UU faces criticism for project plan diversity: ‘University is off its rocker’

Collage of comments on Twitter. Made by DUB

On Wednesday, De Telegraaf published an article called ‘The university is too white’ (Dutch) about the UU Taskforce Diversity’s new project plan (Dutch). The newspaper says the authors of the report write ‘diversity is desperately needed at the white university’, and the university is said to be willing to support ‘diversity actions’ to prevent exclusion and to increase the diversity among students. Examples mentioned by the newspaper include adjustments in exam schedules during Ramadan, halal food in the canteens, and separate prayer rooms for men and women.

In the article, Sebastian Wijnands of University Council party De Vrije Student, is ‘shocked’ at hearing the plans. “Diversity in itself is fine, but this is a collection of weird statements. A prayer room goes directly against the secular principles of the university.” Leiden University PhD candidate and publicist Sebastien Valkenberg, who studies political correctness, warns about the emphasis on origins in the plan. Such a simplification, he says, could lead to ‘tribalisation’, effectively pitting separate groups against each other.

‘Islamisation measures to increase inclusivity’
After the article was published by De Telegraaf, PVV congressman Machiel de Graaf requested an emergency debate with the minister of Social Affairs and Employment and the minister of Education, Culture and Science. The congressman says Utrecht University ‘is absolutely off its rocker now’. De Graaf: “It’s complete madness that all kinds of islamisation measures need to be pushed through in order to increase the university’s diversity. It’s time politics intervenes.”

Other congresspeople also agreed they found the Telegraaf article ‘bizarre’ and ‘worrisome’. CDA congressman Harry van der Molen: “A university that wants to concern itself with the question of what the ideal composition of a university is, leads to questions with us.” Still, the request for a debate only gained limited support. No other party supported the emergency debate request. The wish for a letter requesting clarification from the responsible minister, however, was widely supported.

Official questions about Utrecht University
In response to the article, Judith Tielen and Bente Becker of the VVD have already sent in questions to minister Ingrid van Engelshoven (Education) and the minister for Integration. The congresswomen ask the ministers to clarify the definition of diversity, and to explain what they feel the ideal goals in that respect may be.

In their letter, they write: “Does the minister feel that the measures mentioned in the article to ‘reach a higher level of diversity’, such as a prayer room (with separate entrances) and a calendar with Islamic holidays, actually contribute to diversity and inclusivity? Of does the minister, like the VVD, feel there’s a risk that things like separate entrances may actually obstruct the integration among students and the embrace of the values of the Netherlands? Does the minister afree with the VVD that such measures have little to do with the quality of education?”

‘Selection not checked for correctness’
Although it seems as though the entire project plan as designed by the Taskforce Diversity is taking fire, the criticism is in fact directed exclusively at one of the two appendixes of the document. In this appendix, titled ‘for inspiration’, the authors share observations and suggestions from students and employees during earlier discussion rounds. The authors say the appendix is a selection of quotes, not tested for (scientific) correctness.

It does in fact mention that “Dutch students are often not open to other cultures,”, that it’d be nice if the university had prayer rooms with separate entrances for men and women, “student associations are white and have beer crates at the door”, and that the university should offer halal food in its canteens as well. But it also says the university should ensure advisers know which facilities are present at the university for underrepresented groups such as students with a disability, that the UU should pay attention to the image study programmes have among some cultures, and that there should be a travel product for international students.

‘De Telegraaf misses the point of the project plan’
University spokesperson Maarten Post emphasises that it concerns suggestions from students and employees, that the selection of comments doesn’t represent the opinion of the Executive Board, and that the uttered suggestions aren’t going to be turned into policy at this time. The appendix could serve as inspiration for the future. Post says the university is currently focused on the original principles of the project plan.

In the document, the goal is described as ‘the realisation of a culture at the UU in which all qualitatively suitable prospective students feel welcome and heard at the UU during the application process and selection, regardless of background.’ This isn’t limited to students from a migrant background, but also concerns students with a social disadvantage, first generation students, and male/female students (depending on the gender distribution at a certain study programme).

The document is a step-by-step plan for the next two years, and the execution isn’t set in stone. Faculties and study programmes are free to decide the diversity goals for themselves, because the issues aren’t the same in all places. “It makes sense that several study programmes, given the current population, wish to attract more students with a non-western background, whereas there are also study programmes that focus more on a more balanced gender distribution.”

By only focusing on the appendix with suggestions from students and employees, De Telegraaf is missing the point of the project plan, the university writes in response to the article on the UU website.

‘Statements seem to be speck on the horizon’
Sebastian Wijnands of De Vrije Student also acknowledges that at the top of the offending appendix, it is mentioned explicitly that it concerns suggestions from students and employees, and not plans of the Taskforce Diversity, as is suggested in several places. Still, the list of suggestions also causes a different feeling in them as well.

“Someone may feel Dutch students aren’t open to other cultures, as the appendix mentions. But it matters whether you say something like this privately, or that someone adds this statement to a university plan. If these opinions had been put in quotation marks, it would’ve been clear they’re quotes. Now, they’re statements without substantiation. And because someone decided they’re relevant to do this, I can’t help but feel they mean something by it. That maybe it’s a speck on the horizon.”

“And then, to me, it seems rather extreme to suggest that in the future it may perhaps be an option to create separate prayer rooms for men and women. That doesn’t fit this university at all.” Other suggestions, such as offering halal food in the canteens and adding non-Christian holidays to the university’s calendar, don’t offend him. “No one’s excluding these types of measures.”

‘Suggestions are one-dimensional’
That some people call these lines ‘islamisation of the university’ is because the suggestions are one-dimensional, Wijnands says. “It seems as though the Taskforce mainly spoke with students from an Islamic background. In any case, the list of suggestions doesn’t reflect a diverse group of opinions.” A missed opportunity, the student says. Because there’s no nuance in the appendix – for instance by ‘stigmatising student associations’ – the same nuance is lacking from the criticism. “You see on Twitter that the document has become a divisive issue.”

And although Wijnands himself was quoted in De Telegraaf as being critical about the appendix of the Taskforce project plan, he emphasises he’s not opposing diversity policy. “I’m in a selective study programme myself, and my fellow students are a fairly homogeneous group. I understand the university’s efforts to change that, and that they’re studying why Utrecht’s vwo-high school students with a migrant background don’t choose to go to the UU. But to get there, there’s really no need to apply all these suggestions.”