A letter to the English Faculty claims that “students continue to report being actively discouraged from engaging” with writers of colour or with the themes of race and empireMICHAEL BEHREND

Students from across the University have written to Faculties and the University as a whole to demand changes in the underrepresentation of Black people within the University and its curricula.

An open letter, addressed to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, has been signed by several thousand students, alumni and staff as well as over 100 societies.

The letter has been organised by Cambridge SU BME campaign and its signatories insist that “the University must commit to more than ‘openness’ and take substantial and tangible action against racism”.

The demands of the letter include addressing access issues which lead to an underrepresentation of Black communities among the student body, working to close the inequalities in attainment between Black students and their peers, and reforming the curriculum to “reflect the diversity of thought that the University wishes to promote”.

The letter also urges the University to adopt more transparent reporting mechanisms for complaints about racial harassment, as well as requiring all staff to undergo anti-racism training.

The campaign comes in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests globally, including in Cambridge, and also follows increased discussion around the commemoration of problematic historical figures around the University and Colleges.

A spokesperson for the University told Varsity that they had “received many helpful suggestions and we need to take time to consider them”.

They continued: “We want to work closely with black students and staff to address their valid concerns. We believe that we are beginning to address many of the issues that have been raised with us but we know there is a lot of work to do.”

As well as the University letter, both the English and Music Faculties have received open letters signed by hundreds of students and alumni demanding significant overhauls of their curricula.

The demands made of the Music Faculty are systematic, with signatories requesting that changes are made to the curriculum “not simply to add ‘other’ musics” to a course focused on the Western classical tradition, but to “decentre Western classical music entirely and to study it in its proper context of colonialism and its legacies”.

The letter to the English Faculty similarly demands that “further and more concrete action” is taken towards “decolonising the tripos”. It goes on to state that although some progress has been made since a similar letter was published three years ago, the response of the Faculty to these earlier demands has been “one of inaction”.

The letter claims that “students continue to report being actively discouraged from engaging” with writers of colour or with the themes of race and empire.

Both letters also demand that the Faculties do more to diversify their staff and to implement compulsory anti-racism training for all members of staff.

In a statement to Varsity, a University spokesperson said that “the Music Faculty recognises the galvanic significance of the recent BLM protests in the USA, UK and across the world” and is committed to “engaging with the entire Cambridge Music community to forge consensus” on the path forward, describing the open letter “as a prelude to wider discussion and action”.

Professor Nicolette Zeeman, the Chair the English Faculty’s Board, told Varsity that, in terms of staff, they “are conscious that we are insufficiently diverse and we are trying to do all that is in our power to remedy it”. She highlighted some progress in this direction with the recent appointment of “an Egyptian scholar to a new University lectureship in Global Literatures.”

With respect to decolonising the curriculum, the Faculty said it has already made “changes in this direction and plans more”, including intending to advertise a new lectureship in Postcolonial Literature in English as well as another in 20th and 21st Century Literature in English “with one of the desirable specialisms being in Black British Writing”.

Students in the Faculty of History have also circulated a letter requesting changes to the way in which the Part I paper ‘British Economic and Social History since 1880’ is taught.

In particular, signatories requested that the topic on ‘Race and Immigration’ should merit more than its current single lecture and that the reading list for the topic should contain many more authors of colour.


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In response, Professor Lucy Delap, the paper’s convenor, expressed gratitude to students “for their constructive critique of the paper” and promised that race and immigration would each receive a standalone lecture next year as well as being integrated thematically “throughout the teaching programme”.

She also committed to review the reading list to “ensure a better balance of readings from scholars of colour, and to reflect recent publications in Black British history”.

Elsewhere,the Divinity Faculty has compiled a bibliography on race, theology and religion for students to consider as part of summer vacation reading. Faculty members are also planning to organise a reading group for the coming academic year to engage critically with these issues.

Cambridge University Press have also released a collection of articles and books which address the issue of racism, discrimination and injustice which are free to access.

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