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Hester Bijl on racism, inclusion and diversity at Leiden University

We talked to Hester Bijl about the worldwide protests sparked off by the death of George Floyd. A demonstration against racism will also be held in Leiden on 14 June. How does she, as Vice-Rector responsible for diversity and inclusion, view this issue? What steps is the University taking? And how can we best discuss these themes with students and staff?

Hester Bijl: ‘I can imagine the emotions and frustrations that have surfaced following the death of George Floyd. So many people have felt out in the cold for such a long time, and there are so many ways in which they still feel excluded. I can well understand why this movement started and why it has such huge numbers of supporters. I can also appreciate that students and staff want to join the demonstration this Sunday in Leiden.'   

'It is both right and important that so many people are letting their voices be heard, and that they are saying loudly and clearly that enough is enough, and that discrimination and exclusion have to stop. It's only when these practices have been driven out that things can change. This growing movement is in itself a characteristic of that change. We saw the same thing with the Me Too debate: that protest, which also grew rapidly and drew huge numbers of supporters, was much needed, and it was an impetus for change. I support the protests against racism and, as a member of the Board, I also stand firmly behind the core values of our University. We want to have an open community in which all members of staff and all students, regardless of their background or origin, can feel at home and enjoy equal opportunities. There's no place here for extremes: we're very clear about that.' 

Many organisations, as well as cities and police forces, are now taking the time for self-reflection on racism. What's the situation at Leiden University?

‘Racism isn't just an issue of behaviour or intention. People often think that racism is only about the extreme cases where a person is discriminated against clearly and openly. But racism is subconsciously ingrained in our thinking, in science and in our everyday practices. Racism is about a way of thinking where people are regarded as different and inferior based on their outward appearance. Barbara Love, who gave a workshop on racism for the deans and for me, gave a good example. We associate white with goodness and purity, and dark with danger and badness. Remember the fairy story about the Ugly Duckling? Why was that duckling so unhappy at being dark, and then so happy when it grew into a white swan?' 

'In the academic world, too, racism has a long history. We think it's quite normal for a Dutch professor to be an expert on a country on the other side of the world from Europe; but we don't think it's equally normal that an expert from Africa, for example, could be a professor of Dutch history.'

Dr Barbara Love was a speaker at the Diversity symposium, and she gave a workshop on racism for Hester Bijl and all the Leiden deans.
Dr Barbara Love, here at the Diversity symposium, gave a workshop for Hester Bijl and all the Leiden deans on racism.

'It's deeply embedded in the way we look at people, and it has an impact on how we value and judge them. It's all too easy to question the knowledge of an academic or student of colour, because somehow that image doesn't match our ideas about knowledge and expertise. As a result, we're quicker to doubt them, and we probably judge them differently and more strictly. In our Academic Leadership programme we use the Implicit Bias Association Test to make our staff who follow the programme aware of this bias. For many people it's a real shock to recognise and acknowledge that they have unconscious prejudices. But it's absolutely necessary to realise this in order to put change in motion.'

'Debates with our students and staff and incidents over the past year have shown that students and staff of colour come across racism in their daily lives, including within our University. It's clear that these are not isolated incidents; they show that a definite cultural change is needed. And that's something we have to work on together.'

How diverse is Leiden University? It still seems a largely white and Western institution.

‘Over recent years we have recruited an increasing number of international staff members, and they currently make up 22 per cent of our headcount. The number of international students has also increased considerably, and they now account for 18 per cent  of the student body. But that doesn't say anything about the ethnic background of our staff. Our aim is to mirror Dutch society, which is very diverse. Together with other universities, we are looking for a responsible and careful way of studying and monitoring  progress in this area, because it definitely helps to aim for a goal based on actual numbers. We've already seen this with our ambition to increase the ratio of female professors: it really does work.'

'It's also clear that there is a lack of ethnic diversity among our University administrators and among professors. These are two areas that can provide role models for our students. To help us really address this issue, our University became the first in the Netherlands to take part in the Promoting Cultural Talent Monitor.’

Many of the protests are about the fact that the struggle against racism is taking so long. Leiden University has had a Diversity Office for five years. Why are things moving so slowly?

‘Changing behaviour that is so deeply rooted takes a long time. Part of the reason is that you want the whole University community to be involved in and committed to it: you want to debate the issues with students and staff. That debate - that is the start of awareness and is based on the conviction that we have to do things differently - is part of the change. It's also about developing an awareness of behaviour that is so often very deeply ingrained; and that's something you first have to learn to recognise and acknowledge in yourself.'  

'For many people it's a real shock to recognise and acknowledge that they have unconscious prejudices. But that realisation is absolutely necessary to put change in motion.'

