New diversity officer: ‘I want to seek balance, not conflict’

Prof. David Keyson has been TU Delft’s Diversity Officer since September. What are his plans? “TU Delft wants to reflect society.”

David Keyson: “With inclusive research TU Delft could take the lead.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Professor of Smart Products and Environments David Keyson took on the role of Diversity Officer on 1 September. It is his task to ‘promote diversity, inclusion and equality at TU Delft’, as the Executive Board describes it. He has more elbow room than his predecessor, Rinze Benedictus, has more time to expand his position and has his own Diversity Office to support him. What drives Keyson? What does he want to achieve and how does he plan to handle the sometimes politically charged subjects in his portfolio?

Why do you think that you are the right person for the job?
“I grew up in a very progressive family. In the 1930s in New York, my grandmother demonstrated for equal rights for black Americans. I have lived in four countries – England, the Netherlands, Israel and America – and have experienced many different cultures. Dutch society is very open, but at the same time, TU Delft is quite white. There are few minorities in higher positions. Why is TU Delft not a better reflection of society? As a Jewish man, I myself am a minority. I don’t notice it that much, but I do feel it if others feel disadvantaged. My background is in social sciences and I know that if diverse people work on something together it enriches the knowledge and creativity. Diversity is not a barrier and it should not be imposed. It is wonderful and positive.”

Does TU Delft have a problem with diversity?
“The employee monitor shows that staff does experience discrimination, so there really is something going on. At the same time, we know little about the situation. We don’t know what those figures mean and what is happening there? We need to find out. We need information and need to ask more pointed questions to get this information. These type of issues need to be pushed to the fore. TU Delft knows this. This shows in the fact that there will be a physical diversity office with a coordinator, a policy officer and secretarial support, as well as a diversity board with student and staff representatives.”

‘There is a problem with discrimination’

You want more hard figures, but universities don’t register where your parents are born, what your sexual orientation is, and how you define yourself in terms of gender.
“Then we need to issue anonymous surveys that respect privacy. You need something to go on. If we want to set goals for ourselves that we are accountable for, we need to know how many students currently have Turkish or Moroccan backgrounds, for example.”

What concrete changes do you want to bring about?
“Some people are afraid to hire people from a different culture. They wonder what they should do with them. We need to drop that fear of the other. Diversity must be embedded in courses and degree programmes. Students and staff must learn empathy and to see the positive. Deep down we are all the same, it’s just that we all have a layer of culture. That layer must not stand in the way. 
It’s also important that the Diversity Office gets a physical place where people can come, and we need a much better website. But to my mind, the information comes first. I want to know what is going on. 
There are already a lot of plans and we need to phase them in. I am a doer by nature and do not see this as a symbolic position. There is a problem with discrimination. This is what triggered me. If this emerges in a report (the Employee Monitor, eds.), it’s already too late. People must have the tools to solve problems.”

While preparing for this interview, I heard, as I have before, that it is not so much a question of tools, but of fear. People do not dare make it personal if they, as a woman for example, do not get a promotion. What can you do about this?
“Managers need to understand what their job is. If a woman has been on pregnancy leave, for instance, you should not hold it against her that she has not published as much. That is a real problem in academia. A change in culture is needed.”

‘I don’t think that quotas would help science’

A change in culture takes a long time. What can you do now for someone who has a problem?
“We want to be the front office and refer people to networks like HR staff or Confidential Advisors for example who can help outside our office. I think it’s sad if someone feels stuck and there is no one to talk to. We are a neutral and safe space where anyone can come, but we do not have the means ourselves to solve conflict situations.”

Would a quota help women move up to higher positions?
“I am a feminist, but I don’t think that quotas would help science. You need to put in more effort to find excellent women, but you shouldn’t just fill up your quota regardless of the person’s qualifications.”

That implies that there are more excellent men than women, while that is often not the case among PhD candidates. It usually goes wrong higher up in the career ladder.
“It really is harder to find women. Place a vacancy and usually many more men will respond. So you need to really do your utmost to find women. We also need to make it clearer that TU Delft considers equal opportunities important. And that brings me back to the figures that I need. Later on we can show that we are not afraid of the figures and can say what our targets are. Then we will demonstrate that we really want to reflect society.”

In June, Executive Board member Rob Mudde responded to the Black Lives Matter movement. He asked everyone to take an honest look at themselves. How do you see yourself?
“Jewish people in America have always stood for equal rights. That is in my blood. My children have coloured wives. I am proud that I have lived in Tel Aviv, the gay capital of the world. It is too sad for words that people are discriminated against. I have never been discriminated against, but my children have been. They go to a Jewish secondary school that, unfortunately necessarily, is the best protected building in the Netherlands. My nephew, who wears a kippah, sees that anti-Semitism is on the rise.”

‘Come and talk to me first and look at me as another human being’

What do you say to people who raise questions about your appointment as the Diversity Officer given that you are a ‘white male’?
“My people are the most discriminated people in history. My grandparents did not survive the Holocaust. I know what discrimination is. I may look white on the outside, but I belong to a minority group. It says something if people judge each other on their skin colour and not on what they signify. You should not judge. Come and talk to me first and look at me as another human being.”

What about staff and students with disabilities. What can they expect from you?
“We will make sure that the facilities are working properly, that access is available and that the necessary equipment and measures are in place. We are doing everything we can to make everyone feel welcome. I have a master’s in ergonomics and believe that you need to adapt technology to humans and not vice versa.”

International students face problems with loans, work visas and high tuition fees on top of loneliness and cultural differences. What can you do for them?
“In Industrial Design Engineering we are mixing project groups. This is really working. The teachers may benefit from some extra training, especially now in these times of corona. We also need to map the problems here. Once we know this, we can see who can help solve them. By the way, I am optimistic about Dutch students today. They are world citizens.”

To what extent do you see your position as Diversity Officer a political one?
“It is certainly that. I need to find the right balance between freedom of expression and discrimination. TU Delft needs to show what it believes in and fight for it. In working towards this, I want to strike the right balance and avoid conflict. I don’t want to only produce paper and words, but find hands-on people who want to be part of this process and give them some power.”

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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