The keynote interview saw Professor Charles Egbu share his higher education journey from being an international Nigerian student to the first Black male Vice-Chancellor in the UK. Charles discussed that education was of the upmost priority for his parents and during this time, parents and guardians determined what you aspired to be and the career you followed. 

Charles initially wanted to be a medical doctor but was short by one A-Level point. He spoke about his mother pushing him to pursue another degree and to please her, he decided to stay in Leeds. Charles enquired at Leeds Polytechnic University (now Leeds Beckett) and there was only one course available – Quantity Surveying – which he had not heard of before. After speaking with a careers advisor, who explained what Quantity Surveying was, he spoke to admissions and enrolled onto the degree before clearing ended. Charles ended up being top in his class for the duration of his degree and ended up graduating with a First-Class Honours. 

Charles discussed his experiences of racism, similar to those shared by the student and alumni panel, and reflected on how racism has slightly changed over the years from covert racism largely replacing overt racism. He recognised the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement as more than a political statement and spoke about his role as Vice-Chancellor in helping to dismantle racism in higher education and the Race Equality Charter (REC). Charles mentioned that the REC has helped identify issues of systemic racism that exist at Leeds Trinity University, and measurable actions are being put in place to help eliminate racial inequalities. 

He specifically highlighted the importance of Leeds Trinity being an anti-racist institution and his ambitions to create an Office of Institutional Equity, to establish a fairer, inclusive environment which sits outside of Human Resources, and reports directly to the Vice-Chancellor. The Office of Institutional Equity will examine all policies and practices through an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lens, support staff and students, and develop appropriate training. 

Below, I have shared some of his personal reflections from the interview. 

Professor Charles Egbu – Vice-Chancellor at Leeds Trinity University

I was very, very fortunate growing up in Nigeria with a father who was a civil servant and a mother who was a nurse and I have three other siblings. For my parents, education was number one, number two, number three to number ten, nothing else matters. So, I grew up knowing nothing else and in my own days, your parents determined what you want to be and what you have to be.

I was listening very, very attentively to our students and alumni, and much of what they said was at the heart of my journey. If I could paraphrase some of the phraseology students and alumni have used, they talked about being overlooked, they talked about being unsupported, they talked about the stereotypes, they talked about intense pressure, and one talked about always wanting to prove yourself so as to be accepted. Of course, all those were there, but in my own days, it was really, really in your face the way they spoke to you, they used the n-word. They looked at your face and asked you directly, “What would you do about it?” You could argue things have moved on slightly, not because the issue isn't there, but it’s not so much in your face and to the extent to which it was then. But I could see myself in the lives of our students these days. 

I remember somebody asking me, “Charles, all this Black Lives Matter movement, isn't it just a political statement?”. If you are on the receiving side, if you have lived it as I have lived it here for 35 years, and if you have had the opportunity that I have had of being a mentor to Black and White staff, to over 100 people over a period of 25 years. Having had the singular opportunity as I have as a President of the Chartered Institute of Building, championing welfare and wellbeing and seeing how this issue has impacted lives, how people have lost their lives, how careers have come to an end, how potentials that have promise have been put to a stop – this is not a political statement – this is real.

Shames Maskeen is a PhD researcher at Leeds Trinity University. You can revisit all the Black Lives Matter: Accountability, Transparency, Action sessions on YouTube.

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