On Wednesday 29th May, during the half term holiday, my partner Dave Muritu was summarily dismissed as a Maths lecturer by Sandwell College of Further and Higher Education, where a senior manager ruled that he was guilty of gross misconduct.
The gross misconduct in question was writing in pen, on a Prevent poster, the word “racist”. Although he owned up to having done it and apologised, this writing on a single piece of paper, according to the ruling manager, was “serious damage to college property” – the seriousness comprising of the “potential to bring the college into disrepute” and the use of “inappropriate language“ – the word “racist”.
Without knowing any political dynamics of the college or Dave’s role there, it is easy to see that this is a disproportionate response. It is not an isolated response, but an act which fits into a pattern of disciplinary responses across the education system which sees black males around 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded compared with the average, and which also falls onto disciplining of black staff. This isn’t news to people in education: it’s taught as part of the sociology curriculum. But in the current climate of our colleges, it is not educationalists but corporate managers who run the show.
This act of sacking Dave does have a political context. Since Dave arrived at Sandwell College in 2013 the UCU branch he is secretary of has grown considerably. Collectively, the branch have achieved a number of victories. They’ve had pay increments put back after years of stasis, gained considerable extra holiday, and fought off punitive lesson policy. A branch is as strong as the will of its members, but with Dave’s enthusiastic organising approach along with hard work from numerous reps and activists, confidence and engagement has been growing and growing: not something which should be frightening to education managers, but in a funds-starved steeply hierarchical corporate model of education provision, the growth in confidence and union success has correlated with downward pressure on Dave as an individual and a branch officer. Last year the branch took 5 days of strike action, taking to the picket lines even during the Beast from the East, and won a sector leading pay deal of 6.5% across three years.
Dave wrote on the poster in a moment of frustration following some case-work relating to race where he felt a member was not being listened to by management. It is easy to come to the assumption that this act was characteristic of someone who must be reckless or easy to anger, a silly little act, but the reality is that out of the many many union reps I know, Dave has experienced some of the most extensive antagonism, bullying and attempted marginalisation by senior management over the years, and remains one of the calmest, most pragmatic and thick-skinned people I know. While as a white woman I have the luxury of being able to prickle and emote over any perceived injustice, to survive as a black activist and sustainable voice for others, Dave does not have that room. This one minor moment which he owned up to was one incident in years of self-discipline and skill in holding off victimisation.
If you are a black man who wants to speak up about injustice, there are strict rules which unconsciously shape survival. You had better not be too loud or deep-voiced, or you could come across as intimidating. You shouldn’t be too passionate trying to voice your frustrations or the things you believe in, or you could come across as aggressive. Choose your words carefully and maximise how articulate you sound, or you could sound like you are ignorant and lacking in education. Don’t sound too educated, or people will assume others are putting words into your mouth. Be patient and calm with the self-indulgent indignation your all-white senior management will need to go through whenever you raise an issue of race. Expect to be spoken over or repeatedly missed out from invitations to negotiations. In an environment where an all-white leadership can cultivate the ego to see the word “racist” as equivalent to personal abuse, which I think is a part of what has happened here, anything below perfection is a potential avenue for problems.
There are other places where the issue of whether or not the Prevent strategy is racist can be discussed (although not Sandwell College of FHE under current leadership, clearly). It is notable that while Sandwell College senior management considered Dave’s case, the world was shaken by the Christchurch terror attack, where elderly people and children were among the Muslims slaughtered by an emboldened fascist, followed shortly by attacks on Mosques in Birmingham, some very close to West Bromwich. The New Zealand prime minister won praise for her compassionate and determined response to the Christchurch attack, stating to would-be attackers of the Muslim community in NZ “they are us”.
During this time, Dave worked with other trade unionists to reach out in the West Midlands and offer the support of educationists to the Muslim community. This was just the latest small part of a long service as an anti-racist activist which has seen him visit Calais to bring solidarity and supplies to migrants, marching with Grenfell survivors, physically standing in the way of fascists who seek to march through our streets to intimidate Muslims while being spat at and pelted with beer, as well as more formally drafting and moving countless motions to bring TUC and UCU resources and attention to anti-racist work. While Dave was engaged in solidarity work as a response to the Birmingham Mosque attacks, the senior leadership involved in his case were working themselves up over the shock and shame of a black man writing the word “racist” on a poster, and how to deliver the hardest possible response to this. To me, this is the decision of a leadership which is not only not listening to black staff and students about race, it is actively looking for ways to silence to topic being raised. It is the antithesis of what education should stand for. No challenge, no critical thought, no dissent, no compassion. Do not think, follow.
Sandwell College have an opportunity to turn around the terrible damage one of their senior managers has done to their reputation as a place for education, listening to one another and learning together. Dave must now be reinstated.
You can support Sandwell College branch who are now moving to ballot in response to Dave’s victimisation by
- Joining the lobby this Friday (7th June) at 11.30am outside the main campus at Spon Lane, West Bromwich
- Sending support messages to the branch chair, Dharminder Chuhan firstname.lastname@example.org; (also personal messages of support to Dave email@example.com; )
- Signing and sharing the petition at https://speakout.web.ucu.org.uk/reinstate-david-muritu/ with family, friends, colleagues, your union branch or committees
Dave is a determined trade unionist and equality activist, an extremely loving father and partner, and a dedicated Maths lecturer. Please give him your support.