Yelled at, harassed, and threatened
Diversity: everyone’s a critic
‘You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, says Machiel Keestra, diversity officer at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). While some people feel that what he and his colleagues at other educational institutes do isn’t nearly enough, others think they’re doing too much.
You need certain characteristics to do this job, says Aya Ezawa, diversity officer and associate professor at the University of Leiden. She also chairs the national consultation of diversity officers. ‘You have to have thick skin, be knowledgeable, and be a good diplomat if you want the community to agree with you.’
But the job is hard even for the perfect candidate. ‘Out of all policy officers, diversity officers are the most visible’, says Ezawa, which means they sometimes get caught up in social upheaval. Nearly all diversity officers we interviewed for this article said they’d received negative or even hateful comments on social media and on news articles, columns, and opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines. Three of them say they’ve been personally threatened but refused to elaborate.
First diversity officers
The first diversity officers in higher education in the Netherlands were instated in 2014, at the University of Leiden and the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Today, every research university and university of applied sciences involved in the study has some form of diversity policy. These kinds of policies focus on equal career opportunities for women, the integration of internationals, recognition of LGBTI individuals, coaching for first-generation students, care for people from a migration background, and accessibility for people with handicaps.
Another employee will only talk about it anonymously, thanks to all the negative comments: ‘The anti-woke group shares people’s personal information on social media’, she says, ‘and uses slurs to denote people of colour, people with handicaps, for women, and for gay people.’
She’d rather not detail what that harassment looks like. But she does say that it gets extreme at times. ‘Our names are public, which means our families are also the target of online hate. Some comments have even been shared by MPs who don’t agree with our work.’
The comments can be intimidating, especially since many diversity employees are part of a minority themselves. ‘Diversity officers sometimes feel compelled to remind the public of this. But this leaves them open to attacks from the anti-woke groups.’
The staff member didn’t report the incidents to the police, but she did take other measures. ‘I no longer include the surnames of student assistants in public announcements on diversity policies, to protect them from comments like these. I also no longer read my own social media; a communications officer does that for me.’
She feels universities tend to underestimate how much diversity officers have to deal with. While there is a guide for threatened scientists, this isn’t aimed at diversity employees. She still uses it, though. ‘We deal with the same stuff as, say, epidemiologists.’
In spite of the negative comments and threats, the diversity employees are level headed about their work. The outrage concerning ‘wokism’ mainly takes place outside the educational institutes, in the media, they say. Within their own organisations, resistance is minimal. ‘Here at the Erasmus University, it’s no longer a question of whether we’re doing this, but how we’re doing it. The majority of people are in favour’, says Semiha Denktaş, diversity officer in Rotterdam.
One way to channel that is to separate ideology from practical matters, says Ruard Ganzevoort, diversity officer at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. ‘If I were to say that we’re racist because we don’t have enough professors of colour, everyone will resist that. Rightly so.’ He feels it’s better to put the emphasis on quality. ‘Your team is improved by diversity.’
They’re not activists, say the diversity officers. They don’t necessarily see diversity and inclusion as an ideological movement, but rather something universities ‘have to do something with’. Ganzevoort: ‘Diversity simply exists. Deal with it.’
‘I don’t think a large, slow-moving organisation such as a university is affected by activism’, says Gerry Wakker, chief diversity officer at the UG. ‘We have to go slowly, embed our policies in the existing organisational structures. That will always be a struggle. We want to go faster, but we simply can’t.’
People are definitely invested in the topic, but people’s opinions vary. ‘I’ll never be able to please everyone. But if I can look at myself in the mirror in the morning knowing that I can explain why I did what I did, whether or not people agree, then I’m happy.’
No diversity policy is the same
Every single one of the Dutch research universities and universities of applied sciences mentioned in this article have hired people to work on diversity and inclusion. Ten research universities and one university of applied sciences employ a diversity officer or someone similar, and seven universities have a diversity office; a separate department that reports directly to the board of directors. At other universities of applied sciences, the job falls to HR policy officers or student well-being.
