The white-guy portraits on the wall: universities are defined by social exclusion

This is a guest contribution from Kathleen Painter who is currently a MA student at UCL Institute of Education.

Settling into my seat in the corner of this conference room in one of the world’s most prestigious universities, I feel the room’s densely historical ambience with its high ceilings, weighty dark wood conference table, and gold-framed portraits of important individuals from centuries passed. I had been invited by Brady, a friend of mine, to attend a symposium on ‘The Future of Higher Education: Converting Current Anxieties into Transformative Action’. Together with his fellow students, Brady had organised this one-day event to talk about the social challenges facing the university. I am interested in understanding the role of higher education in reproducing inequality and was curious to understand more about how this highly exclusive university deals with its own role as an agent of social exclusion. I expected, perhaps naively, that the purpose of such an event would be to turn the critical lens inward towards the university itself and the role that it plays in reproducing inequality. What I found instead was an example of how practising professionalism and performing academic dialogue are a part of the process of preserving the exclusivity and status of universities and their graduates.

As I fall into thought about what it would be like to be a student here, the first keynote speaker starts to talk about a crisis in higher education and asks the audience to reflect on the question of ‘what a university is’. I glance over at Brady, who has situated himself at the centre table; he is clean-shaven, sporting a tan blazer and a colourful tie, sitting with a pen in his hand and a serious regard towards his notebook. His role in organising the event involves managing the social media page, greeting attendees, serving coffee, setting out lunch, and giving a wrap-up presentation at the end, so he has already started to take notes. It is my first time to visit this university– one known especially for its tradition, prestige, and power– but Brady has been learning and practising how to fit in here for more than six months, and it shows. He wears his formal attire with ease, gliding between socialising with his lecturers, welcoming attendees, and checking in discretely on how everything is going with his fellow event organisers. Though I’m a researcher from one of next-most-elite universities in the UK, I already feel like an outsider. I feel that I’m underdressed, that I don’t know the right formalities, and that I might say something outside of what is expected of me.

The speaker then asks for the topics that students and staff want to discuss throughout the day, and writes down a few keywords on a large piece of sketch paper: careers, homogeneity, equality. These keywords reflect the different priorities of the attendees in the room; some students are mostly concerned with careers and employability, while other students, mostly those of minority backgrounds, are mostly concerned with homogeneity and lack of equality in the university experience. I feel that these issues are at conflict, as the students whose central concern is career opportunities see widening access to higher education as the cause of the decreasing value of their degrees and of greater competition for jobs.

Careers, homogeneity, equality… Brady speaks up to say, with frustration in his voice, that many students have taken on the role of student solely for the economic impact; that is, for higher-paying jobs. Because of his current frustrations with the job search, he finds refuge in his ideal of learning as the most legitimate reason for pursuing higher education. In reality, while students of the most privileged backgrounds may have the luxury of studying without worrying about getting a job, students of other backgrounds do not. Brady chose to do his masters in the UK because it would cost him only half of what a similarly prestigious degree in the US would cost. He has taken out over $60,000 of student loans, some for his undergraduate degree, but most for this one-year course. His trajectory up until this point has been carefully oriented towards building an international social network, developing competency in Italian, earning academic credentials at elite institutions and expanding his professional skill set. But lately he’s been stressing more and more about getting a job for next year, as he is required to start paying back his loans six months after completion of the degree. He is planning a second round of applications to funded PhD programs next year, but in the meantime he’s struggling with the economic reality of his student debt, working a part time job at his college bar and applying for full-time positions in his free time. Although he is empathetic and socially conscious, Brady’s struggles place him in the group of people whose primary concern is employability, and not the group whose primary concern is greater equality. While it is not clear from how he’s conducting himself at this symposium, I know that he has paid an economic and emotional price to gain access to this room, and that his degree program has not met his expectations for academic rigor, prestige, or career opportunities.

In the next presentation, the Director of Careers Service speaks in a celebratory manner about the benefits of a degree from this elite institution, highlighting the fact that skills such as collaboration, leadership, and creativity — skills students are building in this very symposium– are going to help secure their financial futures. I see this principle in Brady’s composure. His economic reality adds to the weight of his time at this institution, and requires him to conform to the traditions and rituals in classrooms, conference rooms, and dining halls. He conforms to these traditions because he believes they are one part of his success at this institution. Some of his student loan money even went to buying new suits for formal social events.

As the year goes by, I’ve noticed Brady lowering his expectations of his employment opportunities, and talking more about different ways to cope with his insomnia. And he is but one of many students who invest time, energy, and money into education in hopes of gaining credibility and prestige, finding themselves instead in a situation of financial insecurity, job instability, and unmet expectations. It is striking to me to witness exactly what it takes to be considered a legitimate voice in this room and in other rooms like it in higher education: he must look a certain way, restrain his opinions and follow unspoken norms about how to engage in academic dialogue, all the while demonstrating positivity and professionalism.

The second keynote speaker is a student who was elected the first BME representative in her college and who has worked to tackle racial discrimination on campus. Her presentation is about how widening access to higher education is not enough; the ongoing success of students once they are admitted to elite universities is often overlooked. She talks about how daily life for her is often about navigating white-dominated university spaces and feeling out of place. In response, another student points to the portraits, referring to them as ‘the dead white guys on the wall’. The portraits are not at all reflective of the ethnic diversity in the room today. From their elevated position, they represent how this institution came to be what it is, and they are clearly an ode to a time when only white men were allowed access to the university. These men participated in the structures of socialization that were designed explicitly to provide unequal access to education and resources. But then again, weren’t we also upholding these structures during this very symposium? The unspoken rules of the day were to express pride in being a student at this university, to respect voices inside the room more than voices outside of the room, and to not contradict anyone too directly or question too far outside of the set agenda for the symposium.

When it’s Brady’s turn to give an overview of the day in front of the attendees, he does so in a formal and subdued tone: he summarises the discussions of the day in chronological order, reviewing some of the most interesting points from other speakers. Instead of talking about his own struggles and frustrations as a student in this university, or about his doubts about the value of his degree, he follows a script that he has seen others in the university follow before. The fact that the university always has, and still does, define itself by unequal access had not been discussed at the symposium, but it had framed the dialogue in a fundamental way. The room, the portraits, the dress code, and the ways of speaking here are not harmless; today, these practices had privileged certain voices while silencing others, guiding the conversation towards careers and professionalism, and away from the university’s own responsibility in reproducing inequality. After Brady, another member of his cohort closes the discussion with an optimistic message, lauding the symposium for raising questions and encouraging dialogue. As I witness the student facilitators’ attempts to wrap up the symposium neatly, I silently come to an understanding of ‘what a university is’. It is a place where elaborate traditions about what to wear, how to behave, what to say and how to say it have been developed to be exclusionary.

Later, while writing this post, I found out that there is a ‘diversifying portraiture’ initiative at the university with its own multi-phase strategic plan and twitter account. So, the three dead white guys will soon be joined by a more diverse set of neighbors on the walls of this university’s classrooms, conference rooms, and hallways. However, this superficial fix to the lack of diversity in university portraits will not erase centuries of exclusion or contribute to greater equality in the present. The 26,000 higher education institutions in world are defined by restricted access, and by social skills, connections, and credentials that help certain types of people succeed while widening the gap between them and others. And so, despite the diversifying portraiture initiative and the attempts at transformative dialogue at the symposium, the university will continue to be a site for the reproduction of inequality. At the end of the day, I come to the conclusion that elite universities such as this one cannot be seen as fighting against inequality, because they are defined at their very core by the creation of it.

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