Authored by Professor Nick Braisby, Vice-Chancellor, Buckinghamshire New University and GuildHE Board Diversity Champion

70 years ago, in 1952, the world was facing a choice – whether or not to respect the identity of sexual minorities. That year, the American Psychiatric Association published its first manual of mental disorders. It classified being gay as a ‘sociopathic personality disturbance’. In the UK in 1957 the Wolfenden report was published, commissioned some years earlier on the premise that being gay could not be regarded as an illness.

However enlightened this view may have been at the time, it took a further 10 years before the government of the day implemented the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations. And it was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association voted that being gay was not a mental disorder after all; even then, 40% of their members voted that it was.

I came out as gay in 1989 when I was 24, having spent my childhood and adolescence being aware of my difference, but being unable to accept it. I spent many years in inner turmoil, wrestling with my identity, hoping to square the circle of accepting I was gay whilst rejecting all that society said was bad about me. Of course, that turmoil ended when I finally accepted being gay and recognised that the many stereotypes of LGBTQ+ people were false, damaging and wrong. So, I warmly welcome the progress that has been made since 1952. It is right that, for example, my husband and I are no longer considered mentally ill simply because of who we are. But I also know from my own personal experience that there is still an enormous amount of progress yet to be made.

I lament, for example, the plight of members of the trans community – some of the bravest people I have ever met – with much current discourse marginalising this marginalised community still further. And across the globe, according to Human Rights Watch, at least 69 countries have laws criminalizing same-sex relations, and at least nine criminalize forms of gender expression that target transgender and gender nonconforming people, with sentences ranging from fines to life imprisonment and even the death penalty.

Some people ask why a University Vice-Chancellor should be so worried about challenges such as these. Voices in the media continue to claim Universities are subject to ‘woke obsessions’. While I often find those claims simplistic, I think it is important that Universities explain why they do what they do and why they care about the things they care about.

Universities are institutions of learning, in which we strive always to better understand the human, social and natural world in which we live. We are focused on uncovering truth and developing knowledge, in applying reason and logic, and in seeking evidence that will confirm or refute standpoints.

But truth does not come only from certain kinds of people. It does not come only from the wealthy or only from the poor. It does not respect social class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age or disability. We must look for and prize insight and understanding wherever they may be found. So, it is because Universities care passionately about advancing human knowledge, about finding solutions to our deepest questions and challenges, that we encourage everyone, regardless of background, to achieve their full potential.

Let me give you an example of a little boy, Arthur, who wanted to be an engineer. He was born in St Lucia in 1915 to George and Ida Lewis, both school teachers who had moved there from Antigua some years earlier. As a young boy, Arthur suffered illness and for some months was schooled at home by his father. But, at the age of 7, George died, leaving Ida to raise their five children alone.

Arthur was so gifted that when he returned to school he was placed in a class two years ahead. At the age of 14 he left school to work as a clerk but he hoped one day to take his university entrance exam and, at the age of 17, he succeeded, winning a scholarship to attend the London School of Economics, the first black student to do so. But Arthur did not know what to study. As he later said, “the British government imposed a colour bar in its colonies, so young blacks went in only for law or medicine where they could make a living without government support. I wanted to be an engineer, but this seemed pointless since neither the government nor the white firms would employ a black engineer.” Well, Arthur completed his studies and then won a further scholarship to take his PhD; and in 1938 he was given a one-year teaching job.

Arthur’s teaching was restricted because of the fear that students would not wish to be taught by a black member of staff. In fact, he recounted being “subjected to all the usual disabilities – refusal of accommodation, denial of jobs for which he had been recommended, generalised discourtesy and the rest”.

Despite all the challenges he faced, all the reasons he might not have succeeded, Arthur Lewis was a huge success. He became Britain’s first black lecturer and then its first black professor. He went on to work for the United Nations and advised both African and Caribbean governments. He became the first Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies. In 1963, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He was the first black person to hold a full professorship at Princeton. And in 1979 he became the first black recipient of a Nobel prize for economics, in fact the first Nobel prize awarded to a black recipient outside of the disciplines of peace or literature.

When I think of the example of Arthur Lewis, I see the fulfilment of extraordinary potential. But how easily it could have been otherwise. Had he set his sights lower, had he not worked so hard or been so determined; had he succumbed to the racism of the day; had universities such as LSE and Manchester failed to overcome their own institutional racism, how different his life could have been. And how easily the world could have been denied the benefit of his wisdom and insight, perhaps never to learn from the famous Lewis model of developing economies.

Arthur himself is said to have been enamoured with education, believing that it was the way in which individuals and societies could realise their ambitions. I wholeheartedly agree. It is perhaps the abiding and unshakeable belief of all who work in Universities.

So, for me, as a University leader, addressing deep inequalities is not a “woke obsession,” but a requirement for ensuring that our society develops the best possible understanding of the world in which we live so that we can collectively address our most serious and pressing challenges.