At the start of October, 20 higher education media outlets and EM issued a survey on how staff and students experience diversity and inclusion at their university, and 381 staff and students took the trouble to respond to the open questions too. The following four points stood out.

Caution called for

Staff and students say they are more cautious than in previous years. The most common response to the question ‘how have you modified your behaviour?’ is ‘I choose my words more carefully’, or words to that effect. Staff and students are plagued by a fear of saying something ‘wrong’ and provoking a hostile response. One member of staff claims they will be leaving Erasmus University because ‘you get ruthlessly cancelled if you ask critical questions about the diversity and inclusion agenda’. One student expressed a degree of trepidation about asking questions in lectures. “If you ask a lecturer a ‘stupid question’, you’ll often get an answer focused on someone’s sex or ethnicity, as though that was what prompted the ‘stupid question’. I’d rather steer clear of answers like that, so I mostly keep my mouth shut.” The direct responses are not the only reason why people are sometimes reluctant to express themselves. “I experience a great deal of microaggression if I wear cultural headdresses or have black hairstyles like cornrows”, one student wrote. “Many persons of colour experience this. You find yourself being treated differently by tutors, teaching staff and students. People give you funny looks and the feeling that you don’t belong. So I gave up styling my hair like that.”

Toxic

“There’s a culture of toxicity at the university, in which you’ll get silenced if you question things. It comes from ‘our own LGBTI+ community’ and from the rest of the students. They deny you a voice, harass you or patronise you. So I keep quiet more, even when it comes to things related to my sexuality, my sex and my gender expression.”

Cancelled

“Fear of being cancelled is rife. Plenty of students understand, just like me, that we’ve been treating minorities badly for many years, but the current policy is counterproductive. When applying for various things, like some honours groups, I’ve been told that I’m ‘not diverse enough’ because I’m a straight white male. Many of my fellow students think things have gone overboard too, but we don’t dare speak out in case doing so will adversely affect our careers. In other words, I’m keeping my opinions to myself these days, and I’m much less bold about speaking up in class.”

Illustratie Diversiteit Inclusie Diversity regenboog zebrapad_Jowan de Haan

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Actions speak louder than words

Many members of staff wrote that ‘actions speak louder than words’, or variants on that theme. Despite the fact that Erasmus University has a permanent diversity office with its own budget and office, its effect is not clear to everyone. “I haven’t the faintest idea as to what exactly Erasmus is doing to improve diversity and inclusion. I’ve got one female lecturer and nobody from a different ethnic background, so the diversity isn’t evident”, one student wrote in the survey. Symbols like the rainbow path are visible, but they feel like gesture politics to many staff and students. “It’s high time for this institution of ours to walk the talk and start actively recruiting staff from underrepresented groups, such as people with a migrant background. Playing the diversity circus with overprivileged teaching staff and students is downright hypocritical.”

‘Welcome students’

“A rainbow path is nice and all, but if you’re a queer individual, it’s not exactly going to help you. Things that will help queer individuals are pronouns on introduction, gender-neutral toilets and ‘welcome students’ rather than ‘welcome ladies and gentlemen’. All these things will go towards making people feel safer.”

Invisible groups

“Visible symbolic support helped to raise issues for discussion a couple of years ago. Now, a lot of people don’t see it as a statement but as part of the normal environment. EUR is currently focusing on symbolism and visible targets, such as recruiting more cis women. Many other groups, particularly invisible groups like the disabled, are getting scant to no attention (or help!) at this university. I myself try to hide the fact that I’ve got Asperger’s, because I’ve noticed that people look down on me and even exclude me.”

Diversity is about more than gender, but sexism hasn't left the building.

Bloemlezing inclusiviteit inclusive campus seksisme college _Migle Alonderyte
Image credit: Migle Alonderyte

The respondents feel that there is excessive emphasis on gender diversity at this university. More attention should be paid to other aspects, they write. Blind spots cited include people with a migrant background, people who are not heterosexual, people with different economic backgrounds, people with mental and physical disabilities and people who are transgender. Many respondents feel that these categories need to be prioritised to give those staff and students greater latitude. One student explained that he passed himself off as heterosexual because his fellow students were making so many offensive comments about homosexuals. Another student wrote about how she experienced racism on her very first day here. When she went to sit down at a lunch table, she was told, “You’d be better off sitting at another table. That’s where the Moroccans sit.” Even though a lot of respondents think there could be a little less focus on gender diversity, there are still plenty of examples of sexism in the responses. Sexism is still very much prevalent at the university, despite years and years of efforts to boost the proportion of women professors. “The authority of women in my department is constantly undermined”, writes an employee. “There are very few women in permanent positions and those that are there are often only there one day a week. This does not change the harsh work culture.”

Wolf-whistle

“A lecturer in my first year said you had to wolf-whistle if a beautiful girl showed up late. There were a lot of people in that year, but women were in the minority. When a girl turned up late a couple of lessons later, all the boys whistled at her. After that, all the female students were terrified of being late. An older lecturer encouraged hundreds of boys to wolf-whistle at 17 or 18-year-old girls. I submitted a complaint to my mentor and followed up on it. A year later, it had been stamped out.”

‘Little minx’

“There’s such a male-dominated culture in some medical science departments that male specialists are giving young female doctors in training and students in their clinical training periods advice on ‘finding a nice husband and having kids’. Male applicants are often preferred, but when a female doctor in training was taken on, they said out loud to one another, ‘It’s because she’s such a little minx’.”

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Do I still count? Things are fine as they are, right?

“Things are absolutely fine as they are at this university”, according to some staff and students. “I get the sense that everyone does their own thing and is perfectly free to do so. I think the university gives everyone sufficient scope and freedom to be themselves. I really appreciate that freedom.” Many of these respondents take the view that the diversity debate has a polarising effect because it ‘highlights people’s differences’. “Nor is any criticism tolerated. Ironically, we’re headed in the direction of exclusion rather than inclusion.” Is the university even the right place for debating diversity, some students wonder. “Education should be the priority!”, one student wrote.

Academic first

“The constant focus on inclusion and diversity is having a detrimental effect on the academic education. Everyone feeling safe at the university and the eradication of racism are put above all else. I see it like this: a university is an academic institution based on scholarship. Scholarship must be the guiding principle in everything that’s taught at all times. I’m not comfortable with so much focus being put on things like pronouns. The vast majority doesn’t have to bend to the will of the minority, and a university shouldn’t be taking political stances. The use of gender-neutral language or toilets is erasing my womanhood.”

Little less

“A little less attention to diversity and inclusion would be welcome. As a white woman, I feel that this policy puts me at arm’s length from the university, because I’m not part of a minority group. That gives me the sense that I won’t have any opportunities to develop myself further within the university, because they ‘particularly welcome applications from people with diverse backgrounds’.”

Total landscape research diversity_Jowan de Haan

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