‘I really think we can do better’

Groningen Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken is disappointed by the results of the UKrant survey about internationals and prejudice. He usually considers prejudice a larger societal problem, he says.
By Megan Embry

‘But if this is typical for students or academics in general, that’s more worrisome. We expect that at the university we don’t have intolerance, but that is not the case.’ Sterken says student accounts of prejudiced comments and jokes were a little surprising. ‘Maybe I do it myself, as well,’ he says, thoughtfully. ‘I tell a joke and I think it’s funny. But maybe I am wrong.’

Don’t feel safe

Sterken is concerned that if students don’t feel comfortable in the classroom, they won’t learn. ‘I’m convinced that learning is not optimal if you don’t feel safe or welcome’, he says, ‘Which is why inclusion is an official part of the education strategy.’

The international classroom model is built on active learning. International students enrich the classroom by sharing their unique perspectives. But in light of recent reports, Sterken worries that students might not feel comfortable making contributions. And without their participation, he says, the international classroom model fails. ‘Anything that goes wrong with inclusion is bad for our success.’

‘We aren’t behaviour police’

The university launched the international classroom only a few years ago, and progress doesn’t happen overnight. It will be three or four years more before the plan is fully implemented. ‘It takes a long time to infuse these ideas – inclusion and activation – into the organization.’

Until then, ‘the only thing we can do is increase awareness. We are not the police, we don’t control behaviour; that is not our task’. Sterken believes trying to change culture or behavior from the top down doesn’t work. ‘But we can facilitate discussion. And I think that is very good for a university.’

‘I really think we can do better’

Official internationalisation policies for the classroom aren’t enough. Sterken acknowledges that the university could do more to combat prejudice. ‘The problem is that people are simply not aware of this issue. And if you are not aware of it, it’s hard to discuss it. I really think we can do better’, he says, ‘and I would surely love to stimulate the discussion among students. As a university, we can provide a platform for that.’

What that platform might be, he doesn’t yet know. ‘It could be difficult to organise this discussion, because who is actively in favor of being blunt to international students?’ he says. But he would like to see the University team up with Studium Generale Groningen to host a discussion about difficult topics like subtle prejudice, micro-aggression, and discrimination. Creating a space where students and staff can talk about uncomfortable things is important.


Sterken also sees room for improvement in the university’s internal communication with students. They should know exactly what to do if they need to report a serious complaint about discrimination within the university.

‘There are mechanisms already in place, but perhaps students are not aware of those. I would recommend that students go to the student counselors or confidential advisors: talk to them, file a complaint. Because then we can take a next step. As long as it stays informal, we can’t do anything.’


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