In Profile:  Professor Udy Archibong MBE

Uduak (Udy) Archibong MBE is Pro Vice-Chancellor for equality, diversity and inclusionat the University of Bradford. She is also a Professor of Diversity, Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing and Fellow of the West African College of Nursing. We caught up with her to discuss her inspirational career and get some tips on thriving in academia.

Can you take us through your academic history and why you chose nursing? 

My academic journey started from my need to be more exploratory. It was all about my wish to learn and to bring something back into clinical nursing through evidence. 

In my country, Nigeria, you had to be aged 17 years and a quarter to go into nursing. I was younger than that but I was so keen to do nursing that my mother supported me and I was given an exemption. My interest in nursing is a very personal one. My mother was a nurse and she was very keen to have her children follow her path. Mum died last year but she always said we need to think about service to humanity so going into nursing for me was about following mum’s personal love for serving humanity.  

I also had a mentor – my life mentor, Professor Mildred John – who spotted me in my first year of nursing and told me she saw me going into leadership, research and academia of nursing. I didn’t consider that to be any kind of pressure because I wanted it, I was ready for it.

After my first nursing programme, I stepped down to do my degree in nursing at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. If you achieved very highly, the university would fund you to do other things, so as the first student to take a first-class honour from the whole faculty of health sciences at the university, I was asked where I wanted to go and told I could do my PhD in any field. So I chose Hull University and a PhD in public health nursing. After that, I did my teaching qualification then moved into academia and became a lecturer at the University of Bradford. I started lecturing on scientific concepts applied to nursing then became a research co-ordinator doing lots of work around equality, diversity and inclusion as well as research to underpin equality practice. The rest is history.  

Was it always the plan for you to go into academia? Did you have that in mind from the beginning?

Right from childhood, I was fortunate to have a very high academic achievement. I did my primary and secondary education through high levels scholarship and was always first in everything. When I went into nursing, my wish was to go into leadership or any aspect of nursing that was about cascading knowledge or was about helping others. So, when Professor John suggested I should consider getting into nursing education and research, it wasn’t difficult because that door was already opening. When she made that suggestion, it was easy to align my personal interests with that kind of professional advice from a senior colleague. 

You’ve said your journey from university to PhD to lecturing was a smooth one but did you have challenges along the way?  

I’ve always had challenges. Apart from starting in nursing younger than the age prescribed by the nursing and midwifery council of Nigeria, most of my challenges have been to do with the kind of debates you always have in families about what profession your child should go into. That was a huge issue in our family but I had the full support of my mother so she was able to convince other family members that I could be and do anything. I still see some of my uncles today who say: “Your mother was right!”

Because of the way society defined nursing at the time I started, members of other health professional groups would often look down on the profession and didn’t believe that a nurse could be a complete member of the healthcare team. That was a challenge because I would get drawn into debates about the professionalism of nursing and how the way forward for healthcare in Nigeria had to be based around multi-professionalism. It was certainly a challenge to get other healthcare colleagues to see nursing as a high-level profession. 

I had other challenges, of course. I got married at 21 so had to run my professional career alongside having a family. When I came to England to do my PhD, I had four children and had to leave them at home for my mother to look after them. My joy is that I was able to balance as many things as possible to get to where I am. And I’m very thankful to my children because it was a huge sacrifice for them to make, especially when I left them in Nigeria to do my PhD, but they did join me five years after.

What makes you passionate about the issues of diversity and inclusion?  

Mum really brought us up to think about humanity, about service, and it was non-negotiable, but it got all crystallised when I lost my stepfather who was diabetic. Because of poor communication between the healthcare professionals and my family, my dad died after having had an amputation following gangrenous diabetic complications. So that drove home to me the need to look at amplifying family voices. My PhD was around inappropriate communication in the healthcare system, based on my experience of losing my stepfather at the age of 57. 

