Decolonizing the university: pushing beyond curriculum interventions to build an antiracist university

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Reviewed by Nick Spragg


In the enduring struggle to build ‘the antiracist university,’ scholars explore why this struggle to produce meaningful structural change in academia persists – and how we might imagine a path forward. In this article, Richard Hall et al. describe the long and strenuous history of university decolonization processes, which have aimed to disentangle institutional formation from the cultural and social effects of European colonialism. The Black Lives Matter movement revealed how little structural change had been actually achieved in the university of study, following multiple historical decolonial movements. The authors suggest that universities have struggled to push beyond decolonial curriculum design and assessment methods, which has left major residual structural issues unaddressed. In response, they contend that university decolonization activities should work to proactively disrupt:

  • A university’s role in reproducing structures and cultures of privilege and power
  • Implicit exclusionary hierarchies embedded into university systems including administrators, faculty, and students
  • White male hegemony that dominates acceptable forms of knowledge production and places a higher value on European centric curriculum than Black, Indigenous and communities of color

As universities have reckoned with these themes, the rapid onset of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) agendas, intersectional identity groups, and grassroots movements have frequently come into conflict with their notoriously hierarchical structures and entrenched racialized histories. 

This study emerges at the convergence of several recent DEI interventions, and focuses on one United Kingdom-based institutional intervention, Decolonising De Montfort University (DMU). The intervention aims to address the university’s structures, culture, and practices and aims to build an antiracist university embedded with ‘dignifying dialogue.’ Within their study, the authors analyze how DMU: 1) situates its approach within Indigenous and decolonial critiques of the university, 2) contends with the impacts of white dominance, 3) challenges entrenched structures which typically stymie radical change, and 4) seeks to disrupt institutional practices.

Richard Hall is the Director of the Institute for Research in Criminology, Community, Education and Social Justice at De Montfort University (UK). Lucy Ansley is a Research Fellow at the Decolonising DMU Project at De Montfort University. Paris Connolly is a Research Fellow at the Decolonising DMU Project at De Montfort University. Sumeya Loonat is the Senior International Student Leader in the Leicester Castle Business School at De Montfort University. Kaushika Patel is the Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion at De Montfort University. Ben Witham is a Lecturer in International Politics at De Montfort University. 

Methods and Findings

Decolonising DMU began in November 2019 and was implemented across 40 programs at De Montfort University which actively utilized DEI interventions. The decolonising DMU study first surveyed students (n=233) and staff (n=44) in one on one interviews to examine the landscape of current DEI interventions. Then, researchers worked alongside an additional cohort of students and staff (n=142) to co-create new DEI programs.  These programs included: 

  • Establishment of a Decolonising DMU working group 
  • Adoption of a Decolonising DMU Charter
  • Decolonization of the curriculum including adding more racially diverse readings and the development of new courses focused on non-Western perspectives

These programs were implemented in multiple areas including staff development, student engagement, research, library services, and institutional cultures/structures/practices – with a focus on disrupting  the University’s historical complacency in maintaining structural racism. Program creators demanded the history of racist incidents, white privilege, poor emotional resilience, failure to support Black, Indigenous, and students of color, be addressed directly and publicly.  

The authors focus on two elements of DMU’s critique – ‘cultures of whiteness’ and ‘structures of dissipation’ – in their main findings.

White institutional knowledge prioritizes and centers white, Eurocentric ideas in the fabric of the institution. Patriarchal structures have historically granted white males with the highest levels of merit in the university ecosystem, which have equally prevented meaningful and sustained decolonial change. The joint effect of these conditions is what the authors refer to as ‘cultures of whiteness.’ Microaggressive behavior, linguistic constraints, and subconscious stereotypes have enabled white culture to dominate the university ecosystem – as whiteness is naturalized as the dominant mode of being and knowledge production. For marginalized students and staff, efforts to co-produce alternate modes of being and knowing frequently struggle to seep into university’s norms. 

‘Structures of dissipation’ refers to the dissolving of non-white forms of knowledge or absorption of these forms into the dominant power structure. For Decolonising DMU, ‘structures of dissipation’ accounts for the university’s  inability to develop a structural response beyond the basic broadening of reading lists and library collections. 

Considering the two critiques presented in the study, the authors suggest a third residual issue: conversations around racial disparity in the UK university system have consistently centered on the attainment gap between white and BIPOC students. Recent efforts in the UK have attempted to push beyond this binary with a more complex analysis of the university’s institutional structural racism linked to criminal justice, employment, and policy decisions. One final challenge identified by the authors is the laborious and time-consuming nature of the work which requires all university stakeholders to reassess their involvement in these racialized histories while committing to the regular demands of their work.


The study presents a pertinent need to confront the practices that reinforce the denial and  disengagement of those engaging in racial equity work in university settings and the risk management of the university’s perceived reputational damage. Increasingly, institutions are engaging in more work on racial equality, responding to the Movement for Black Lives and calls for decolonization by Black, Indigenous and communities of color. This work requires that  universities confront whiteness, white fragility and privilege, and implicit behavioral norms. However, formal structures, built upon cultures of whiteness and oppression, maintain a dominant legitimacy in the university and stymie more comprehensive structural interventions. This article argues that this  dominancy, which reinforces whiteness, needs to be directly addressed through projects focused on decolonization. 


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