Universiteit Leiden

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How can we banish racism from education?

A safe haven for students, more bicultural staff and more powers for diversity officers. In a national expert meeting at Campus The Hague, administrators, diversity officers, students and staff discussed urgently needed measures.

Moderator Martin van Engel opened the meeting in Wijnhaven on 26 March with a painful example. ‘Your dad is really black’, his son was told at school. At universities too, students and staff of colour often feel less at home or safe because of racist comments. And they are still disadvantaged: there are very few professors of colour, and students from migrant backgrounds are less likely to go on to a master’s programme. This expert meeting during European Anti-Racism Week was organised by the National Network of Diversity Officers (LanDO) and the National Coordinator against Discrimination and Racism, Rabin Baldewsingh.

'‘Whose books and perspectives does the teaching centre?’

Racism is difficult to discuss

‘Fighting racism and discrimination is an important societal mission for the university’, Aya Ezawa, Leiden’s Diversity Officer and LanDO Chair, stressed. ‘As research institutions, we have the knowledge and expertise about racism, but the topic continues to be difficult to discuss. There is still resistance at universities to collecting data on ethnical and cultural diversity, when businesses have been monitoring this for a long time. The lack of data makes it harder to promote greater diversity among staff.’

Institutional racism

In the meantime, the student population is becoming more diverse, said Ezawa, and students are asking critical questions, such as: Whose books and perspectives does the teaching centre? Like the other speakers, she stressed the need to fight institutional racism, ‘Racism and discrimination are ingrained in assessment systems, the history of degree programmes and the institutions’ structure.

Outside world is coming in

National Coordinator Rabin Baldewsingh is concerned about the increase − due in part to global tensions − in racism and discrimination throughout society. Universities to be alert to this, he urged, because the outside world can turn against such institutions. His message was: be a safe haven for students, ensure bicultural staff are properly represented and give diversity officers greater powers to get things done.

Legacy of colonial past

‘The colonial past has literally been in our buildings since 1632 and impacts our research and teaching’, Geert ten Dam, President of the Executive Board of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), acknowledged, also explicitly referring to this as ‘institutional racism’. Like Leiden University and other universities, the UvA is conducting research into its involvement in the colonial past and historical slavery. ‘We have to offer an identifiable, new perspective on the world and continually be critical of how this is reflected in our research and teaching’, said Ten Dam. ‘We should not place that burden on students of colour. This should be a task of the programme committees, of us as an institution.’

She noted that students from a migrant background are less likely to continue to a master’s programme and participate in, for example, exchange programmes. She wants to change this. More support such as mentoring programmes appears to help. And medical research, for example, Ten Dam added, should take much more account of a diverse population.

National approach needed

The attendees then brainstormed in groups on one of four themes: the importance of collecting data; networks and representation of students and researchers of colour; fighting racism in education; and an integrated approach to countering racism at universities. Machiel Keestra, UvA’s Diversity Officer, asked his group what changes need to be made in the teaching. The participants called for such things as more diverse textbooks and role models, an anti-racism chair at every university and above all time and money to change the curriculum.

‘We can learn a lot from colleagues who take a bolder approach’

In the plenary discussion after the brainstorming session, the panel members also emphasised how a structural and integrated approach is desperately needed. Vinod Subramaniam, for instance, President of the Executive Board of the University of Twente and Chair of the National Advisory Committe on Diverse and Inclusive Higher Education and Research. He noted that university policies and approaches still differ greatly in some respects. ‘We can learn a lot from colleagues who take a bolder approach.’ He also referred to giving people the option to provide − voluntarily and anonymously –information on their background and ethnicity. ‘A good baseline measurement is important, for instance, to see if students from a migration background are doing better in five years’ time.’

Ezawa added, ‘People often think data should not be collected because this could lead to privacy breaches and discrimination but we should turn that around: data is needed to prevent discrimination. Let’s create a national tool to ensure that such surveys are secure and protect people’s privacy.’

Response from administrators

The administrators present were asked what they would like to tackle first. Annetje Ottow, President of Leiden’s Executive Board, said, ‘Our Diversity Office already does a great deal but there is much more that we could do. For instance, I would like to look differently at complaints. We now focus on individual complaints but let’s also look at whether we can discover patterns in complaints so that we can tackle problems more structurally.’

Erwin Muller, Chair of Campus The Hague, said he wants to get started on a campus network that would act as a knowledge partner to eliminate racism and promote more diversity. ‘We already have several partners working on diversity but it would be good if all these separate partners could work together in one strong network.’

Rallying cry

Baldewsingh ended with a rallying cry: ‘Prime Minister Rutte said in his apology for historical slavery that it was not a full stop but a comma. The universities belong behind that comma. I would like to see you stand up together and say to politicians: give us time and money to combat racism and change the curriculum. Do it together. And if you do, I’m your man. Then I’ll lead the charge.’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos: Wilke Geurds

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