Open letters, closed conversations?

If we want true action on diversity at our university, we need a sustainable equity that outlives identity politics, says Payal Arora. It's her reaction to an open letter to the EUR community on diversity, written by some university members.

Image by Levien Willemse

We have a manifesto for everything. Feminists, Christian conservatives, radical leftists, nationalists – they all have a voice out there. A potent mix of opinion, vision and action. If there’s a Jihadist against Jews and Crusaders manifesto online to radicalise people, rest assured there will be a counter opinion on Google.

Perhaps the reason why manifestos appeal so much is that they inspire. We are hungry for inspiration. Action needs more than rationality and logic. We need vision and emotive drive to create social change. Today, manifestos have taken the form of open letters online. They personalise urgency.

Some members of our university have just published an open letter on the critical need for diversity at the university. It extends into an online petition. With a specific worldview and prescription for change, I fear it may invite more consensus but less conversation. I signed the letter to support the cause but not the content in its entirety.

Is this the best way to talk about and act on diversity? The danger lies in sending a message that if you are not for our version of diversity (by signing), you are against it.

There is the intent for equality and there is the process to achieve this ideal. It is understandable why some would not readily agree on the latter. There are legitimate reasons for discussing what constitutes diversity and how to juggle the inclusion of those left out without alienating those from within. Identity politics clash with meritocracy politics. Are white Dutch men the enemy now? Is gender the proxy for diversity? Whatever happened to social mobility in academia, especially in the age of Trump and Brexit?

If we look globally, diversity politics is playing out in some contentious ways. Quota systems at Indian universities fuel caste politics. Affirmative action in the United States tells us of the challenges when instituting bias based on identity over merit.

Moreover, if we want to create radical change within, we need to build ownership of ideas across stakeholders. Rather than have a petition with a prescription from a small cohort of people, would it not be more powerful to have one that collectively mobilises worldviews through vigorous debate on what counts as diversity and why it matters?

If we want true action on diversity at our university, I call upon sustainable equity that outlives identity politics.

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  • Well thought out. From a pragmatic viewpoint, are you suggesting that we choose different metrics to encourage “diversity” or not have any metrics at all? Any metric creates a form of discrimination (towards or against a particular group).

    • Hi Paddy, good question. Given much of this is about changing mindsets and behaviors, metrics are not the best way but rather initiatives that bring awareness, break any ‘taboos’ in these conversations, and challenge sacred cows from both the left and the right. There is much obsession on measuring diversity based on quotas which may have a backlash. Each department has their own dynamics -eg. medical school has a higher representation of women in the faculty vs economics has a very low representation so can they then share their metrics? Also, low participation in a field -does this signify bias or disinterest by certain demographics? Indians for instance apply far less to humanities and more to computer science programs due to socio-economic pressures …anyway lots to say about this 🙂

  • “Are white Dutch men the enemy now?”
    Same thought I had when reading this university-unworthy screed. The only way to survive this (hopefully short-lasting) wave of identity politics at our university is to refuse being disunited by their divisive “men vs. women” rhetoric and continue in our common pursuit towards becoming the greatest and most successful university we can be.
    If this new “diversity office” cannot come up with more innovative ideas than affirmative action policies and different standards depending on the membership of a ‘victim group’ then maybe we should work on the diversity office’s problem solving abilities first (or just get rid of it entirely and let the regular HR/admissions department do their job)?

    Or maybe it’s just that their first performance evaluation is coming up and they realize they have miserable results and now need to blame it on the seeming reluctance of the rest of the university to make room for their ‘urgent change’ or blame it on the backlash the diversity letter has caused.

    • Hi AB,
      On one hand, we should not approach equity from the standpoint of divisiveness (men vs women) or quota systems as peoples situations change and what constitutes as exclusion shifts over time. On the other hand, we should recognize that there is also male bias embedded into hiring processes, old boy networks in the circulation of funding internally at the university, non transparency in decision making, all male panels at conferences, etc. which impacts meritocracy. So as long as there is a level playing field for women and men, then its fair to compete but its not so and I can understand their concern. What I do not agree with is this camping and polarization which isn’t productive at all. We should have a joint goal to increasing the representation of diverse populations in positions of authority by making sure that it is genuinely merit based and we are all equally enabled.

  • ““We write this statement in full support of actions that are conducive of more diversity and inclusion at EUR and for debates about the meanings of diversity. We are also writing concerned about calls for the boycott of the open letter circulated by the EUR Diversity officer as this not only displays a lack of awareness regarding the lack of diversity characterizing Dutch higher education, but also is missing opportunities to encourage greater excellence at EUR. Their arguments display the exclusionary wave that is sadly emerging in these complex times in the Netherlands, Europe and indeed across the world.
    The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) is the international faculty of EUR in the City of the Hague. For 65 years, we have built up an international reputation for the academic and policy work we have done in the field of international development studies. At ISS we are convinced that diversity of peoples, knowledges and life trajectories is a pre-condition of quality scholarship and a vibrant and fulfilling academic life. Diversity presents an opportunity to enrich the University community. Diverse and inclusive environments where different perspectives are valued is where academic excellence thrives.
    At ISS we fully support actions that will lead to more diversity and inclusion at EUR. At ISS we agree that more conversations and debates on what is diversity and why it is important are very much needed. The letter that 40 of us signed is one concrete way to start these conversations. Just last week at ISS 65Th Dies Natalis, we asked people to think who is not included in academia, and what we should be transforming in our academic environments. This is what a XXI Century University demands us to do.”

    Members of ISS Diversity Team, ISS Gender Committee and ISS Institute Council

    • I think we are on the same side in demanding more diversity for an equitable learning and teaching environment. This opinion piece is absolutely not about boycotting this vision but about questioning the process by which we build awareness and dialogue with diverse stakeholders across the spectrum especially with those who have completely different worldviews on diversity (denying that male bias has anything to do with the current gender divide in full professors for instance, and resistance to quota systems etc). Many who signed and even who did not sign the letter wholeheartedly agreed on diversity as a value but were not appreciative of being excluded from the shaping of the action /agenda. As a diversity officer myself, I was not included in this process nor many other diversity officers. Since many of us are in the advisory capacity, the only way we can make change is to find and carve common ground with the leadership, to listen to even the most disagreeable opinions and come up with good arguments that are broadcast. Isnt this how social change actually happens?

  • I’m all for open debate, especially about diversity. In engaging in debate, though, it is crucial to be clear on one’s position. This is mine: I signed the Make (divers)it(y) happen @EUR letter because I agree with it and I’m thankful with those leading this effort (even or precisely because I think that the conversation needs to get going). Signing it for any other reason would speak poorly of my academic integrity and commitment to diversity.

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