When you look at some of the work I have done, I think equality, diversity, and inclusion for me are about how you support unusual voices in any situation to thrive. My interest started from that family push but now I’m beginning to accept that a world where humanity doesn’t drive the things we do is not a world I want to live in. That has been my personal passion and it has helped me to hold on to some of the academic work I’ve done around equality, diversity and inclusion. I’m not just coming at it as a subject of interest, but something that aligns nicely with my very being. Some of the things that I do out in the community as an ecumenical canon at Bradford Cathedral all come together to emphasise the need for supporting voices, helping people who are rarely heard to be heard, amplifying those voices. I see that the work I do is a major force in driving those voices.  

We hear many stories about the lack of equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education, with people talked over in meetings. At what point do you think people should speak out?  

That’s something I’ve often had to battle with. I speak out all the time but sometimes I listen to see whether other people can see what I see. The nature of inequality is getting subtler and subtler so if I’m in a meeting and people don’t see it, I know that I have to jump in. 

It’s a learning thing, you have to know the right time to strike. It’s not about speaking for speaking sake, you have to be able to influence the process of speaking out. Increasingly though, I’m beginning to see that a few more people are beginning to speak up about things.  

You are one of the few black female professors in the UK and one of the few black female professors in leadership. How does that make you feel?  

Very, very annoyed and frustrated because I would ask why do we need to make a few people seem special? Nobody’s precious. I don’t think that there are things I’m doing that my other black brothers and sisters are not able to do. I think we should all be given equality of opportunity so I am not proud to be one of the very few. I don’t think we should continue to be the special people, the precious people. I hate it when I hear this but I hear it all the time.

I read recently somebody saying: “Why do we have to do double and get less recognition?” I think we need to dismantle this rubbish. There are no special people and we shouldn’t be made to feel that way. I go into situations where I know I’m going to be a solitary figure and I don’t enjoy it. I don’t want to be special. I want as many people who have done well to be allowed to grow and achieve their maximum contribution, because that’s what everybody wants. They all want to contribute and this notion of making a few people special and precious is not the world I belong to. It is frustrating to continue to be the special breed. It’s not necessary.

At the same time, you can’t tell me that quality has anything to do with the injustice we face in academia today. You can’t tell me that the few of us who have managed to make it to some top positions in HE are the best there is. What’s stopping the other people? A few of us have sneaked through and that shouldn’t be the case. We should just open the door so that people who are doing well can go in. I am not one for mediocrity and if I see people under-achieving I always say they’ve got to buckle up and get the work done. But where there are people who are clearly achieving, we need to support them to move forward. We need to stop putting barriers in the way.

Why do we still want to keep counting how many black people are in the room or sector? Why don’t we just help people grow so that next time when we count, it’s not going to be 45, it’s not going to be 0.22%, it’s going to be many human beings who have done extremely well, who are recognised and are getting on and achieving.  

Can you think of any particular instances where your gender or race were an issue? 

When I got the very first cross-disciplinary Professor of Diversity post, not many people had heard about the position outside of health or housing. I was invited to do a keynote address at a conference in York and was really excited about it. When I got to the venue, the man I had been communicating with in the build-up to the event said to me: “I’m expecting Professor Udy Archibong, he never told us he was sending a representative.” I kept telling him: “It’s me!” but he wasn’t listening and in the end he was so angry he just walked away and left me. 

So that was my baptism of fire and after my presentation the man did have the decency to come back and congratulate me for a wonderful talk. But it was his lack of humility that really got me, because when he realised he had made a mistake I would have expected him to be humble enough to say: “I’m sorry, I’ve never seen a black woman professor before.”

I didn’t mince words. I told him: “I am a black woman. I am a professor. I want to accept your kind words because I know I did extremely well, and I want to accept you’re now looking after me, because I think you deserve to do that.”

I learned a lot from that experience but it was a real push. 

I thrive on adversity and maybe if he hadn’t treated me the way he did, I wouldn’t have been as bold as I was in my keynote speech. I regularly tell my friends that this kind of experience is something that should propel you. I thrive on knocks when I have those moments, it really pumps the adrenaline.  Sure, you could question whether life should be like that and, obviously, the answer would be no – but unfortunately that is what life has given us and it’s how we make the best of it.  

