Diversity at the university: ‘We will never get there without data’

To measure or not to measure how diverse universities are, that is the question. Photo: Pixabay

Can universities simply register the ethnicity of their students and staff? Should they hire so-called diversity officers to enforce diversity policies? These and other questions were the object of a heated debate in the Dutch House of Representatives last month. They were discussing the proposed National Action Plan for diversity and inclusion.

While some MPs argued that gender and ethnicity shouldn’t be taken into account because people must be evaluated on their merits alone, others reasoned that some groups are historically disadvantaged because of conscious and unconscious bias.

According to Bonjour, both groups want to achieve the same result, they just differ on how to get there. “A number of studies have shown that people are often not judged on their qualifications. That isn’t working anyway.”

Bonjour is an Associate Professor at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and also a member of the Young Academy, an association of young scientists affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Alongside professor Marieke van den Brink and student Gwendolyn Taartmans, she mapped (pdf in Dutch) what Dutch universities’ diversity policies look like. Based on documents and interviews collected between 2019 and 2020, the study concluded that there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Surprisingly enough, the diversity policies themselves aren’t very diverse. “They focus too much on women,” explains Bonjour. “All kinds of measures have been established for them over the years, such as target figures, fellowships, and mentorships.”

Nothing wrong with that, but the policy concerning other minorities is poor in comparison, especially when it comes to measures against racism. Most diversity plans don’t even include that word. Besides, there are hardly any useful figures about students and employees of colour, Bonjour and her colleagues warn.

Necessary step
But wouldn’t it be ‘politically incorrect’ to count how many white people and how many people of colour are studying and working in the university? Isn’t this topic too sensitive? “Sure”, Bonjour admits. “This discussion is extremely complicated: how many people of colour do you want? And how do you define who the people of colour are?”

Even so, collecting quantitative data is a necessary step, Bonjour argues. “Otherwise, we’ll never get there. Some people say: ‘you cannot do that, that’s racist.’ But, on the other hand, we know discrimination is taking place, but we don’t have enough data to show exactly what’s going on.”

She notes that the availability of data on how many women enter the university and how many drop out has made a real difference in the development of effective policies to attract more women. “Besides, there are also careful ways to collect data on ethnicity, which is what Statistics Netherlands (CBS in the Dutch acronym) does, for example.”

Gender-neutral toilets
The researchers stress that diversity policies should go beyond target figures – something that specialized literature often calls fixing the numbers. If universities really want to be more inclusive, then first they have to make sure that a culture shift takes place: fixing the institutions.

To achieve that, universities can establish better recruitment and promotion procedures, as well as offering gender-neutral toilets and quiet areas. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to welcoming people who do not fit into the current norm,” Bonjour explains. “After all, what’s the use of attracting people, but not making sure they feel at home in the university afterwards?”

A different perspective
After fixing the institutions, there’s another step: fixing the knowledge. That means integrating diversity into education and research. Are students encouraged to look at things from a different perspective? What knowledge about social categories such as gender, ethnicity, and class are offered in the classroom? How to ensure that knowledge isn’t forgotten when one conducts research?

Bonjour thinks that’s perhaps the most important step, albeit the most difficult one. “The choice to quote certain researchers or use certain texts is often self-explanatory, simply because it’s what we’ve always done. In addition, administrators usually don’t like telling teachers what to do in terms of content. Even so, we have to collectively examine this again, and we could use a little helping hand.”  

Too little time
In short, there is a lot of work to be done. The question is how to do it. The eighteen diversity employees interviewed for the study reported that they often do not have enough time and financial resources to really make a difference.

“For example, they only have two to three days a week to take care of the diversity policy for the entire university,” Bonjour says. “Or they’re scientists who are told to ‘just add diversity to it.’”

Another recurrent problem is that diversity officers, as these positions are usually called, are held accountable for the policy, but can hardly influence it themselves. “If you really want to change something within our universities, then you have to put it in the hands of the people in charge of appointments, promotions, and the programme’s content.”

Although the diversity officer can offer advice, ultimately it’s up to the directors and managers to make the decisions – and many of them “don’t really know what to do about this,” laments Bonjour.

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