In Conversation With Dr Sarah Sharples And Dr Stacy Johnson

Dr Stacy Johnson on the left and Dr Sarah Sharples on the right.
Feyintoluwa Ayanlaja

In an interview filled with laughs, insight, and an informative perspective on the current scope of the worldwide Black Lives Matter movement, Feyintoluwa speaks to Dr Sarah Sharples, Vice Chancellor of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion, and Dr Stacy Johnson, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, about the University’s approach to the racially-aggravated incidents of this summer gone.

It is an undisputable fact that 2020 has been revolutionary. It has been revolutionary in its marches, campaigns, and peaceful protests which took place every day this summer past as catalysed by the murder of George Floyd on the 25th of May 2020.

Unbeknownst to many observers of the movement, the almost tangible anger felt by a strong majority stung deeper than the rest of this year’s events. It is a fight against centuries of systematic racism.

It has been revolutionary but also cumbersome as, for black people, the climate transforms into one filled with fear, anxiety and anger.

The University of Nottingham may not have the most diverse student body, but ‘what has been done thus far to provide an environment of equality, diversity, and inclusion for the students and staff of the University of Nottingham?’. Dr Sharples and Dr Johnson answer these questions for the wondering majority.

So Sarah, you have been a researcher at the University of Nottingham for over 20 years, and in September of 2018, you decided to take on the role of Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Nottingham; why was EDI a field you wanted to go into?

Sarah Sharples: I came as a student in 1991 and studied psychology at first before I moved into human factors which was an engineering course. I felt as if she was minority as a woman in engineering.

I have always been aware of the importance of equality, diversity, and inclusion from the perspective of gender and, at the time, we had inclusive design in human factors which had a greater focus on disabilities. So, when the role was formed in 2018, I leaped at the opportunity and it’s the best thing I ever did but also daunting in terms of the responsibilities it holds.

This is where my work with Stacy Johnson began and when I first started there was too much focus on gender, not enough on ethnicity. So, I said to the Vice Chancellor at the time that I completely understand whey there is so much anger and disappointment from the BME community. We need to recognise the need for specific intervention for race equality. Work really picked up momentum after that realisation.

“I also understood that my experience was not typical of other black people at the time”

Stacy Johnson: I came in 1999 and studied in the school of economics. I have been a tutor, researcher, warden in hall of residences at the University and this taught me about the nature of leadership at the University first-hand. I was also involved with the application of the first race equality charter five years ago – the University didn’t get the charter at the time.

I have been open to a lot of great experiences at the University, so I thought this didn’t reflect my experience, but I also understood that my experience was not typical of other black people at the time.

I then felt inclined to write to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the time, Karen Cox, and I wrote: “let me tell you why I should not lead the race equality charter. I’m not a professor, I’m not very senior, I have no track record of the large university project, but this is why you should take a chance on me”. Inspired and encouraged, they agreed to a conversation.

I understand that the University uses the framework outlined by Advance Higher Education ‘designed to improve the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education’ in the summer of 2020, the University has applied for the Bronze status to this. Given that the status is granted, what will this look like for students and members of staff at the University?

“We have had to have really difficult and honest conversations”

Sarah: I will be very proud if we are awarded with the Bronze status of the Race equality charter, but I will be prouder of the work we have done to get to that point. I’m interested in how we actively use this data to form a really impactful action plan which continues to deliver change, regardless of whether or not we are awarded with the charter.

I couldn’t have even touched the charter without the leadership of Stacy. We have had to have really difficult and honest conversations about who should do what to ensure there is the right visibility of the right people in the right conversations.

So far, implementation of the action plan starts from 2021. This has already started; we are currently thinking about the experiences of staff and students to better their experience at Nottingham.

Many people may not know but there is an EDI Blog on the University of Nottingham webpage on which you can see the details surrounding the plans for ‘defined actions, with timescales for clear lines of accountability’.

It was promised that this plan would be updated regularly but, since its announcement, we haven’t heard much about these ‘plans’. Is there anything coming up that we should know about? What has been done thus so far to promote an environment of equality, diversity, and inclusion to the students and staff of the University of Nottingham that we may not know about?

