Executive Board must get serious about plan of action against racism

In the second lecture of the series Black Lives Matter @UU: Creating Change, held on November 30, Stephen Small and Brianne McGonigle Leyh talked about the role higher education plays in the fight against racism. For the three of us, members of the University Council, this is a crucial issue on the agenda and we are reflecting on how we can take use our position to take active responsibility.

Some (former) members of the Council have published opinion pieces against Black Lives Matter on DUB, and we believe it is important to show the diversity of voices existent in the Council. In addition, we are concerned about UU’s current plans on this regard and we want to call for more decisiveness in the struggle against racism.

Over the past six months, following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, increasing attention is being paid to institutional and systemic racism in the Netherlands. Universities were among the institutions called upon to pay attention to this matter, among them Utrecht University. DUB, for example, invited students and scientists to talk about their experience with institutional racism, including a lecturer who explained the fallacies used to trivialise. Experts also described how the problem takes place at the university itself. We see that this has led to greater awareness about the subject.

Online statement
However, in addition to raising awareness, we believe it is important to take concrete action to combat institutional racism, specially within an institution of knowledge production and transfer, such as the University. Utrecht University has recently expressed its views about this matter in an online statement: “We endorse the importance of actively working within our university against systematic exclusion and discrimination.” Six months later, very little has come to fruition. The momentum for change seems to disappear before any structural changes have actually been achieved. Racism is not a temporary trend so the anti-racism fight shouldn’t be either. It is precisely for this reason that we feel it is important to speak out now, because we can see that UU's plans are missing the opportunity to take concrete action.

Anti-racism within UU
In the council meeting of June 29, in response to the UU's statement on racism, we asked three things to the Executive Board: what concrete actions would be taken; whether extra resources would be made available to combat racism; and how students' and staff's voices of colour would be heard and reinforced. The answers were not entirely satisfactory, but we were promised that more concrete action would appear in the new diversity policy plan.

This new plan, called 'Equality, Diversity and Inclusion', was presented recently. Unfortunately, our suspicion was confirmed: there will be no extra budget available for actively combating racism, and as regards to hearing the voices of students and staff (e.g. through a network), a 'bottom-up' approach will be adopted rather than an active role from UU itself.

In order to tackle racism, it is important to strengthen marginalised voices while, at the same time, ensuring that already marginalised groups do not have to do the hard work. They should not be the ones to take all the initiative and set the system in motion. The system should also be actively open to these voices by being proactive and providing a platform, active support and necessary resources. Those in positions of power should, of course, listen, but listening alone is not enough. They should also have the willingness and space to carry out (often uncomfortable) actions and take responsibility in their role and function.

Good intentions, little decisiveness
Racism is only mentioned once in the Diversity Plan, namely when the university declares its intention to organise lectures and debates on this theme. The statement 'Black Lives Matter @ UU' as it is now circulating may sound promising, but so far it has only resulted in lectures. Let there be no misunderstanding about it: we appreciate that UU provides a platform for speakers of colour, as this is certainly a step towards gaining more knowledge and understanding about racism. However, it is not enough to lead the university to concrete change and action.

That is why our appeal to the Executive Board and the wider UU community is: do not stop at pretty statements alone, but rather tackle racism structurally within our own ranks. This means, among other things, that staff and students who do not attend lectures voluntarily must also be reached. Somewhat ironically, Stephen Small also said this in the lecture: 'it’s about what is actually done. It’s about whether people actually put the money where their mouth is.’ In line with his appeal ('don't just listen to the phrase, look at the substance, what they actually do'), we can only conclude that there are many good intentions, but too little decisiveness and concrete action to combat racism at UU.

Comprehensive anti-racism action plan
Several possible actions were discussed on Monday, such as improving the reporting structure for discrimination. funding a network for and by people of colour, and decolonising the curriculum. The fight against racism should also be part of discussions about a core curriculum at UU. We therefore ask the Executive Board for an integrated anti-racism action plan with measures for education, research, students, and staff. Of course, change does not happen overnight, but the current way is far too slow. We fear that nothing at all will remain once the public attention for Black Lives Matter cools down. 

Our role as board members
It is our primary task as members of the University Council to represent students and staff in our meetings with the Executive Board. We, the authors of this piece, want to ensure that attention to racism remains on the agenda and leads to real and structural changes. We will remind the Executive Board of their objectives and continue to press for a concrete and funded action plan against racism and discrimination in general and anti-black racism in particular. That is why we explicitly state here that we will be an active advocate of anti-racist efforts. In addition, we want to contribute to integrated anti-racist policies at all levels of the organisation. To this end, the budget for 'Equality, Diversity and Inclusion' must be increased and an anti-racist policy must be included in the budget. As Brianne McGonigle Leyh said on Monday: 'we can and should do better.’

If you have any suggestions, questions or criticism about the fight against racism at Utrecht University, about our role as University Council, or if you would like to share your own experiences, do not hesitate to contact us.



Tags: racism | Diversity