UU temporarily stops sending data to Statistics Netherlands

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The members of the University Council sounded the alarm last week due to rising concerns about the way the University is conducting its participation in the Cultural Barometer project, in which a number of Dutch universities will share data about its employees (birthday, gender, title, salary scale, whether they have a temporary or permanent contract, and the faculty where they work) with Statistics Netherlands (CBS in the Dutch acronym). The CBS will then link this information with its own data about the population's origins, subsequently informing the university about how many of its employees have a non-Western, Western, or Dutch background. 

To the university, this information is key to assess how diverse its community is, so that better diversity policy can be formulated with the aim to provide equal opportunities for all. That's why UU chose to share data about all its employees, except those who objected to it before the 9th of April. In total, 430 employees (7.9 percent of UU's workforce) did so.

Privacy concerns are among the reasons mentioned by staff members to pull out of the project. Others complain about the university's allegedly poor communication about the initiative.

University Council members voiced the same concerns during the last commission meeting, which led to a talk between council members, the personal data officer, and the manager of the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion programme.

"A number of concerns have been brought forward by the council", says Wim de Smidt, chair of the employee representatives. "Many are worried about the procedure followed by UU. The university didn't consult with the personal data officer, neither did it involve the council beforehand. Moreover, the communication of its plans to the employees was not good at all". As an example, De Smidt mentions the confirmation e-mail sent to the employees who chose to opt out: "it said their request had been registered and their data would not be shared with the CBS. However, the message was signed by the Diversity Dean, Janneke Plantenga, which made some of them suspect that they might end up on a list of people who are against diversity policies". Absolutely not the case, replied the university, explaining that the sender's name was added automatically. Plantenga has no access to the list of employees who refused to take part in the barometer. The e-mail exchange is also going to be deleted.

As for those afraid of a privacy breach, Smidt explains: "After the meeting, we understood that this risk is relatively low. But then we should get more information about that".

Lastly, there are the employees who oppose the project's intentions. "Some people wonder whether differentiating between employees in this manner is the best way to tackle the issue. Others question if these numbers say anything about diversity". Lieke Schrijvers, of the University Council, wrote in an article published by Dutch newspaper NRC that "people have a multitude of backgrounds. It doesn't seem good to me to classify people in terms of Western or non-Western, as this only confirms a pre-existing distinction which does not do inclusion any favours".

The project will go on
After the meeting, the Executive Board decided to pause the sharing of data with the statistics office. First, they're going to answer the council's questions, giving its members the chance to react. "But that doesn't mean we're suspending the project altogether", clarified the board in a message on the Intranet. "We just want to put the worries to rest as much as possible by providing more information". 

Wim de Smidt is eagerly waiting for this additional information. "We didn't have any say about this project, while we can advise the board on that". 

Tags: privacy | diversity