What’s your view on the patriarchalnature of academia? How can we speed up equity of opportunity?  

I’m beginning to warm up to programmes of allyship, working with colleagues to ask is the bigger picture about me, the people who look like me, or is it about serving the greater good, taking a collective approach to give the best experience to our students? There’s just no way that one set of experiences, one set of the way we view the world, is going to give the best experience to our students. 

So I tell my colleagues: “There are many things you are good at but there are many things I’m good at as well and if we brought everything we do well together we are going to make the best team. So how can I help you and how can you help me bring the best into this?”

I believe very strongly that we are in a time where we all need to come together, we must listen and learn from people who live the experience and use it to drive performance and improve experiences for our students (and for ourselves). Yes, there are other people who don’t live that experience but they need to use their own privilege positively to help those who do live the experience to amplify their voices and produce better outputs. We don’t need that patriarchal white saviour, male saviour air of importance. That attitude doesn’t help in working together and achieving the best outcomes.

So I say: “Let’s be allies. Let’s have a dialogue. Let’s not keep trying to tackle the symptoms; let’s get to the root of the problem.”

By creating spaces for dialogue between men, women, black staff, Asian staff, the racially minoritised – where people talk generally and openly – we certainly provide a platform for people living the experience to talk about that experience. At the same time, though, we also give the other party, the allies, a platform to ask some of those questions that are not often asked, when people assume things that are not healthy for all parties. 

We also need strong leadership that understands how coming at things from different thought processes through our diversity gives us different perspectives. We need leaders who are inclusive enough to harness that, to set the tone for diversity and inclusion, and to be part of the infrastructure that allows equality to thrive and be sustained. 

There are not many people who want to just block it, I see more people who want to be involved and want to do something about it. They just need you to work with them. Sometimes it comes down to managing ignorance and the pomposity that comes with that ignorance. 

Do you have any top tips for striving in academia?  

My first tip is that you’ve got to know what you’re doing, you really must know your stuff. By that I mean you must have a way of replenishing your internal resources. If you’re a researcher, be a very good researcher; if you’re a teacher, make sure you’re a good teacher. I’m not asking you to do something a hundred times more than others, I’m saying be the best in whatever you are doing. So when things become shaky and you witness inequality, you can scream and nobody’s going to challenge you because you didn’t do a great job.

Another top tip is: work with people, work with people, work with people! There was a time that we had lone rangers in academia, you could just get on and do your stuff. But the world of academia has moved on and that means you have to get into the art of learning how to work with others. You most definitely need to choose the right people to work with as well. Often, they’re not going to be people of your same thinking, they’re not going to look like you, sometimes it’s going to be somebody who is completely different to yourself. I tend to go with the view that maybe it’s best to work with people different than those that look like you, to have a mixture so that you can really go with the times. Academia is about collaboration. 

My final tip is: please, please, please choose your fights. You don’t have to get into everything. I have a saying, an African saying, which is: “If you stop and throw a stone at every barking dog on your journey home, you will never get home.” That’s so true. If every time somebody coughs you pick a fight, then another person coughs and you won’t get to where you want to be. I personally believe in just watching and seeing, not dignifying every distraction, and carrying on. If someone says to me: “Udy, I have been ignoring so many little fights but I want to fight this one” I will say, yes, you are right because this one is worth fighting for.

Finally, what plans do you have for the next five years?

I just want to continue to learn with people around me. I want to continue to keep going against the tide because while so many people are going upwards I’m often the one having to say: “Hang on, you can’t do that because you’ll be disadvantaging the next group of people.” 

I also want people to understand that we come at things from similarities and from differences and if we don’t harness that difference or diversity then we have no business even thinking about humanity. It’s about how we value difference and the contributions made by that diversity. There’s a huge portfolio of work which is beginning to show that diversity does help organisations to produce better, to perform better. Diversity breeds creativity and diversity of thought can help you get out of problems much faster and easier than if you had a mono-cultural group-think approach to problem solving.