• Kieran Fenby-Hulse

Dismantling the Ivory Tower: A Cabaret-Blog

Updated: Jun 30

Work on inclusion is often seen as an added extra, an expense, a burden. But inclusion is not an additional cost. It is an operational cost, like water, like electricity. And if you don’t resource equality, diversity, and inclusion sufficiently, the red letters will soon start to come in.

In Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education (2009), Daryl G. Smith writes:

Successful diversity in people represents one of the critical indicators of institutional equity and true inclusion. The absence of diversity can send powerful messages. It doesn’t take long to look around an institution and see whether diversity is valued. If only White men are hired, it is reasonable to conclude that the institution does not seriously want anyone else to apply. One of the reasons that every hiring decision today is under such scrutiny for diversity is that diversity in leadership is so lacking that every new appointment is seen as one that matter.[1]

It seems quite sensible, then, to begin with some numbers - but by no means all numbers. According to AdvanceHE’s Equality in higher education: staff statistical report (2019):

  • At the head of institutions contract level, 73.5% of academic staff and 76.7% of professional and support staff were men.

  • Of the Professorial population: 66.3% of professors were White men and 23.6% White women.

  • Of the Professorial population: 7.7% of professors were BAME men, compared to just 2.3% BAME women

  • There were just 90 Black male and 35 Black female professors in UK universities.

  • 3.2% of the professorial population declared a disability, compared with 6% of professional staff and 4.4% of non-professorial academic staff.

  • Data on religion and sexuality remains lacking and, thus, problematic as institutions are not required to submit this data to HESA. In the words of Toyah Wilcox: It’s a Mystery.[2]

Data. Data. Data. No change.

Data Data Data. Slow change.

Data Data Data. As change.

Say it with me.

Data. Data. Data. No change.

Data Data Data. Slow change.

Data Data Data. As change.

Data, Charter, Policies - hypnotic, soothing remedies, tinctures for progress, for change, for inclusion.

While data is important, data doesn’t give us answers. Data doesn’t tell us stories and so it doesn’t persuade, data doesn’t engage. We don’t feel data. We forget data.


How can we feel difference, act on and for difference?

How can we understand the experiences of those who occupy a different space from ourselves?

Data highlights the problem. Listening helps us to understand it. But listening requires attention, compassion.

As poet and disability rights activist Laura Hershey makes clear beautifully in her poem Telling (p.134):

What you risk telling your story:

You will bore them. Your voice will break, your ink spill and stain your coat. No one will understand, their eyes become fences. You will park yourself forever on the outside, your differentness once and for all revealed, dangerous.[3]

Stories depend on making the vulnerable visible, hyper visible. The labour is placed upon the outsider, the outsider asked to come inside, rather the insider step outside.

But if we rely too heavily on what is visible, on the walls that we see, that we perceive, then we will fail to understand experiences as varies, changing, kaleidoscopic.

There are walls that we cannot see, that WE don’t need to climb, walls that WE may not think need dismantling.

To tell stories, to share experiences, is to undertake what Sara Ahmed describes as Diversity Work.[4] Diversity work can be hard, emotionally intense and tiring. While stories are important in helping us understand inequality and exclusion, we must be cautious that our focus isn’t drawn to fixing people.

While training and development initiatives such as mentoring programmes are important, they do not address the problems with systems, structures and decision making.

It is important to remember, as my gym instructors says, that: the barriers to success are not of own making.

Repeat this, daily: the barriers to success are not of own making.

As such, we must resist narratives of diversity work that focus on those deemed less fortunate, as helping poor and unfortunate souls.

Diversity Work is difficult, always at risk of turning into something monstrous. It is complicated, messy, and full of wrong turns. You can be misunderstood and misrepresented. You regularly make mistakes, a result of the difficulty of trying to achieve change from within, of challenging systems of which you are a part.

In addition, diversity work takes time. And this is time given, more often than not, by those who are directly affected by discrimination and exclusion.

And this can leave you frustrated, wanting, and wishing that it wasn’t always you.

Diversity work is practical and intellectual. A lack of diversity impacts on not only who is within the academy, but what knowledge the academy produces.

