Diversity & Inclusion

Not everyone dares to speak their minds at UU

diversiteit jowan de haan
Illustation: Jowan de Haan

This emerges from the comments DUB received in the diversity survey conducted earlier this year in collaboration with the Association of Editors-in-Chief of Higher Education Media.

A total of 156 students and 168 employees answered the open questions in the survey, which asked them about experiences of discrimination, behavioural changes because of the atmosphere at UU, and what they think should change at the university in terms of diversity and inclusion. The survey, in which nineteen universities and universities of applied sciences participated, was discontinued after being sabotaged by the Dutch blog GeenStijl. 

According to the research firm commissioned to carry out the survey, the data are not representative so we cannot make any generalisations about UU students and staff based on these comments. They do, however, paint a picture of how over three hundred students and staff members look at diversity and inclusion at Utrecht University. Some wrote really long answers sharing their experiences, so much so that they would deserve entire articles just for them. In this article, we list the most frequently mentioned issues. It is clear that polarisation is present within the university as well. 

No rainbow paths, more all-gender toilets
The extensive rainbow bike path in the Utrecht Science Park is a recognisable symbol of support for the LGBTQI+ community. But many comments see this as a mere symbolic gesture and feel that "real measures" should be taken instead. One of the measures frequently mentioned by students and teachers is increasing the number of all-gender toilets. "As a trans person, I feel unsafe, uncomfortable and unwelcome in both men's and women's toilets," says one respondent. Although UU has all-gender toilets, it looks like they are not that easy to find and there are too few of them, especially in the city centre and near the Faculty of Science. But there are also those who are not amused to see all-gender toilets. "As a woman, I just want to be able to go to a ladies' toilet and not have to look at men pissing in urinals," reads one of the comments.

Bilingual university does not work
International students and staff often complain that they feel left out. Most of them attribute this feeling to a language barrier between Dutch and non-Dutch speakers. "I feel lonely when people suddenly switch to Dutch," writes one student. "I only join someone for lunch if I am sure they have no objection to speaking English," declares a staff member. A lecturer says she could not get a permanent contract because she could not teach in Dutch, even though she worked in an English-taught Master's programme. "The expectation is that you speak Dutch," writes another scholar. "I am quite willing to do that but that takes time." Someone who has already learnt Dutch but can't speak it as well as colleagues who are native feels left out because people quickly go on talking without asking if he understood what was said.

Women are not taken seriously 
If you think that women are equal at UU, you will certainly be disappointed when reading the answers to the open-ended questions. "As a female professor, I have discovered, to my surprise, that sexism does not stop when you are at the top of the academic ladder," writes one academic. "It happens more subtly, such as when they do not involve you in certain decisions." Another comment reads: "Young women are allowed to participate but they shouldn't take too many initiatives of their own and especially not give dissent," writes another. It wasn't just staff members complaining about sexism. Students did as well. They, too, have to deal with teachers who do not take them seriously. At the Faculty of Science, a student heard from an older, male lecturer that women are less good at the "physical" parts of the curriculum, by which he meant practical sessions. 

Too little understanding of people with disabilities
Students with disabilities do not always get the support they need. "Some lecturers refuse to answer my e-mails with questions because they think I should come to their office for a Q&A (which is quite a hassle in my wheelchair)," writes one student. Another one says: "I asked for a postponement because of my disability but the lecturer said I should just learn to organise myself better." Some students also complain that lecturers are not open to hybrid teaching when they cannot attend all lectures because of their disabilities. A student with autism managed to complete degrees at a vocational school and a university of applied science but, once at the university, just kept running into trouble. "After a panic attack, I was told that my behaviour is not welcome at the university and that I should leave if I don't adapt to it."

Neutral versus inclusive education 
There is much debate about making education more inclusive. "If you don't think in a Eurocentric manner as a student, your ideas are seen as truncated and disadvantaged," observes one student. Another one adds: "Teachers should do a much better job of picking up signals from students from backgrounds other than Dutch to promote a genuine exchange of ideas." A student says the university still uses a lot of literature with outdated ideas about the LGBTQ+ community. "The programme is boarded up, there should be more room for teaching different perspectives," says a lecturer. Another lecturer says they have become more aware of Eurocentric thinking and less "white-blind" over time. At the same time, other comments fiercely oppose initiatives to make the curriculum more inclusive. "When feelings of hurt determine what study material consists of, it leads to the end of intellectual debate," he says. Several others call on the university to move away from what they perceive as "dramatic woke thinking", advocating what, in their view, is "neutral" education. 

Sharing one's pronouns
It is still common for LGBTQI+ people to feel as though they're not taken seriously. In their view, there is a lot of ambiguity when it comes to how they want to be addressed. Many think it's a good idea for a teacher to ask the class to share their pronouns on the first day. Some are not so sure. "I wouldn't mind doing it if the uni was a safe environment but, as a trans person, I would be uncomfortable because I am afraid of being discriminated against." A lecturer is not so keen on such rounds, either: "Such a mandatory round goes against what we want to achieve, which is for everyone to feel safe. By paying extreme attention to personal identity, people start thinking more in boxes and they feel more unsafe. I can already see the smug faces and hear the bad jokes." There are also students who feel uncomfortable sharing their pronouns because they disagree with the need to share them in the first place. "If you don't agree to share your pronoun, you are immediately dismissed as a conservative person." 

The university is too white
The university is definitely not a cross-section of society, observes a student who previously served as a social worker. They think the university should focus on people who are poor or from migrant backgrounds. A teacher adds: "A diverse group of teachers can also attract more students from migrant backgrounds. The students will not come if most teachers are white." But access alone is not enough. Teachers also need to engage with first-generation students. "I find it quite hard to find my way at university without a social network," says a student. 

Pigeonholing is counterproductive
One should stop shoving diversity and inclusion down people's throats because it pits people more and more against each other. This is a comment that comes up again and again among students and staff. One student writes: "Measures against discrimination actually discriminate against the ones to whom the measures do not apply. Qualified people do not get a job as a result of these policies, for example." Someone else says to be in favour of the diversity of cultures at the university but finds the way the diversity policy addresses the issue condescending and patronising. "Treat people as people and not as targets in needy cubicles," writes a student. A teacher says: "anyone who has a dissenting opinion is immediately pigeonholed into the right. Stop pigeonholing and embrace open discussion."