Sarah: We are currently working on two types of action plans in accordance to the Race Equality Charter; one in response to the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer and the other, the race equality action plan we have long been working on.

Stacy: Letters from the black student societies like One Heritage had a massive impact on me mentioning the BME attainment gap and the five steps universities should take to close this gap. Of these steps, the main two are ensuring we have leadership amongst communities, using data and evidence to promote an inclusive environment in the University for both students and staff.

Sarah: Over the summer, student activism from white students and students of colour of the University really catalysed the action plan. It encouraged us to act with more urgency, especially on the points they needed to prioritise. As a big institution, it’s hard to think about the smaller groups of people.

In terms of engagement with students, we sent a letter to black student societies to respond to these issues. We’re delighted to maintain that dialogue and think the work of the Black Liberation Forum is essential in being a key means of communication and bringing together black student societies with a voice.

Stacy: What struck me most about the letter is that all the recommendations they were making were already in the action plan. It really showcased how switched on and beautifully crafted their demands were. We aimed to then reverse the deficit model.

Student engagement has always been a part of the plan; the second round of planning was based on feedback from the first. We also have race equality charter champions and students can apply for this paid opportunity. 

In terms of the staff at the University of Nottingham…

Sarah: We are not doing well enough in terms of diverse recruitment of staff from different ethnicities, but we have set goals to increase this. People from BME backgrounds are less represented at senior levels or are focused in particular job families or job roles. This means that they are students that are from BME who don’t see staff who look like them.

As a woman in engineering, one of the hardest things was walking in a meeting and being the only woman there. Though the University was 50% women, it did not feel like it when most of the departments are like 2%.

How do we make sure POC see these adverts for the University?

Work is now taking place around recruitment processes, training and support. Managers are also increasingly mindful of systematic biases that may be present.

A CV is like a list of golden tickets with things that set you apart from the other job applicants but BME people do not always have the opportunities to earn golden tickets so we have to think ‘how can we take the lack of experience into account when advertising for these roles?’

“Hate crimes almost always affect people beyond the one victim of the incident”

In an event of a racially aggravated, misogynist, ableist, or homophobic hate incident at the University, what does the University promise to do to accommodate victims of hate crimes at the University of Nottingham?

Sarah: We currently have a ‘see, report, support’ system which requires us to be honest and acknowledge when hate incidents are happening. It requires us to be aware and recognise incidents for what it is whether it is on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability or whatever else it may be. The University needs to work on always believing the reports and ensure that any action that needs to be taken is taken as quickly and as proactively as possible. Hate crimes almost always affect people beyond the one victim of the incident, like those who see or hear about it.

What the University needs to be better at is working out how to keep people updated on the profile of their hate incident report.

We do not tolerate hate crime, hate incidents or harassment on campus.

We are currently working on a ‘No place for hate campaign’ which should launch in August. This is really designed to highlight the impact of online harassment student system. Students are currently advised to report hate incidents or incidents of harassment to But, since the email system does not provide anonymity, we are working on a direct person being able to respond as not everyone wants to be identifiable by their complaint.

“There is no point of addressing diversity without thinking of inclusion”

Stacy: We need to place more emphasis on Restorative Justice Type of approaches. The reporting of hate incidents needs to be moments, not only of punishment, but of teaching, so the perpetrators can learn why it affected the person to whom the attack was directed. We also need to deal better with microaggressions as they can be very difficult to report but can be just as impactful to a person or the people witnessing.


As I thanked them for answering my many questions, Sarah, Stacy, and I briefly reflected on the future of equality, diversity, and inclusion at the University of Nottingham. “There is no point of addressing diversity without thinking of inclusion”, Sarah states.

As assured throughout the course of this interview, we, the BME minority of the University of Nottingham, can look forward to more student engagement as well as the execution of an extensive action plan in terms of how we are viewed and catered to as people of colour.

Feyintoluwa Ayanlaja

Featured image courtesy of Feyintoluwa Ayanlaja. No changes were made to this image.

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