As Patricia Hill Collins writes in Black Feminist Thought: While Black women historians, writers, and social scientists have long existed, until recently these women have not held leadership positions…Black women’s exclusion from positions of power within mainstream institutions has led to the elevation of elite White male ideas and interests and the corresponding suppression of Black women’s ideas and interests in scholarship.[5]

Diversity work demarcates insiders and outsiders. But outsider knowledge, is crucial to the academy, crucial to knowledge and the knowledge economy.

In his 1956 study of the outsider, Wilson argues that outsiders are dislocated from the world around them. He argues that events such as war cause the outsider to see the world as unreal, as false, a pretence. As Wilson states:

Their problem is the unreality of their lives. They become acutely conscious of it when it beings to pain them, but they are not sure of the source of the pain. The ordinary world loses its values, as it does for a man who has been ill for a very long time. Life takes on the quality of a nightmare, or a cinema sheet when the screen goes blank. These men who had been projecting their hopes and desires into what was passing on the screen suddenly realize they are in a cinema. They ask: Who are we? What are we doing here? With the delusion of the screen identity gone, the causality of its events suddenly broken, they are confronted with a terrifying freedom.[6]

Despite Wilson’s radically different position and approach, his thesis resonates with the words of Collins who argues that: Prevented from becoming full insiders in any of these areas of inquiry, Black women remained in outsiders-within locations, individuals whose marginality provided a distinctive angle of vision on these intellectual and political entities. [7]

By being situated as outside, you obtain a different worldview, and your experience of the academy becomes unreal – the academy performing, rather than realising, inclusion.

To quote black feminist Alice Walker:

I believe it was from this period – from my solitary, lonely position, the positions of an outcast – that I began really to see people and things, really to notice relationships”.[8]

For David P. Eburne: the term outsider is less a category or type than a provocation: it induces contemporary spectators to judge works individually rather than blindly heeding the prevailing wind emitted by the Establishment”[9]

But with provocations, criticism, and complaints comes defensiveness and dismissal. As Sarah Ahmed says in Living a Feminist Life: Even to describe something as sexist and racist here and now can get you into trouble. You point to structures; they say it is in your head. What you describe as material is dismissed as mental”.[10]

For Ahmed, to change the academy we must occupy the position of the killjoy, someone who is willing not to shy away from problems. In effect, to be an “outsider-within” is to be a killjoy. It requires us to defy all that is said to be tradition, to be familiar, to be meritocratic. It requires us to defy the academy itself.

But with this, we must look after ourselves and do this on our own terms. As Dean Atta says on coming out:[11]

To have walls is to create an inside and an outside. Queer Theory asks us to constantly think against what is accepted, what constitutes the norm, to – as Nikki Sullivan puts it – ‘resist closure and remain in the process of ambiguous (un)becoming’.[12]

Queer Theory doesn’t ask us to open the doors to outsiders, it asks us to tear down the walls completely. For the academy to become inclusive, the academy must be open to continual change, underpinned by an evolving sense of responsibility, and driven by difference.


My approach has been inspired, in particular, by the work of Geof Hill and Liz Aggiss who have pioneered new ways to communicate and engage audiences through both cabaret and digital media.

References [1] Smith, Daryl G. 2009. Diversity's promise for higher education: making it work. Johns Hopkins University Press. 77. [2] AdvanceHE. 2019. Equality in higher education: staff statistical report 2019. AdvanceHE. [3] Laura Hershey. 2011. ‘Telling’. Spark Before Dark. Finishing Line Press. A full permitted version of the poem can be found at: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/telling [4] Sara Ahmed. 2012. On Being Included. Duke University Press. [5] Patricia Hill Collins. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge. 5. [6] Colin Wilson. 1956. The Outsider, with forward by Gary Lachman. Tarcher Perigee. 77. [7] Patricia Hill Collins. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge. 12. [8] Alice Walker. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers Gardens. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 244. [9] David P. Eburne. Outside Theory: Intellectual Histories of Unorthodox Ideas. University of Minnesota Press. 5. [10] Sara Ahmed. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Duke University Press. 6. [11] Dean Atta. 2019. ‘How to Come Out as Gay’. The Black Flamingo. Hodder and Stoughton. 358. [12] Nikki Sullivan. 2003. A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York University Press. v.