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Six of the best… and they’re all men

Published: 14th July, 2017

‘HeForShe’ impact champion approves male-only panel of honorary graduates

Welcome to the University of Leicester, where you’ve got more chance of being selected for an honorary degree if you’re a white man with grey hair, than a woman. It certainly provides a neat case study in ‘homosocial reproduction’ for lecturing staff. The news of the all-male, and mostly white, panel was announced on Wednesday 5 July, and reaction to the news amongst the University’s female scholars was predictably scathing.  Not just because the University of Leicester is a self-proclaimed, and UN-endorsed ‘HeForShe’ impact champion, but because the response from the University demonstrated (yet again) that whilst they may talk the talk on diversity and equality, when it comes to action, their record is embarrassing.

The University is yet to ‘officially’ respond to the production of a ‘manel’  ( for this the July 2017 graduation ceremonies, but an explanation offered forward to the University of Leicester Women’s Forum mailing list suggest a rather nonchalant attitude was taken by the selection committee. When asked for more details it was explained that the male only panel was the result of fewer women than men being nominated in the first place. (For info, university staff are asked to nominate.) Thus, the committee concluded, that as there were fewer women candidates to choose from, there would always be fewer women. So far, seemingly no problem. To compound matters, it was explained that all the female candidates that were offered an honorary degree chose to defer their award to 2018. (Perhaps these women all are too busy doing their nails this summer…) Given this, the University seemed quite relaxed about having an all-male line-up this year, and moreover, seemed quite confident that their explanation regarding its production was reasonable. Put simply, it would seem:

  1. The committee that produced this outcome did not think an all-male list would be problematic in any way; and
  2. This summer’s manel isn’t an accident; rather it highlights institutionalised processes that reinforce the reproduction of the same outcomes.

If University of Leicester wants to be taken seriously these fundamental issues need addressing, and fast. This is particularly problematic for our university precisely because it claims to be a ‘diversity champion’. If the ‘University Leadership Team’ (ULT) want this claim to be anything other than a hollow statement, then two procedural points need addressing.

First, if you set yourself up as ‘leading on diversity’, then you need to actually lead, and actively seek and take action. University of Leicester does not do this – instead it responds and reacts. The excuses offered by ULT are not acceptable, when they have explicitly self-identified as leading on diversity.

Second, seeking to apportion blame to the collective body for a management failure is not acceptable. University of Leicester staff were not aware they were participating in this process; our agreement had not been sought; we had not been invited. Again, little ‘leadership’ is in evidence here. Diversity is not being ‘championed’.

If University of Leicester’s ‘leadership team’ wish to lead this process, this team must also assume responsibility for the outcome – even if consultation with the collective has influenced the outcome. The presentation of this as an oversight is disappointing for anyone who dared to hope for better. If Professor Boyle, the University’s President and Vice-Chancellor, is serious about his commitment to the HeForShe campaign (which seeks to harness the responsibility of men to inspire action to eliminate discrimination against women and girls) then the university he purports to lead has a responsibility to act proactively to help address gender imbalance. One Women’s Forum member compared this honorary degree debacle to the preparation of a collective meal: if you ask people what they want eat, you don’t just serve up whatever is requested if the result is unhealthy. But this is exactly what the ‘leadership team’ have done here: served up something unpalatable, to everybody except them.

Further justification for this summer’s manel was the insistence that female staff should be patient and take solace: 2018, we are promised, will see a high number of female honoraries to mark the suffragette centenary. (The logic of awarding honorary degrees to women to commemorate the suffragettes’ achievements was also questioned on the Women’s Forum. The only obvious link is that women feature prominently in both, again suggesting the University’s ‘leaders’ prefer superficial engagement with equality and diversity, as opposed to proactive change and critical reflection.) Beyond exasperation about female acknowledgement occurring once per hundred years, or how awful it would be if an all female panel were to just happen by accident or oversight, as the 2017 manel has, the disappointing reality is that this is emblematic of how our employer approaches diversity. Diversity is something that is done sporadically and for acclaim; diversity and equality are ‘championed’ as episodic events. Instead, of course, diversity should be something that we are; it should be embedded into the fabric of our institution and its decision-making committees.

But why is the ULT incapable of recognising this, of learning from it, and of apologising for its mistake? The whole episode wearisome, of course, as we know it will happen again.

Beyond frustrated exchanges in the Womens Forum, many took to Twitter to express disappointment. As of yet, University of Leicester (@uniofleicester) has not officially responded to these tweets. Indeed, thus far, the only ‘honorary graduation related’ tweet from @uniofleicester is a ‘throw back Thursday’ (#TBT) post, celebrating Jamaican dub poet and story teller, Dr Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze (MBE), who was awarded Honorary Doctor of Letters in January 2017. Whilst UCU agrees that Dr Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s excellent work is worthy of celebration, we feel the timing of the tweet is cynical, and does nothing to address the legitimate critiques of the University’s lack of critical engagement, or action with regards diversity and equality.

If the University’s leaders wish to invoke history, reminding us in their ‘throw back Thursday’ tweet of January’s awards, when Dr Breeze and Anne Fine, but no men, were honoured (very HeForShe!), then we invite them to look further back. In 2015, Professor Boyle’s first year as VC, 14 honorary degrees were awarded (counting both January and July): ten of these were to men, just four to women. Last year, the gender imbalance was even worse: of 15 awards, only two to women, 13 to men. Not quite so HeForShe. The fact that one of these men was David Willetts, the government minister responsible for the tripling of university tuition fees is another story…