The enquiry is set to establish the University's financial and intellectual role in upholding the slave tradeLouis Ashworth

This week, Cambridge University has announced that it will be launching an inquiry into the institution’s historic ties to the Atlantic slave trade. I – possibly like many other black students here – greeted this news with a great deal of optimism but also approached it with a healthy degree of scepticism. Whilst the university should, of course, be encouraged to interrogate its past and engage in increasingly self-critical discourses about the slave trade, there are issues that need to be addressed beyond the remit of this single inquiry: namely the lack of representation of black scholarship in both the curriculum and demographic of student and faculty bodies.

I, despite any misgivings I may have about the university’s capacity to carry the inquiry out in a meaningful way, am heartened that this is taking place and am intrigued to see what conversations it may stimulate. The relationship between the slave trade and prestigious British institutions, such as universities, is often a subject broached too tentatively. Whilst we are grateful for the narrative which centres Britain in the abolitionist movement, the idea that the financial prosperity of institutions like Cambridge is indebted to wealth generated by slave labour remains an uncomfortable one. Moreover, as it stands, the history curriculum still side-lines the long-term economic consequences of the slave trade, ensuring they are explored not as ubiquitous to Britain but to American or ‘world’ history, conveniently distant from institutions like Cambridge. It is pleasing to see that the university (even though there are presumably cynical, PR-related motivations driving this and even then only after the sustained pressure of student activists) is making an effort to expand this discourse and confront its own past.

The trajectory set by the history of Cambridge and other British institutions has implications in the present – implications that are most keenly felt by black students and black academics.

However, there is, of course, a glaring irony here. Cambridge’s recent record on issues relating to racial oppression is far from exemplary. The Noah Carl fiasco – despite his fellowship being rescinded on Tuesday – is a particularly lucid illustration of this. Although St Edmund’s college has since dismissed him from his post, the fact that Carl, a proponent of racist ideology, was ever offered a fellowship after being screened by what the master of St Edmund’s described as a “well-established inter-college” process, strikes a deeply troubling contrast with the rhetoric of goodwill surrounding the launch of this inquiry. This is exacerbated by the fact that it was only due to the efforts of student activists, in the face of staunch opposition from St Edmund’s, that the fellowship was ever rescinded. It is difficult to see how the university will reconcile the undertaking of this enquiry into ties with slavery with its recent complicity in perpetuating and platforming racist views. Surely, for this report to have any sincere meaning, it requires the university’s actual policies towards racism and treatment of black students to align more closely with its words.

To add to this, there are some disconcerting ambiguities regarding what the implications of this research will be. I was concerned when the vice-chancellor emphasised the importance of Cambridge having to “understand and acknowledge” its role in the slave trade, with no mention of proactive policy. The university cannot be passive in this for the reality is that the trajectory set by the history of Cambridge and other British institutions has implications in the present – implications that are most keenly felt by black students and black academics. The legacies of slavery manifest themselves in an attainment gap which hinders black students, a curriculum which evades uncomfortable discussions about race and a lack of representation at all levels of the university. It’s essential that, if this is to be a meaningful enquiry, the university must not simply “acknowledge” but take a more proactive approach in addressing the issues affecting black students: for them to make concerted, sustained efforts to decolonise the curriculum and to improve the access of black students, to reserve faculty places for academics of African and Caribbean heritage and - importantly - to not simply co-opt work done by BME students but to be a driving force in itself for racial equality. It is critical that this inquiry is not treated as a substitute for structural change but a stimulus for it.

If this is to be a meaningful enquiry, the university must not simply “acknowledge” but take a more proactive approach in addressing the issues affecting black students.

Aside from the university’s questionable recent record on race-related issues, there are more institutional barriers to this inquiry’s success. Many, including myself, are worried that the distinction between the colleges and university will be exploited during this study. The possibility of individual colleges using their autonomy to avoid taking an active role in accumulating evidence is a very real one – and threatens to undermine the academic rigor of this process and stifle its impact. Much of the tangible change that one would hope to emerge from this inquiry, such as increased admissions of black students, would need to happen on a college level in order to realistically occur. It is difficult to envisage colleges feeling the need to act on whatever injustices this report illuminates if they themselves are not held accountable in its process and findings.  


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This inquiry presents Cambridge with a unique opportunity to transform discourse surrounding its relationship with the slave trade and make meaningful changes in the present. People are well within their rights to be sceptical: there is little point in acknowledging Cambridge’s historic complicity in racial oppression unless there is parallel action regarding the legacies of slavery in the present. It is up to the university and individual colleges to take this opportunity seriously. They must take full advantage of this inquiry and actively pave the way for reparative justice and tangible change in the curriculum and in the representation of black scholars across the university.

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