Diversity employees regularly face violent reactions or harassment

Discussions on diversity in higher education have become more political and lead to heated reactions more often. Several diversity employees say they have been threatened.

(Image: Jowan de Haan)

This is the outcome of a large-scale survey carried out by 21 higher education media on the diversity and inclusion policies of 13 universities and eight universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands. Whereas a few years ago, the discussions were mainly focused on performance-based topics such as more women at the top and recruiting more international students, now, they are centred around anti-racism, gender identity and adapting (‘decolonising’) education, the research shows.

The journalistic research project, entitled ‘Diversity in times of polarisation’, was carried out by the independent journalistic media of higher education institutions that are organised in the Council of Editors-in-Chief of Higher Education Media, and resulted in a number of articles that will be published by the involved media including Delta starting on 5 December.

Online hate
Diversity employees are regularly faced with online hate reactions, threats and harassment. Progressive students and staff feel that their efforts are not enough, whereas the conservative side believes that all efforts surrounding diversity and inclusion are excessive. Several of the diversity employees who were interviewed said they had been personally threatened. As far as is known, no one has filed a police report.

A diversity employee who wishes to remain anonymous commented the following: “Our names are public and as a result, our families fall victim to online hate as well. And sometimes, the reactions are even shared by MPs who disagree with our work.”

The reactions are intimidating, partly because diversity employees often belong to minority groups themselves, the employee explains. President of the National Dialogue Network of Diversity Officers Aya Ezawa (Leiden University) commented on this in one of the articles: “You need a thick skin, solid substantive arguments and diplomatic skills to get the community on board.”

Main points of contention
According to the survey, the main points of contention are making teaching materials inclusive, using a wider range of pronouns besides he/him and she/her, and changing male or female toilets to all-gender toilets.

Furthermore, the research shows that all surveyed institutions regularly organise events surrounding diversity and inclusion. All institutions have guidelines for writing inclusive vacancy texts and offer (sometimes compulsory) training to recognise unconscious bias in yourself.

In addition, all higher education institutions surveyed have at least one gender-neutral toilet, although these toilets are not always easy to find. TU Delft is scheduled to open the first one in the first quarter of 2023, at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. It has been counted as present in this study. Nine out of twenty institutions have a permanent LGBTI+ symbol displayed somewhere around their educational venue to show their solidarity with this community; often in the form of a rainbow zebra crossing or flag.

Regional differences
There are regional differences in how much attention is paid to discussions and policies on diversity, the survey reveals. The topic seems to be of more concern to students in the Randstad region than in the rest of the country; although the number of international students and staff may also play a role in this. In Maastricht, for example, there is a very activist tone. At the technically-oriented universities, such as Eindhoven and Twente, a more moderate atmosphere prevails, even among the large international community.

According to Alet Denneboom, HR adviser Participation, Diversity and Inclusion at Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, this does not mean that diversity and inclusion is a problem reserved for the Randstad. “It’s precisely when the student population is more homogeneous that staff or students who don’t quite fit into the traditional picture feel out of place.”

By Wieneke Gunneweg /Translation by Lente van den Berg

This whole week, Delta is publishing articles that have emerged from the survey. So keep an eye on our website.

  • Research justification
    This study consisted of an analysis of 36 policy documents supplied by 21 higher education institutions: thirteen research universities and eight universities of applied sciences. The documents included declarations of intent, strategies, memos, action plans and position papers disclosing the higher education institutions’ plans.
    For the purpose of this survey, we spoke with diversity officers from thirteen research universities and seven universities of applied sciences about their work. Almost all of the diversity officers stated that they’d been on the end of negative comments. Three of them claimed to have felt threatened. Some were reluctant to participate in this survey as a result.
  • Participating media
    The participating media from the research universities and universities of applied sciences are affiliated with the Circle of Editors-in-chief of Higher Education Media.
    The following institutions were surveyed: 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, HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, Delft University of Technology, HAN University of Applied Sciences, Maastricht University, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Hanze University of Applied Sciences Groningen, Tilburg University, Saxion University of Applied Sciences, University of Amsterdam, Wageningen University & Research, Leiden University.
  • This survey was partly made possible by a contribution from the Journalism Promotion Fund.
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