Let’s talk … investigating academics’ confidence in having conversations about diversity, and in particular race

Paulina Babuchowska and Rebecca Sanderson

The underpinning aim of this research is to understand academics’ confidence levels in conversations about race and race related issues and develop effective interventions to enhance academics engagement in discussions about race.
This research also intends to explore how stereotypes and biases can impact on academic practice, highlight areas of good practice and develop tools to help mitigate potential challenges. It is intended that the research findings will contribute to the development of the Race Equality Charter Mark action plan and support University’s commitment to and work towards race equality. These above aims raise the following core project objectives:
• To understand academics’ perception of diversity in teaching and learning, in particular race
• To assess academic confidence in discussions on race
• To determine whether there is any interrelation between unconscious bias and academics’ confidence levels in having conversation about race
• To develop interventions that will support academics confidence in discussions about race and race related issues

In its definition race tends to be seen through a biological lens, although as Lopez (1994) challenges, it ‘does not have any biological meaning’. But race is also referred to as a social construct that is legally protected. The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) through its Race Equality Charter (REC) work highlights the issue of race and race inequalities in higher education that adversely impact on representation, progression and success of ethnic minority staff and students. It builds on the research of the UK academics such as Gilborn, Rollock et al to identify the underlying issues of race inequalities and remove, social, psychological and institutional barriers that minority ethnic groups experience in higher education. The University of Lincoln became a member of the Race Equality Charter (REC) in 2016 and since then started its institutional journey towards race equality. As part of the REC framework, the University carried out two surveys asking students and staff about their perceptions and experiences of studying and working at the University, race was highlighted as a main focus of the survey. The survey was completed by 1475 students and 213 staff of mixed ethnicity. In the student survey there were two questions asked about race being part of students’ academic discussions and staff confidence in having these conversations:
1. When relevant, issues of ethnicity and race are included in academic discussions.
2. When relevant, my course tutors and lecturers are confident and competent in facilitating discussions around ethnicity and race. The findings from student surveys demonstrated lack of unanimity between student respondents with regards to issues of race and ethnicity being included in academic discussions. Student respondents also found it challenging to answer the question about course tutors and lecturers’ confidence and competence in facilitating discussions around ethnicity and race. This has been noted in student responses from across all colleges. These two questions were followed up in the student focus groups where race has been described as ’(…) one of those subjects you just don’t want to get into’.

In addition, as part of the Programme Leaders’ development programme 2016-2017, the University run a series of unconscious bias workshops. In discussions academics reported self-awareness of their own biases, for example in the student recruitment or assessment processes, however also admitted that they were unsure how to mitigate these biases. Techniques for managing unconscious bias and its impact were the major themes identified in the workshop evaluation and areas suggested for further development workshops. Following the work of Rollock (2015) who states that ‘race, if mentioned at all in universities, is often shut down at a discussion point’, this study will explore in more detail if and how race is discussed by University of Lincoln academics and perceptions on their confidence and competence levels to have these conversations.

Research Questions
1. What is academics’ understanding and interpretation of diversity in teaching and learning, with a particular focus on race?
2. What are the factors that determine the level of academic confidence in having discussions about race or ethnicity?
3. Is there any interrelation between unconscious bias and academics’ confidence levels in having conversation about race?
4. How the University could help increase academics’ confidence in having discussion on race?

Although race is more widely researched, in particular with reference to higher education, there is still little known about academics confidence in discussions about race and factors that encourage, stop or hinder these discussions. This research is therefore an exploratory study which aims to find answers to the research questions, and create a platform for further research.

For the purpose of this research a phenomenological stance will be adopted to capture individual views of academics regarding their own confidence in conversations on race, collate thoughts, values and beliefs.

Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, semi-structured interviews have been found the most appropriate method for this research. The interviews will be conducted with University of Lincoln academic staff.

The research sample will consist of 10-15 academics of mixed gender and ethnicity. Participants will be selected purposively from among the University academic staff population, ensuring each College is represented To ensure confidentiality, participants’ names will be coded when transcribed and the transcription will be identified only by an assigned letter e.g. A, B,C. etc. Each participant will be asked to sign a consent form with an option to withdraw from study at any point. Participants will be informed about anonymity of data.

Interview questions will be designed to understand the individual academic’s understanding of diversity, in particular matters relating to race equality and diversity more broadly. Attendance at, and any impacts of, unconscious bias training will be explored through these questions, as will the experiences of and confidence felt by the interviewee in relation to these matters. Examples of best practice and further support needs will also be identified though the interviews.

Audio recordings, where consent has been obtained, will be transcribed and coded for thematic analysis.