Universiteit Leiden

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The dream of inclusivity... and the harsh reality

‘When I started out, I could only dream of an inclusive university,’ said departing Diversity Officer Isabel Hoving at her leaving do on 9 October. ‘But this dream has come true in part. I only have to look at the audience here to see so.’

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The new and departing Diversity Officers: Aya Ezawa (l) and Isabel Hoving.

A very diverse audience had indeed come to the Academy Building to say goodbye to departing Diversity Officer Isabel Hoving and welcome her successor, Aya Ezawa. Hoving began five years ago with a very small Diversity Office. At the time, she said, terms such as racism and white privilege were still taboo in relation to Leiden University. She added that although she had experienced frustrations and lonely times in the role of Diversity Officer, there had also plenty of heartwarming and encouraging moments. Which is true because much has been achieved over the last five years.

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Domenica Ghidei, who advises on diversity and inclusion, was the moderator of the evening.

Combative speakers

Leiden was the first university in the Netherlands to have a Diversity Officer, and it also developed a policy for diversity and inclusivity. Combative speakers were invited to the annual diversity symposium, where they made short shrift of the University’s innocence in matters of diversity. It is thanks to them that terms such as racism and white privilege are no longer taboo. The student groups Space to Talk About Race (STAR) and the Afro Student Association (ASA) were set up and have been working since to create a safe space for students to talk about ethnic identity and racism. They also dare to tell it like it is, and are supported here by the Diversity Officer. They were at the leaving do, where they presented two new initiatives for students and staff.

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Zeineb Romdhane and Houda Nabih from MENA.


The first initiative is MENA Student Association. MENA is the standard abbreviation for the Middle East and North Africa. According to students of International Studies, and International Relations and Organisations, Zeineb Romdhane, Belal Aziz and Houda Nabih, MENA aims to provide a non-sectarian environment in which students have the opportunity to communicate with one another and the outside world. MENA wants to represent the culture of the Middle East by promoting an inclusive vision of the region, a vision that encompasses gender, race and sexuality. MENA organises various social and cultural events that aim to promote a feeling of belonging to a single University community.

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María Gabriela Palacio

The other new initiative is LUDEN (Leiden University Diversity and Equality Network), which focuses on the University staff. The main goal of this network is to create a more inclusive work and study environment. Rather than aim at a particular group of staff, it instead wants to address issues relating to diversity and inclusivity, including ethnicity and racism: the focus lies on staff recruitment and promotion as well as on an inclusive curriculum, said María Gabriela Palacio, a university lecturer in political economy on the International Studies programme. The network is a space in which sensitive topics can be brought out in the open.

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Kalwant Bhopal isn’t one to shy away from sensitive topics.

Depressing figures

The keynote speaker, Kalwant Bhopal from the University of Birmingham, isn’t one to shy away from sensitive topics. She is Professor of Education and Social Justice and Deputy Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education. She fired a barrage of depressing figures at the audience. ‘These are the figures for Britain, but it won’t be much different in the Netherlands,’ she said. Great Britain has developed plenty of policies that aim to give BME groups (Black and Minority Ethinic) better access to higher education, but it is mainly white women who benefit from these. It is particularly difficult for black people in Britain. And discrimination begins at an early age: of British children, 6.5% go to independent schools and 93% to state schools. Of the 6.5%, 55% end up at one of the better universities in Britain, which means pupils from state schools miss out.

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Hester Bijl (Vice-Rector Magnificus), Kalwant Bhopal, Isabel Hoving, Aya Ezawa and Kees Waaldijk (Professor of Comparative Sexual Orientation Law). To his surprise, Waaldijk discovered that as many as 35 researchers are studying this or a closely related topic.

Out of place

Relatively few black people go to university. And in comparison with other groups, a higher percentage also drop out of their studies. One reason is lecturers’ implicit bias and prejudices against BME students. This means that these students often feel out of place at university. Talented black students who graduate with a first are less likely to get a PhD place. And so Bhopal continued. Of the 13,525 professors in Great Britain, only 85 are black, and of these only 26 are female.

Bhopal said in a slightly provocative tone that she loves the term white privilege. ‘It’s an invisible, weightless rucksack,’ she said. ‘Racist, hierarchical structures are everywhere. It’s about power and whoever has power also has control.’ And change is difficult because people with white privilege will do all they can to keep things as they are. ‘What also doesn’t help,’ said someone in the room, ‘is that Leiden University has such a markedly white tradition.’

Change is afoot

But change is afoot, even at Leiden University. This is coming from the Diversity Office and the platforms and networks that have been formed: LGBT+, Sophia, ASA, STAR, MENA and LUDEN. They are trying to make the University more inclusive from the inside out.

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The Small Auditorium was full.

Decolonisation of the curriculum

One term kept on coming up: ‘decolonisation of the curriculum.’ With the arrival of large numbers of foreign students and staff, a need has emerged for a wider perspective on the teaching materials. It may seem logical to view topics from a Western perspective – how otherwise can we explore the world but from our own perspective? – but both Bhopal and the representatives of the networks pointed out that this is too one-sided a view. Things have to change, to begin with by including the literature – and thus the views – of non-Western researchers on the reading lists. The new Diversity Officer Aya Ezawa says this as one of her focal points.

Hester Bijl remarked upon it, and those present in the Small Auditorium could feel it: talking about racism and exclusion feels very uncomfortable for many people. One of the main messages from the meeting was therefore that to become truly inclusive means learning to be open about this discomfort.

Save the date
The University’s annual diversity symposium will be held on the afternoon of Wednesday 22 January 2020. The subject is an inclusive curriculum. The symposium will be held at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. More information will follow.

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Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Eelkje Colmjon
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