Being a diversity officer in times of polarisation

Figureheads of diversity policy need to be thick-skinned

diversiteit: boegbeeld Illustratie: Eveline Schram
Illustrations: Eveline Schram

“You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.” That’s how Machiel Keestra, Diversity Officer at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) sums up the tension that he and his counterparts at other higher education institutions in the Netherlands experience. Progressive staff and students feel that not enough is being done, whereas a conservative contingent finds any attempt to promote diversity and inclusion to be excessive.

This is one of the takeaways of a joint study conducted by the independent news media of thirteen universities and eight universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands. The research evaluated 36 policy documents related to the topics of diversity and inclusion, including strategies, statements, action plans and position papers. In addition, interviews were conducted with the diversity officers of thirteen universities and seven universities of applied sciences. Almost all of them mentioned the negative reactions they must deal with as part of their jobs — three of them have even been threatened. Perhaps this explains why some were wary of participating in the study.

All the higher education institutions that participated in the study have appointed dedicated diversity and inclusion staff. The job titles and attributions vary from institution to institution. Ten universities and one university of applied sciences have a diversity officer or similar role. Seven universities have a diversity office – a separate department that reports directly to the Executive Board. Universities of applied sciences don’t have such an office but promote diversity and inclusion through temporary programmes instead. For the most part, these matters are dealt with by policy officers from departments such as Human Resources or Student Wellbeing.

Utrecht University has an Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Office (EDI), which was born from a previous taskforce on equality and inclusion set up in 2017. The office is currently led by Brigitte Prieshof, who used to work at the Human Resources department of the Faculty of Science, where she was involved with increasing the gender diversity of the teaching body: in 2010, only 9 percent of professors at that faculty were women.

UU also has a Diversity Dean who is responsible for UU’s diversity programme and chairs the EDI Steering Committee, where all faculties, the two University Colleges (UCU and Middelburg) and the students are represented. This is a new role created in 2020 and its first occupant is Professor Janneke Plantega, who also serves as the Dean of the Faculty of Law, Economics & Governance. The Steering Committee is tasked with the execution and support of the EDI programme at the faculty level.

diversiteit: boegbeeld Illustratie: Eveline Schram

Cultural change
No unequivocal job description exists for the position of Diversity Officer. “There’s a considerable variation between institutions in terms of the way in which the role is defined and it continues to evolve”, says Aya Ezawa, Diversity Officer and Assistant Professor at Leiden University. Ezawa is the chair of the National Dialogue Network of Diversity Officers. “We share knowledge and collectively work towards professionalisation. We also provide a safe space for the discussion of case studies.” 

Most diversity officers consider their primary task to be bringing about cultural change. They would like to help the university become a place where nobody faces additional barriers because of factors like gender, cultural background, sexual orientation or disability.

Higher education institutions in the Netherlands are mainly trying to ignite such cultural change through policy. The survey shows that, while most diversity officers endorse this approach, they tend to regard policy as a necessary evil. “A policy document sets out what the organisation stands for; what are their aims and how do they intend to achieve them? That’s tremendously important, yet I definitely don’t see myself as just a policymaker. More than anything, I see myself as a builder of bridges, a catalyst, and someone who raises awareness,” says Sterre Mkatini, who works as a Diversity, Equality & Inclusion Officer at the University of Twente.

Nor do they define themselves as activists. “I try to be diplomatic, make strategic decisions and keep the dialogue going with the leaders I exert influence on, looking to come up with shared objectives,” explains Semiha Denktaş, Chief Diversity Officer at Erasmus University Rotterdam.

diversiteit: boegbeeld Illustratie: Eveline Schram

Ideological debate
Diversity & inclusion officers sincerely aim to improve the opportunities of marginalised groups, but a lot of issues are political hot potatoes. Separating practical matters from ideology is one way of channelling resistance. Ruard Ganzevoort, Diversity Officer at VU University Amsterdam, explains: “If I were to cry racism just because our institution has too few professors from ethnic minority backgrounds, people would be up in arms, and rightly so.” In such cases, he believes that it’s better to place the emphasis on quality. “The more diverse your team, the better.”

In Ganzevoort’s eyes, this doesn’t detract from the fact that the ideological debate about racism is still one that needs to be had. “Whenever tension arises, as was the case during Black Lives Matter, we organise sessions where groups engage with each other on sensitive topics.”

Spurred on by social movements like Black Lives Matter and MeToo, students of a more activist bent put pressure on higher education institutions across the country to work on these issues. In addition, both the Dutch Association of Universities of Applied Sciences and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science have issued guidelines for diversity and inclusion. Yielding to the pressure exerted by this nationwide trend, the Executive Boards of individual higher education institutions have taken it upon themselves to do something. Unsurprisingly, most diversity officers who participated in the study say they feel supported by the Executive Board of their institutions, even if this doesn’t always result in them being given sufficient time and resources or enough of a mandate.

According to the survey, the total number of full-time employees working on diversity and inclusion varies between 0.6 and 7. Some institutions have a central office. These are often backed up by staff engaged in the topic within various departments and faculties. This fragmentation makes it hard to ascertain the total amount of time, financial resources and human resources freed up for this topic. That is UU’s case: seven team members are listed on the website of the EDI office, but according to Brigitte Prieshof in her interview for the study, “there are more people active with these themes. They are just in their own positions.”

The institutions studied are going all out to achieve equality of opportunity: organising events and debates, moderating talks, coming up with toolkits for education and recruitment, amassing expertise, advising, writing speeches and networking at all levels of the institution and beyond. A diversity officer who has to do all this by himself or herself, as is the case in some places, has to be a real jack of all trades.