Gerry Wakker has been working as diversity officer at the UG since 2019. Her position consists of 0.4 FTE, and she has a budget of 200,000 euros. She’s supported by a programme coordinator who works 0,8 FTE and a communications officer who works 0.5 FTE. But the reality doesn’t quite match that, she says. The communications officer only has a one-year contract, and the programme coordinator has been floored by long Covid, which means they currently only work 0.2 FTE.
Each faculty at the UG will also have a diversity employee. Ella Sebamalai was the first one, at the Faculty of Economics and Business, after a report from the faculty itself showed it needed a lot of work. The Faculty of Law employed two diversity employees, but these positions have a different name and aren’t just focused on diversity and inclusion.
How much a research university or university of applied sciences focuses on discussions and diversity policies varies per institute. The more technical institutes, such as Eindhoven and Twente, are more moderate. Maastricht, however, is much more activist.
In Amsterdam, it varies per institute. The Vrije University, which usually deals with religious and cultural differences between students, tends to be fairly ‘meek’, according to Ganzevoort. The UvA is much more activist, especially since the occupation of the Maagdenhuis in 2015, says diversity officer Keestra.
Diversity isn’t necessarily much of a topic in the western part of the country, says Alet Denneboom, HR adviser participation, diversity, and inclusion at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences. ‘When there’s a more homogeneous student population, students or staff who are different don’t feel like they belong.’
Diversity employees are a modern phenomenon, fostered by activist students and social movements such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo. Over the past few years, the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science established guidelines on diversity and inclusion. But several of the educational institutes’ boards of directors took the initiative to do something about diversity.
Diversity officers feel supported by their board, they say. However, this doesn’t always translate into sufficient time, means, or mandate, they add. How much time is allotted is difficult to say, since it varies so much across institutes. On average, the time allowed for diversity and inclusion efforts runs from 0.6 to 7 FTE, not including the initiatives from department and faculties themselves.
The diversity officers use their time to organise events and debates, as well as moderating discussions. They create tool kits for education and recruitment, gather expertise, offer advice, write speeches, and network on all levels of their institute and elsewhere.
They also help write their educational institutes’ policies. Most of them see the latter task as a necessary evil, though. ‘It’s incredibly important’, says Sterre Mkatini, diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the University of Twente. ‘But I certainly don’t consider myself just a policy maker. I build bridges, raise awareness, and inspire people.’
This article is the result of studies done by nineteen research university and university of applied sciences newspapers on diversity and inclusion in higher education.
The study was conducted at the following institutes: Fontys University of Applied Sciences, University of Groningen, VU University Amsterdam, Utrecht University, University of Twente, Avans University of Applied Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, Radboud University Nijmegen, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, Delft University of Technology, Arnhem Nijmegen University of Applied Sciences, Maastricht University, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Tilburg University, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, University of Amsterdam, Wageningen University, Leiden University.
The news media at these institutes are part of the Kring van Hoofdredacteuren van hogeronderwijsmedia.
This study was made possible in part through a contribution from the Dutch Journalism Fund.
This study involved an analysis of thirty-six policy documents from twenty-one educational institutes: thirteen research universities and eight universities of applied sciences This relates to visions, strategies, memoranda, action plans, and position papers in which educational institutes set out their plans.
We also spoke to diversity officers from thirteen universities and seven universities of applied sciences about their work. Nearly all diversity officers cited having to deal with negative comments. Three of them say they have been threatened. Because of this, a number of them were reluctant to participate in this study.
A quantitative study by the research university and university of applied sciences media into how staff and students feel about diversity and inclusion failed recently. Many institutes refused to share the questionnaire internally, after which it was decided to make it publicly accessible. However, after a week, the link was shared by GeenStijl. According to research agency Newcom, the data quickly became too polluted by information from outside the institutes to still be usable.
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