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A degree of controversy

A degree of controversy

After Tony Sewell chaired the controversial Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities the University of Nottingham decided to revoke their offer of an honorary degree. Was it justified?


“I was born in that very quaint English village called Brixton. And in there, we had an education I suppose that was problematic, it was difficult…”

Tony Sewell speaking at the Oxford Union

Tony Sewell runs the charity Generating Genius, which helps underprivileged children get into higher education.

“Our teachers used to go to the pub, stay there for about an hour, and come back pissed. There was no inspectorate…” 

Tony Sewell speaking at the Oxford Union

Born in Brixton in the late 1950s to Jamaican parents, he’s spent his career helping transform education. And in 2016, he was awarded a CBE for his work.

A string of honorary doctorates and fellowships followed from Russell Group universities like the University of Exeter and University College London.

“I mean it felt really truly inspiring just here to get my honorary degree today, I mean I’ve seen people go up for them in the past… I never thought I would be in that same machine…” 

Tony Sewell, University of Exeter graduation ceremony

And in 2019, the University of Nottingham offered Tony Sewell an honorary degree too. 


That was until late last year, when it chose to withdraw the offer, because, it said, Tony Sewell had become a “subject of political controversy”. 

[Actuality of Black Lives Matter protest in London]

In 2020, in response to Black Lives Matter protests, prime minister Boris Johnson asked Tony Sewell to chair the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.

But when its findings were published, it caused a lot of backlash.

“The report found no evidence of institutional racism, that inequalities are more likely to be caused by geography, poverty and culture than race, and that ethnic minorities are haunted by historic racism that doesn’t exist in this country anymore.”

Channel 4 News

The report hailed Britain as a “model on race” for other countries but was accused of being “tone deaf” on issues such as slavery and for saying that institutional racism doesn’t exist. 

Human rights experts from the UN condemned the report and alleged that it twisted data and even attempted to “normalise white supremacy”.

Here’s equalities activist Lord Woolley.

“I find some of the language used by this report appalling, that you know the idea that it’s in our heads, this historical legacy that doesn’t allow us to move forward, denies the lived experience of being stopped and searched ten times more likely than other people…”

Lord Woolley speaking on Channel 4 News

And it was after that backlash that the University of Nottingham decided to remove the offer of an honorary degree.

Was it justified? 

***

Honorary degrees are handed out by universities, often at graduation ceremonies, to recognise the outstanding contribution and success of a person in a particular field or to society more generally.

They’re given to former prime ministers, scientists, religious leaders, sports stars and playwrights and have been around for as long as universities have.  

Last year, the University of Oxford awarded one to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kanye West even has one from the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Kanye, you join us today to be recognised for your transformative genre-defining work across music, performance, film and fashion design… so by the virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Governors of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Board of Trustees… I now confer upon you the degree of Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Dr West…”

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

But after Tony Sewell’s offer was revoked, people began to question why other recipients who could also be deemed politically controversial, still have their degrees.

After all, other people with honorary degrees from Nottingham University include a former Chinese ambassador who dismissed criticism of China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims as “fake news”, and Malaysia’s former prime minister who’s since been jailed for embezzling public money. 

And Nottingham University isn’t alone. The University of Oxford has been criticised for not removing Aun San Suu Kyi’s honorary degree after it was found Myanmar’s army had committed genocide under her watch.

So what does the university say about its decision to revoke Tony Sewell’s offer?

***

The University of Nottingham told Tortoise it updated its criteria for honorary degrees around five years ago to: “the individual should not be politically controversial” but  that criteria doesn’t apply retrospectively.

That’s why the former Chinese ambassador and former Malaysian prime minister haven’t had their honorary degrees revoked.

Tony Sewell was offered his honorary degree in 2019, before he had even been asked to chair the race disparities commission…  the offer was withdrawn after  the report was published.

Clearly that report was controversial. But it’s not obvious how the university defines political controversy in its set of criteria.

And the university doesn’t appear to have revoked any other offers since its rules were changed 5 years ago, so this case has understandably raised eyebrows.

At a time when universities in particular are grappling with accusations of cancel culture on campuses… a decision to revoke someone’s offer of an honorary degree because of political controversy risks stoking that fire.

Tony Sewell has accused the University of Nottingham of being “cowards” for removing his offer. 

And around 60 Conservative MPs have now signed a letter, demanding the university reinstates it.

But supporters of the decision, including the MP Diane Abbott and some anti-racist groups, say that it was the right call.

You can be sure that other universities will be closely watching what happens next. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.


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