What’s the place for reparations at universities?

Two aboriginal men sit in in front of a white building at the top of steps painted with a yellow circle on red

The first series of The Internationalist, a new podcast from the ACU, looks at the critical question of ‘Who gets to learn, and who gets to teach?’. With thanks to Professor Shaun Ewen, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) of the University of Melbourne, Australia and convenor of the ACU’s Peace and Reconciliation Network, and Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Committee, for their contributions and ideas to the fourth episode, many of which are outlined below.

The idea of reparations is often framed in monetary terms – financial settlements, waiving of fees, scholarships – to victims of the Atlantic slave trade and/or their descendants. However, reparations can be much broader and encompass relationships, communities, land and systems, and should also be considered for other victims of crimes of against humanity, such as indigenous communities.

Some may question why universities need to be involved in reparations at all, that it’s down to governments and corporations who benefited the most from these heinous acts to take responsibility and act accountably. Yet in the case of slavery, universities played a role in enabling it to take place, and providing a cloak of respectability and legitimacy. 

The University of Glasgow in the UK is one example of an institution that is confronting its past and trying to make amends. The university received endowments from people who profited from slavery, was favoured by slave owners as a place to educate their children, and was so inextricably entwined with activities in Glasgow – one of the largest slave trading ports in the world – that it was impossible to separate the city from the campus.

When the University of Glasgow presented evidence of their deep participation in slavery, it was clear to Sir Hilary Beckles that the next step must not be ‘research and run’ – presenting the research, saying a quick sorry, and then leaving. In response, the University of the West Indies and the University of Glasgow have signed an agreement to – among other activities – establish a joint centre for development research. ​

Universities produce philosophies and theories – of law, politics, economics, and the rest. For hundreds of years, these philosophies underpinned a system that was deeply rooted in white supremacy and had a powerful influence on slavery and colonisation. They are key to understanding how universities didn’t just passively engage in the colonial project but shaped and designed it too.

‘We probably should’ve started the conversation by noting that the universities were not just participating in a system that they came along and found. Universities were critical in enabling the structures of slavery to be created in the first place.’ – Sir Hilary Beckles

In Australia, as in much of the world, knowledge systems are still tied to white supremacy, and there is an undeniable hegemony of curricula. To get indigenous knowledge on the curriculum remains a challenge and, as Shaun Ewen outlined, there is always a discussion around space and validity. Yet, if universities are to remain relevant in serving today’s society, as opposed to serving the societies from which they originated, how do you find space for indigenous knowledge in a legitimate and equitable way?

As you may expect, there is no quick and uncomplicated answer to this question. There are longstanding connections between universities and cities in Australia, and many of the first universities established in the 1800s were built on unceded indigenous land. They were part of the process of colonisation. There are some acknowledgements of this, such as the Welcome to Country that is given at the start of important events. However, as Shaun points out, this should lead to transformative action but when you hear it so often it loses its meaning.

There is a need to go beyond symbolic action. Reparations of place must look at repairing relationships between people, as it’s through these relationships that the place comes to life. Aboriginal people aren’t going anywhere. Descendants of slaves aren’t going anywhere. Repairing those relationships, including acknowledging the injustices of colonialism and the slave trade, is a crucial step for reparations.

At the University of Melbourne, there was a history of robbing indigenous graves to use the bodies for anatomical studies. At the University of the West Indies’ campus in Mona, Jamaica, a burial site for African slaves was unearthed during the construction of a new building. Their bodies had been thrown into unmarked shallow graves, and while the remains were recovered and the appropriate ceremonies were conducted, it left a scar on the mind of the campus.

‘For young people, students, to see the bones of their ancestors thrown into the dirt like that, and disrespected, it traumatised students’. – Sir Hilary Beckles

The discovery of the mass grave came at a time when the university was developing a pedagogy of change, and it added a new level of urgency to understand how they could move forward and deal with the past at the same time.  

With this in mind, what then can universities do? Reparative research, reparative curricula, financial reparations are all part of the solution, but it goes much further than that. The motivations behind reparations must go beyond good PR and attempting to calm outrage.

‘It’s not the monetary amount. The giving or the acknowledgment of the need for reparations, if done authentically, changes the outlook of the institution giving the reparations. It doesn’t change the financial position of those wronged in the past, but in terms of the relationships it changes the outlook, which changes the ability to repair.’ – Shaun Ewen

The challenge also remains systemic. The people in power are often there as a result of systems that were built to benefit them, which historically had a negative impact on those were enslaved or part of indigenous communities. Descendants on both sides remain on the same sides of power.

‘They have done such a wonderful job in doing what they set out to do that we are still trying to clean up their mess now’ – Shaun Ewen

The scale and intricacies of historical wrongs – the results of which we are still living with today – are daunting. History repeats itself because the systems and the structures have not fundamentally changed, but the potential for many different forms of reparations could make a difference and move the conversations and actions from performative to transformative.

You can discover more podcast episodes here, or by searching for The Internationalist on your preferred podcast platform.