'Obviously, it starts with the University management prioritising the issue, and this is an area where I'm very aware of my own role. The events and lectures of the Diversity Office are a great help, as are the meetings we have with our students, particularly in the ASA, MENA and STAR groups, which have taught me a lot. The only real way to bring about change is if we do it together.' 

'And then we have to put concrete measures in place. That's where the diversity and inclusion working plan comes in. This plan has been discussed at all levels in the University, with managers, experts, lecturers and students, to make sure that key issues are raised, and that the plan is both workable and feasible.  It's now a plan that is supported by the whole University community. It's taken a lot of time and energy, but it's the right way to get people to take the initiative themselves and to make an active contribution to the objectives we have formulated together. Faculties and departments are now starting to draw up their own models of these plans that match their particular situation. We're continuing to involve our students and staff in this process, and we're organising concrete activities that will help put change in motion.' 

What is the University doing in real terms? What concrete plans are there?

‘The diversity and inclusion working plan sets out our objectives very clearly: inclusive recruitment of staff and students, and inclusive education where everyone feels respected and can develop to their full potential. That means combatting unconscious prejudices in recruitment, selection and career promotion. Inclusive leadership is another area we're working on: we want all our administrators and supervisors to know how they can make sure that all members of staff can feel respected, are treated equally and have the chance to develop their talents - regardless of their background. We will also be working on an inclusive learning environment. We already have a number of programmes where lecturers are developing an inclusive curriculum, and we're giving them every support in the form of courses and training programmes. But these things don't happen overnight.' 

'We're also developing implicit bias training courses for our staff, where we use scenarios to show where different forms of bias, including racism, occur in our daily practices, and how we can be alert to them. These issues can play an important part in interview procedures and in recruitment policies, and there's a lot of demand for the courses. Next year, these courses will become part of our structural training programmes.' 

'Another area where we need to focus attention is social safety, particularly for this group. The Diversity Office is receiving a lot of questions and concerns about this concern. It's good that the issue is being raised, but that on its own isn't enough. We're thinking about setting up a dedicated contact point for this group of students and staff, and drawing up a protocol and a code of conduct that make it clear what has to be done, and by whom, if an incident occurs. This is in addition to the complaints regulations that the University already has in place.'

'Discussing the issues together, from different perspectives, is a challenge for everyone. But let's be active and constructive in continuing the debate.'

'Managers have a clear role in identifying and prioritising diversity and inclusion, on the basis of the working plan. But things will only really change if everyone makes an active contribution. What have you done this year to improve inclusion? How have you made a contribution to giving students and staff equal opportunities and the chance for self-development? These are the kinds of questions we have to ask ourselves in our annual self-assessment.'

'I'm calling on everyone: don't sit back and wait for things to change of their own accord. We have programme boards and committees whose task it is to design our educational programmes. That's where discussions take place about the curriculum, and where different experiences and views have to be represented. Our staff and student participation councils also have a voice in the policies we make. Our message to them is to make sure that these bodies represent the experiences of students and staff from different backgrounds. We need their inputs to be able to make progress together.'   

Many of the protests seem to be focused on Campus The Hague. Why do you think that is?

‘What you see is that these issues come out into the open more easily and that people dare to talk about them in programmes and institutes where there is more diversity. That's right and proper, and very valuable. But it also means that reactions can be more forceful there. We need to learn how best to discuss the issues with one another and to listen to each other - and that's something we have to carry on doing. I'm not saying that racism and inclusion aren't issues in other places in the University. Of course, they  can happen everywhere. But the effects are less visible where there's less diversity, and where people don't find it so easy to discuss these issues. These are also areas where there are fewer role models.' 

'We understand the strong emotions and frustrations that people are experiencing. Having this discussion, taking in all the different perspectives, is challenging for all of us. It's very hard for lecturers and staff members to deal with the frustrations and emotions around them. We need to keep on listening to them, too, and supporting and helping them. One way we are doing that is by offering training programmes on inclusive teaching.' 

'Change always goes hand in hand with growing pains. We have to learn to enter into discussion with one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect; dealing with diversity is an important skill for everyone. Emotions can run very high in these discussions - and I understand that completely. But, accusations on social media against named individuals are not acceptable.  Let's talk about it, but in an active and constructive way. I welcome the discussion, and I know that together we'll succeed.' 

A final question: next year, on 8 February, you will become the new Rector Magnificus. Will things have changed by then?

‘I am confident that we can make progress before then. Things don't always move as fast as we would like, but we are already seeing developments, and we know that it's the small steps that ultimately bring about the changes we all want to see.’

Text: Caroline van Overbeeke

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