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Cambridge University to assign white staff members ethnic minority ‘reverse mentors’ to challenge racism

Cambridge University is running a “reverse mentoring” scheme for staff to combat “structural racism”.

Under the project, white senior academics and management staff are assigned one of their black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) colleagues as a mentor in order to encourage “institutional change” at the university.

It is part of a raft of initiatives that the university’s equality and diversity department has introduced over the past year, aimed at boosting diversity and driving out racism.

Earlier this week, it emerged that a PhD student quit in protest after accusing Cambridge of “pervasive” racism.

Indiana Seresin, 26, said that as a white student she had “benefited from the structural racism” of the university and felt she had an “imperative” to leave.

She said she has witnessed an “accumulation” of racist incidents during her time at the university, and went on to describe an incident where an English lecturer “repeatedly read aloud the n-word during our class discussions”.

Ms Seresin told how this incident, as well as the lack of black lecturers and postdoctoral researchers at Cambridge, left her convinced of the university’s racism.

The reverse mentoring scheme aims to “raise awareness among white members of senior management of the issues surrounding structural racism”.

It also hopes to educate them about the “advantages related to being white and the barriers faced by BAME staff”. It is hoped that the scheme will equip senior white dons with the “confidence and skills to discuss issues related to race and racism” and enable them to challenge racism when they come across it.

A university spokesman said that the reverse mentoring scheme, which has run as a pilot for the past academic year, has been a success and is likely to be rolled out on a wider scale next year.

Other initiatives under way at Cambridge include a review of academic courses “to ensure a diverse curriculum is offered”, the university confirmed, adding that this is still in its early stages.

The move follows calls from students to “decolonise” the curriculum by adding more BAME writers to reading lists.

The university has set up a Diversity Fund which allocates grants to students or staff who wish to “promote race equality”.

One project that has won funding was proposed by the Sedgwick Museum, the university’s geology museum founded in 1728, which hopes to transform itself into a “more welcoming and accessible space for BAME people”.

Cambridge has also introduced a new leadership programme for staff, which includes training on race awareness and implicit bias, and every College now has a Discrimination and Harassment Contact whose duty is to oversee “a culture of continuous improvement”.

Another change introduced in the past year is that BAME students can now request to see a BAME councillor and new staff recruitment guidelines have been developed to help attract and recruit applicants from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Cambridge is not the first university to run a “reverse mentoring” scheme for staff. Last year, a Government-funded project at Birmingham saw professors assigned a junior female colleague from an ethnic minority as a mentor to teach them about unconscious bias.

The scheme is backed by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a government agency, which is funding eleven “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion” projects as part of an £5.5 million anti-discrimination drive in engineering and physical sciences.

Prof John Rowe, who is overseeing the project at Birmingham University, said he hoped the scheme will allow eminent professors to confront their own biases and leave them “feeling quite uncomfortable”.

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