As It Happens

What it was like attending a university with a prof who touted racist 'pseudo-science'

It's been decades since they walked the halls of Western University, but now, a group of Black alumni are reuniting to call on the school to action to address anti-Black racism.

Black Western alums demand changes to prevent another prof from promoting research like J. Philippe Rushton's

Geraldine Moriba is a journalist and a member of the group, Black at Western Alumni. (Stanford University)

When Geraldine Moriba attended Western University in the '80s, she says she was constantly asked to engage in "humiliating and dehumanizing" debates about her own intelligence as a Black woman.

That's because when she was a student, J. Philippe Rushton was a professor. The notorious psychologist used his classroom and position to promote his research linking intelligence to race. His widely debunked assertions that white people are more intelligent than Black people are foundational to modern white supremacist ideology. 

He remained a faculty member at the London, Ont., university until his death in 2012. 

In June, a report by Western's Anti-Racism Working Group found "a deeply entrenched anti-Black legacy" at the school and cited Rushton's work as a major factor. In response, both the psychology department and Western president Alan Shepard issued apologies and denounced the professor's work. 

But a newly formed organization of former students say these apologies aren't enough. The group, Black at Western Alumni, released an open letter to the school's leadership with 13 calls to action

Moriba, an award-winning journalist and filmmaker who graduated from Western in 1990, spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal about those demands. Here is part of their conversation. 

You left Western 30 years ago, so what compelled you to reconnect with your former classmates now and talk about racism at the university?

Thirty years ago, I had a very traumatic and disturbing experience that happened across my undergraduate career. And what basically brought me back is I got an email from someone I hadn't seen in 30 years asking if I knew that the issue of Rushton had reared again, and the university had issued two statements — one from the president and one from the psychology department.

And I looked at those two statements and realized they still hadn't gone far enough, and the university still didn't understand the harm that they had created.

And [I] reached out to a couple of people, who reached out to a couple of people and so on, and two weeks later, we've created a list of 13 action action items, and we're trying to get something finally done at Western.

Black Western University alumni are calling for changes to address anti-Black racism at the school. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

The Rushton you mention is Philippe Rushton, someone who was working at the university … from 1977 to 2012. So certainly not ancient history. But for those who are not familiar with Philippe Rushton, remind us about who he was and what was so problematic about his work.

Even that question is hard for me to answer, because the problem with Rushton is he used pseudo-science, fake science, to promote racism. His theories were based on intelligence and linking his degrees of intelligence to race. And his unscientific research was supported by the university 30 years ago. And that's what led to a lot of the harm that was done to students who attended the school then and until today.

It was racism under the guise of research. And as I understand it, it wasn't just even academic, though, was it?… How did he treat Black students at the school?

It's not so much about Rushton alone. It's that the university created a climate at the school where we felt less than, where we had our intelligence questioned, where in every class we went to at that time, we were asked to defend ourselves, to explain why Rushton was wrong. Do you know how humiliating and dehumanizing that is?

When you're in a classroom and you're being asked questions about your own intelligence, it's the equivalent of being asked, "How did you get here? Why are you here?" We faced that every day.

And not only that, we faced overt, very extreme circumstances of racism, including one peer who had bananas taped to her dormitory door, and another [peer] who, in a hazing process, was taped to a cross and left outside. A cross. And I can go on.

There were students who received fliers on campus from white supremacist organizations who were recruiting because they thought Western was a hotbed for the kind of people they wanted to have in their organizations. 

That was Western yesterday. And what we now realize is Western is still the same way today.

This group that you're a part of, there is an Instagram page as well. I was looking at it. And yes, some of the experiences that people are recounting are recent experiences, the use of the N-word scrawled on a wall or uttered in a classroom by a professor.

Absolutely. Part of the problem with what's happened at the university is they haven't created an environment that is diverse enough that prevents these things from happening. And so when you're Black and a student at Western, your numbers are so low. There's no representation, almost no representation, in faculty and in the administration. And as students, you're isolated.

What we're asking for are 13 different action items to change that, but also to prevent the type of pseudo-science that they allowed to happen from ever happening again. Because I'll tell you, it is a fact that the work that Rushton did 30 years ago and during his tenure at the university is now seen as foundational work for eugenicists and white supremacists globally. And that is a smear on this university. They allowed that to happen.

The current president of Western, Alan Shepard, recently apologized for Rushton's work and the "deep harm that has been experienced." He also made promises, including to review policies on how the university responds to racist incidents and to hire a senior adviser to the president on diversity issues. What do you make of those promises?

I think that it's good that the president is offering to do that, and we want to be partners with the president, with the board, with the senior leadership at the university. They even issued an Anti-Racism Working Group report with recommendations. The problem is it doesn't include clear, definitive, measurable steps that can happen and when it will happen, to make a difference.

The other problem is the role that they're creating is an associate VP role for someone who will not have the power or the weight to implement change. 

We're asking for very, very specific things, and things that are easily achievable. We want them to create a clause in their ethics review approval system to prevent funds from racist organizations like the Pioneer Fund [a non-profit Rushton once headed, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center] that promote hate from giving money to the university. 

We really, really want them to have a review system that protects students and society from the research, the type of research, that Rushton did.… If another professor was to come up and start to do this type of research, it could happen. It could happen again.

These are just two of these 13 action items, but we're asking the university to put things in place so that after the current president leaves and when the board changes, whoever comes in doesn't have to deal with this over and over again. But instead, there are things in place to make the university more diverse and more representative of the province.

If we could just go back for a second, and I hesitate to ask because I know it's so difficult to go back to that time and it can be triggering, but for our listeners who weren't there with you on that campus three decades ago, what was it like for you on a daily basis?

When we were ... students on this campus, Rushton was still teaching. Rushton not only taught his racist propaganda in his classrooms, but he had graduate students he was training. Those graduate students have probably gone on to teach others. And I can only hope that they're not repeating the racism he taught.

When you're a student on campus and your intelligence is being questioned, your very right to be a student there is being questioned. That's harmful. It was a toxic, very, very unpleasant place to be.

And, yes, there were moments of joy and satisfaction when we came together in our small groups as friends and protected each other. But too often — and one racist incident is too many — but it happened again and again.

How did you push through as a Black young woman at that time?

I don't know how to answer that question. What I can tell you for sure is now that I've reconnected with people I went to school with 30 years ago, the conversations we've had are incredibly meaningful because what we've discovered is, in spite of all of that harm that happened while we were at the university, we've succeeded. We've gone on to raise our families. We've gone on to live very full lives.

Some of us actually didn't stay at the university. Some people left after one year. But what we all share is a deep pain that hasn't gone away. And what we all share is a commitment to changing the university for the future.

And I'll also say none of us have ever given a dime to the university, nor will we give any money or our time or energy until things change. It has to change.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Edited for length and clarity. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now