Community collaboration is a dynamic and effective way to engage students with critical thinking on hard-hitting issues. Whether it involves collaborations with local archives, or producing bespoke and unique content for students to learn from, it’s important that students are kept engaged in innovative and diverse ways.
Professor David Ruebain, PVC for Culture, Equality and Inclusion at the University of Sussex, sat down with Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, to discuss delivering equality and diversity initiatives, his work with the Premier League and more.
I’m a law professor and Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) for Culture, Equality and Inclusion at the University of Sussex.
I was always interested in aspects of policy relating to the nature of schools and post-school education, what success and failure look like, particularly from the perspective of people with different identities.
This is partly because of my own experience — I was born disabled and spent much of my schooling in special schools for disabled children, which presented a very different experience compared to regular, mainstream schools. That led to me questioning and being interested in the nature of organisations and the way society is designed.
I became a lawyer first and practised as a solicitor for twenty-one years, but within that, I had a specialist interest and practice in education law alongside equality law. It was an unusual mix but suited me well. Since then, I’ve worked in HE ever since.
My work in Law, Politics and Sociology is fairly minimal, given that I have a PVC role. Being part of the executive group, I share a range of responsibilities around leading and progressing the university, in addition to the core function of Culture, Equality and Inclusion.
But it’s really gratifying to be based in a school — I recently delivered a lecture: ‘Can the Law Deliver Inclusion.’ I have always been interested in ideas as well as practice, and it’s a fantastic opportunity for me to continue that alongside my executive role.
Sussex is a campus university, so you’re always located within the community. It’s unlike a city university where the buildings are more spread out or interlaced with non-university buildings. So once you’re at Sussex, everything around you is reflective of what you and your colleagues are doing. I think it’s very important to have contact with students and staff, and engagement with the community — no matter what your role is at a university.
Each sector has its own context and sensibility. I also undertake work for the English Premier League related to EDI. It’s operating in a very different context compared to HE, but there are similar challenges. Similarly, I have worked with financial services, construction, law and other sectors undertaking strategic, developmental EDI work. The multi-national nature of these sectors and the approach taken to work is inevitably different than you might find in a university.
So what do I learn from it? I learn that issues are predominantly structural, by which I mean they are not only to do with behaviours, but are related to systemic arrangements, contexts and histories, which are often common across sectors. But because the sectors are different, the EDI issues will play out differently in each one. I also learn of good practice which we might bring to the HE sector.
Sussex University has many Black alumni who have gone on to do fantastic and important things in public life, culture, education, law and so on.
Through relationships that we’ve been building, including with the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, South London, we had an opportunity to celebrate some of our alumni. This is happening through different initiatives — events on campus, photography projects, even potentially oral history projects, et cetera. It’s a five-year programme that we’ve just started. It’s both a fantastic celebration of the achievements of our alumni, and also a way of modelling their success for our current students as well.
Our student population is not as diverse as we might like, and we have ambitions to change that. We see this programme as one of the many things we can do to support the sense of belonging that we want all students to feel.
Sussex has had its problems. It’s not just an issue for students, but an issue for staff as well. Sussex is a medium-sized university, we have about 18,000 students and 3,500 staff, who have a range of opinions. As we all know, there are social media “echo chambers” and a variety of ways that we hear — or don’t hear — conflicting views, which means that tensions can arise in a community, whether they’re hot political issues, freedom of speech matters or general EDI issues. Universities are nothing if they're not manifesting as best they can spaces for lawful contested ideas to be argued through, exchanged and thought about.
We’re also introducing an allyship and listening programme, which is an initiative to support people coming together, even when they profoundly disagree with each other.
We’re doing several things in that regard. We’ve started a series of public ‘In Conversation’ events where we bring in outside people with something to say about various areas of life. We’ve had Daniel Gillespie Sells, the lead singer of The Feeling, who’s also a film and scriptwriter, talking about liberation through storytelling. We’re hoping that these events can surface many of the issues bubbling away in a way which is engaging for everyone in the community. We’re also introducing an allyship and listening programme, which is an initiative to support people coming together, even when they profoundly disagree with each other. It's an ongoing piece of work for many universities, and it is something we have to put attention on.
Be prepared to go anywhere. Possibly geographically if you can, but more than that — universities are fantastic, complex spaces. Whether you’re in finance, a lecturer or work in a canteen, be as open as you can be to go in a direction that you could never have imagined, because the opportunities are phenomenal.
There are many, many people that I admire enormously. My team in Sussex are doing a fantastic job. But outside of that, I learnt a lot and got a huge amount of support from Sir Alan Langlands, who was incredibly supportive of me and my broader EDI work. In the EDI space, it’s obvious, but you have to acknowledge Nelson Mandela — for very good reasons for what he had to face and what he modelled and achieved.
I really enjoyed The Secret History by Donna Tart. It’s a fantasy novel really, but the vivid imagination that is brought to bear from the narrative arc of the story is extraordinary and gripping.