In contrast to policy officers whose remit includes diversity, dedicated diversity officers also serve as ambassadors and a point of contact for students in trouble, whether they like it or not. As a result, they occasionally find themselves embroiled in controversy in the media. Ezawa: “We’re much more visible than other policy officers. The role of a diversity officer calls for a different set of qualities. You need to be thick-skinned, tactful, and know your subject in order to win over the community.”

It’s true that virtually all diversity officers say they have been on the end of negative and sometimes even hateful comments on social media, comment sections, columns and op-eds in newspapers and magazines. Three of them claim to have felt threatened personally, which is why they preferred not to elaborate. One officer we spoke with was willing to add some detail on the condition of anonymity.

diversiteit: boegbeeld Illustratie: Eveline Schram

“The anti-woke brigade is sharing personal details on social media and using derogatory language to address people of colour, disabled people, women and members of the LGBTQI+ community,” says one of the diversity officers who have been threatened, who preferred not to go into the specifics of the harassment she suffered, though she does add that things escalate from time to time. “Because our names are in the public domain, our families are the targets of online hate as well. Sometimes the comments are even shared by Members of Parliament who object to our work.”

The officer points out that such comments are tantamount to harassment, in part because diversity officers themselves tend to be from minority groups. “Some diversity officers feel a need to go public about it but this actually leaves them exposed to targeting by the anti-woke brigade.”

While the officer hasn’t reported any of the harassment she's been through but she has taken other precautionary measures. “I omit the surnames of student assistants in all public communications on diversity policy to shield them from negative comments. I’ve also stopped reading my social media. A communication officer does that on my behalf.”

She believes that institutions often underestimate how much diversity officers have to put up with. For example, there’s no guidance for diversity officers who are threatened, despite there being guidance for academics subjected to threats. “I do draw on that guidance, as it applies to us too. We get the same flak as epidemiologists, for example.”

Despite the negative comments and threats, diversity officers take a level-headed view of their work. They understand that resistance is part and parcel of change. The controversy surrounding "wokism" is mainly found outside higher education institutions and in the media, they say. They don’t view themselves as activists and they don’t necessarily regard diversity and inclusion as an ideological movement but rather as just a fact of life and something that higher education institutions have to get on board with, irrespective of ideological perspective. Ruard Ganzevoort: “Diversity is here to stay, so deal with it.”

Most of the diversity officers say that they encounter little opposition within the organisation itself. “Here at Erasmus University Rotterdam, it’s no longer a matter of whether we’re going to do this, but how. The majority are positive about it”, remarks Denktaş.

diversiteit: boegbeeld Illustratie: Eveline Schram

A big city problem
The study shows that the extent of attention devoted to debate and policy on diversity varies from region to region. The topic seems to be a more prominent concern among students in the Randstad (the conurbation including the four largest cities in the Netherlands) than elsewhere in the country. The proportion of international students and staff may be a factor here. An activist tone prevails in Maastricht, whereas the tone is more moderate at more technically-oriented universities such as Eindhoven and Twente.

At the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, in Groningen, Alet Denneboom, HR Adviser on Participation, Diversity & Inclusion, has seen fluctuating levels of interest in the topic. “It’s not something that particularly bothers the type of student who comes to class from a village by train every day and then goes home to watch football on Saturday – not even in terms of opposing it.” As Denneboom is keen to stress, this doesn’t mean that the debate is confined to the Randstad region. “Quite the opposite: the more homogeneous the student population is, the less staff and students who don’t fit the traditional mould tend to feel at home."

There’s no getting around the diverse composition of the student population in the Randstad area. Does that make a progressive city like Amsterdam the most fervent supporter of diversity and inclusion? While it is certainly a hot topic there, the intensity of the debate also depends on the culture of the higher education institution in question. At VU University Amsterdam, which has traditionally been characterised by religious and cultural differences between students, the tone is generally pretty civil, according to Ganzevoort. UvA tends to be a bit more activist, particularly since the occupation of the Maagdenhuis Building in 2015, explains Diversity Officer Machiel Keestra.

In spite of all the memos, declarations of intent, and action plans, formulating specific targets is far from easy. “There’s no dot on the horizon. After all, who or what should get to decide that standard?”, muses Denneboom from Hanze UAS. “It’s a process, destination unknown.”

The first diversity officers in higher education in the Netherlands were appointed at Leiden University and VU Amsterdam in 2014. Utrecht created the position of Diversity Officer in 2020, following a taskforce on diversity & inclusion set up in 2016, which paved the way for the establishment of the EDI Office.

As of 2022, every university and university of applied sciences that participated in the study had a form of diversity policy in place. These focus on all kinds of topics, such as policy on equal opportunities for women, integration of international students, LGBTI+ acceptance, guidance for first-generation students, attention to people from a migrant background and accessibility for disabled people.


The participating news outlets from universities and universitied of applied sciences are affiliated with the Association of Editors-in-Chief of Higher Education Media. 

The following institutions were surveyed:
Fontys University of Applied Sciences, University of Groningen, VU University Amsterdam, Utrecht University, University of Twente, Avans University of Applied Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Radboud University Nijmegen, HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, Delft University of Technology, HAN University of Applied Sciences, Maastricht University, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, Tilburg University, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, University of Amsterdam, Wageningen University & Research, Leiden University.

This survey was partly made possible by a contribution from the Journalism Promotion Fund.