentially affecting promotion of men and women.  The lecture room was full, the audience as diverse as our community, discussion lively, and the spirit of engagement palpable.  

There is more I could mention, but I will end here in the confident belief and hope that this letter to you all is part of an ongoing conversation. I want your views on how we develop institutional practices that will strengthen our community and wider society. We will hold more events of the kind described above to learn and gain a shared understanding of problems and to inform next steps.  My focus, and that of all our senior leadership at college and departmental level, must not be on eliminating reports of sexism, racism, or other forms of discrimination and harassment, but on eliciting them.  They will not be shared publicly, for to do so would deter some people from making them.  However we must together discuss and debate the general issues – so please, please, get in touch to suggest themes and speakers for future events, or to make me aware, in confidence, of any particular experiences you may have had and of any ideas you have for opening up this important dialogue.

Yours most sincerely,

Professor Jane Powell
Deputy Warden

June 6th 2016