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Diversity and inclusion at Leiden University: Just ticking a box or the sincere desire to change?

Diversity and inclusion at Leiden University: Just ticking a box or the sincere desire to change?

Almost six years ago I made the transition from a job in the judiciary to working at the law faculty of Leiden University. I soon became aware of a lack of visible diversity among the faculty staff, although the student population did seem to be reasonably diverse.

I am referring here to diversity of staff with a non-western migration background.

In 2015, the university’s Diversity Officer at the time set up a focus group which, solicited and unsolicited, would provide the Executive Board with recommendations related to diversity policy. I became a member of this focus group and have remained so ever since. Being a highly diverse group (diverse in the broadest sense of the word) of students and staff, we were asked (on an entirely voluntary basis) to reflect critically on the university’s policy on diversity. Over a period of five years we were presented with exactly one plan of action from management. The rest of our time was spent organising debates, events to promote awareness, symposia and discussion evenings. To be blunt, there was no policy. This was not so much the fault of the Diversity Officer but was down to the difficulty in creating a broad support base that was prepared to give attention to this topic.

With the renewed attention that has been paid to diversity and inclusion in recent months, the call for change has become increasingly louder. The new generation of students are well in touch with the spirit of the times and are more outspoken than previous generations. They also belong to larger groups. Various student groups have now set up their own networks (STAR, MENA, etc.) and together with colleagues across the entire university, we have set up the Leiden University Diversity and Equality Network (LUDEN). This has reinforced the call for recognition and a desire for equal treatment.

Diversity is no longer about differences in thinking, opinions and points of view. Don’t get me wrong: of course, the university is the place where such discussions must and can be held, in the spirit of Praesidium Libertatis. But if you want to hold a discussion at that level, you first need to ensure that there are actually people with different thoughts, opinions or a different frame of reference in this academic community

This year the central Diversity Office, which has three highly motivated colleagues, was renamed Diversity & Inclusion Expertise Office. There have also been calls to establish working groups at each faculty that aim to translate the university action points into faculty action points. Some faculties have gone even further and immediately created vacancies for a faculty diversity coordinator. These are all great initiatives that are intended to create more awareness and to encourage more constructive discussions with each other about (a) what diversity is, (b) how to bring about more diversity, and (c) how to achieve inclusion.

What is diversity?

Diversity is no longer about differences in thinking, opinions and points of view. Don’t get me wrong: of course, the university is the place where such discussions must and can be held, in the spirit of Praesidium Libertatis. But if you want to hold a discussion at that level, you first need to ensure that there are actually people with different thoughts, opinions or a different frame of reference in this academic community, under the same banner, and who also dare to speak their mind. And this is where it would seem that we come up short.

It is often claimed that selection is based on quality and that if there is a lack of diversity at certain levels, this can be explained by a lack of quality. It is now clear that this is no excuse. If it was down to the same group of people who believe that a lack of diversity is due to a shortage of candidates with the ‘right’ qualities, we would probably still have an organisation where all professors were male, and all secretaries were female.

The great thing about the university is that broad diversity does exist among the students in particular. We have excellent students, staff members and lecturers from all walks of life working hard and who are committed to the university. But unfortunately, at some level it stops. So why is that?

How, for example, can you explain why students with a migration background came to me about their thesis topics and wrote to me first if they had certain problems? I don’t have a doctorate, I’m not a lecturer, in fact I’m not even a legal scholar. But still, I was the one they came to because they could identify with me.

Why are there so few staff members with a migration background?

I am not going to put forward some abstract theoretical story based on science here. Book shelves are packed with books on the topic. Instead, I would ask you all to look around you. Look at the composition of departments (professors, associate professors and assistant professors). Look at the composition of the management levels (both central and decentral). Look at the academic directors and heads of department, the day-to-day administration of departments. Look at the advisory councils and other such bodies. You won’t find many role models for people with a different socioeconomic background, a different appearance, et cetera.

How, for example, can you explain why students with a migration background came to me about their thesis topics and wrote to me first if they had certain problems? I don’t have a doctorate, I’m not a lecturer, in fact I’m not even a legal scholar. But still, I was the one they came to because they could identify with me. If there are no role models, for both students and staff, we can have files bursting with policy and action points, but this isn’t going to bring about change.

I clearly remember one occasion at a panel meeting when the president of a major Dutch company was asked what he planned to do to create more diversity in the workplace and to create an inclusive working environment. His answer was that his company would organise a diversity symposium once a year. And that would satisfy the requirement: check!

Worried about criticism? Of course, there will be criticism! Wasn’t there criticism about the separation of church and State? Wasn’t there criticism about women’s suffrage? Change doesn’t just happen. Change goes hand in hand with discomfort and pain. But while not all change leads to improvements, improvements always come about through change.

What can we do to improve?

If we, Leiden University, just want to tick boxes, all we have to do is keep setting up even more committees and producing even more reports. Keep inviting consultancy firms and organising yet another diversity symposium where the same ‘yes-men’ gather. If the university truly wants to move forward in the area of diversity and inclusion, it needs to start recognising and acknowledging diversity in talent. Ensure that diversity becomes a core value of the organisation and not just an instrumental value. Ensure that diversity is visible. Ensure that there is a safe environment for expressing different ways of thinking, in the spirit of Praesidium Libertatis. State the sincere desire to achieve diversity and inclusion – and then practise what is preached.

Worried about criticism? Of course, there will be criticism! Wasn’t there criticism about the separation of church and State? Wasn’t there criticism about women’s suffrage? Change doesn’t just happen. Change goes hand in hand with discomfort and pain. But while not all change leads to improvements, improvements always come about through change.

About Amir Ali Abadi

Amir Ali Abadi is Project Manager of the Europa Institute at the Institute of Public Law. He has been working at Leiden Law School since September 2014. First at the E.M. Meijers Institute as coordinator of the networks LERU (League of European Research Universities) and SARFaL (Strategic Alliance of Research Faculties of Law), and later at the Institute of Private Law as academic coordinator of the Masters in Civil Law and the Advanced Masters in International Civil and Commercial Law.

Amir studied International Trade Management, Political Science and Public Administration. He also participated in the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus master’s specialization in Governance of Migration and Diversity. His interests are mainly in the field of international relations and diplomacy, international organizations and migration policy, Dutch politics, integration, labor market discrimination, diversity and inclusion.

Amir is also an active member of the Diversity Policy Sounding Board Group, member of the Faculty Working Group Diversity and Inclusion of Leiden Law School, core member of the Leiden University Diversity and Equality Network and he takes a seat on the Advisory Board of Nederland Maakt Impact.

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