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Our new director is Male, European and White... Again

Don’t be fooled by the title of this communication. Factual reporting does not equate to anger. However, if this provokes a desire in you to call out “anti-white rhetoric”, remember two things: first, there is no such thing as reverse racism and second, your discomfort does not change your privilege. For the avoidance of doubt: we cannot fight racism while using the same tropes as white supremacists; it would be a gross mischaracterization to imply that gender, “race”/ethnicity and geography alone could predict one’s leadership style.

The FAIR Network is familiar with Professor Liam Smeeth. Since June 2020, we have seen him use his platforms and privileges multiple times to denounce the lack of diversity at the School and share anti-racism material. We understand some of the qualities that led to his appointment and while we can’t predict the future nor vouch for him, we want to believe that an element of positive change is coming under his leadership.

This letter however, is about why the news of Professor Liam Smeeth’s appointment came as a shock to many of us. Why members of the LSHTM community across all intersections of gender, “race”/ethnicity, age, etc. reached out to the FAIR Network and others to express shame, embarrassment, disappointment and anger.

The comments we received were not about our new director as a person but about the “symbolism” around the appointment of the third European White Male in a row as the Director of LSHTM.

As the LSHTM community, we were asked to submit names of potential candidates. We were told that a firm was hired and diversity was being placed at the centre of this process. We were invited to join “diversity” stakeholder consultation groups to support the (mostly white) selection committee. So we all wonder: how did we end up with an internal candidate? From a purely practical perspective, if the objective was to select someone with a deep understanding of LSHTM’s internal functions and politics, none of the external candidates stood a chance. Then, why ask us to share names and not tell us directly so more internal candidates could have applied?

Regardless of the advantage internal candidates may or may not have possessed, doesn’t transparency require the School Leadership to share data on the entire recruitment procedure, including total number of candidates identified, contacted and interviewed with data on age, ethnicity, gender, nationality, etc.? Though it would be crushing to learn that in a sea of inspirational non-white candidates, the (again, predominantly white) School Leadership and Selection Committee were unable to appoint someone that doesn’t look like them, in this situation being transparent about the process would give some reassurance that they had at least “tried”.

We use the word “try” carefully here because when diversity and inclusion are reduced to a tick-box exercise around nationality, «race», ethnicity, gender and other intersections of one’s identity, it becomes nothing more than tokenization. When efforts are centered around appearances and statistics rather than a desire to expand one’s ability to equally value different ways of talking, leading and thinking, the process fails to create space for people that don’t look like us.

While our expectations are lowered every day, we do hope that the Q&A planned on March 16th, 2021 at 13.30pm will be the occasion for our leadership to answer our questions and concerns. We, and many others, want to know:

  • How did the external recruitment firm incorporate considerations around D&I in the advertisement, longlisting and selection criteria?

  • On which platforms was the role advertised (e.g. diversity of publication)

  • What was the role of the Centre for Inclusive Leadership in the recruitment process? and how were they chosen?

  • What was the extent of Professor Liam Smeeth’s initial involvement in writing the person specification, and timeline of application?

  • How many people were contacted, shortlisted and interviewed and their demographics (e.g. name, department, “race”/ethnicity, age-group)?

  • The names/composition of the stakeholder groups and Selection Committee, longlisting and shortlisting groups?

  • How was the input from the stakeholders group used and what was the weight given to it by the selection committee?

The truth is, it has become harder and harder to recognize ourselves in our leadership. Their belief that their decisions are for the best, even when faced with the opposition of those who have been chosen (often democratically) by the LSHTM community, is inexplicable.

Some of our leadership seemingly treat Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and anti-racism as an attack on their successes. They describe our cry for change as a manifestation of anger. They seem to see us as beggars and more often than not seek ways to pacify us rather than to create space for us and see the value in our differences beyond what we can teach them for free.

We are yet to see change. Rather, behind each new statement, we see attempts to control the narrative and remain within one’s comfort zone. The rushed and very public announcement of the new director was a perfect example. The avalanche of messages published by the School on social media within hours of the internal announcement felt more like an attempt to silence than a celebration of a much needed change.

On a similar note, how was the new Dean of EPH chosen? How many people applied? Who ran the interviews and selection process? All those questions have become way too familiar.

Under this paternalistic and protectionist approach to leadership, the usual cycle of gossip that always follows is a not the result of cowardice or fear but a reflection of the lack of expectation of a leadership that seem to have embodied the ethos: “why try to create space for open dialogue when you have the power to impose without explanation?

It is unclear whether our leadership:

1) think we don’t care or don’t want to know;

2) is trying to avoid criticism and accountability;

3) fear real change;

4) simply don’t care about what we think.

Finally and in spite of everything, we congratulate you, Professor Liam Smeeth, on your appointment! We hope to hear your vision for the School really soon and that under your new leadership, the LSHTM community will stop being treated like unruly kids.

For we are LSHTM and we will continue to actively challenge the School’s past and practices from the bottom up.

The FAIR Network

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