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?
â€śI was born in that very quaint English village called Brixton. And in there, we had an education I suppose that was problematic, it was difficultâ€¦â€ťTony Sewell speaking at the Oxford Union
Tony Sewell runs the charity Generating Genius, which helps underprivileged children get into higher education.
â€śOur teachers used to go to the pub, stay there for about an hour, and come back pissed. There was no inspectorateâ€¦â€ťÂTony Sewell speaking at the Oxford Union
Born in Brixton in the late 1950s to Jamaican parents, heâ€™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.
â€śI mean it felt really truly inspiring just here to get my honorary degree today, I mean Iâ€™ve seen people go up for them in the pastâ€¦ I never thought I would be in that same machineâ€¦â€ťÂTony Sewell, University of Exeter graduation ceremony
And in 2019, the University of Nottingham offered Tony Sewell an honorary degree too.Â
That was until late last year, when it chose to withdraw the offer, because, it said, Tony Sewell had become a â€śsubject of political controversyâ€ť.Â
[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.
â€śThe 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 doesnâ€™t exist in this country anymore.â€ťChannel 4 News
The report hailed Britain as a â€śmodel on raceâ€ť for other countries but was accused of being â€śtone deafâ€ť on issues such as slavery and for saying that institutional racism doesnâ€™t exist.Â
Human rights experts from the UN condemned the report and alleged that it twisted data and even attempted to â€śnormalise white supremacyâ€ť.
Hereâ€™s equalities activist Lord Woolley.
â€śI find some of the language used by this report appalling, that you know the idea that itâ€™s in our heads, this historical legacy that doesnâ€™t allow us to move forward, denies the lived experience of being stopped and searched ten times more likely than other peopleâ€¦â€ťLord 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?Â
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.
Theyâ€™re given to former prime ministers, scientists, religious leaders, sports stars and playwrights and have been around for as long as universities have.Â Â
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.
â€śKanye, you join us today to be recognised for your transformative genre-defining work across music, performance, film and fashion designâ€¦ 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 Trusteesâ€¦ I now confer upon you the degree of Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, Dr Westâ€¦â€ťThe School of the Art Institute of Chicago
But after Tony Sewellâ€™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 Chinaâ€™s treatment of Uighur Muslims as â€śfake newsâ€ť, and Malaysiaâ€™s former prime minister whoâ€™s since been jailed for embezzling public money.Â
And Nottingham University isnâ€™t alone. The University of Oxford has been criticised for not removing Aun San Suu Kyiâ€™s honorary degree after it was found Myanmarâ€™s army had committed genocide under her watch.
So what does the university say about its decision to revoke Tony Sewellâ€™s offer?
The University of Nottingham told Tortoise it updated its criteria for honorary degrees around five years ago to: â€śthe individual should not be politically controversialâ€ť butÂ that criteria doesnâ€™t apply retrospectively.
Thatâ€™s why the former Chinese ambassador and former Malaysian prime minister havenâ€™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 commissionâ€¦Â the offer was withdrawn afterÂ the report was published.
Clearly that report was controversial. But itâ€™s not obvious how the university defines political controversy in its set of criteria.
And the university doesnâ€™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 campusesâ€¦ a decision to revoke someoneâ€™s offer of an honorary degree because of political controversy risks stoking that fire.
Tony Sewell has accused the University of Nottingham of being â€ścowardsâ€ť for removing his offer.Â
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.Â
Todayâ€™s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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