Managing Diversity in International Studies: An update
Following the discussions surrounding the celebration of Sinterklaas last year I wrote about The Challenges of Inclusivity, where I called upon all of us to help create a safe and inclusive environment at International Studies which is conducive to a positive exchange of ideas, and asked you to engage actively and with an open and constructive mind-set, willing to listen to each other and account for our own input. Nearly twelve months and a recent incident on the campus later we may wonder how far we have come.
Developing an inclusive agenda and mind-set has proven not to always be easy. Finding common ground between our administrators at different levels about the problem and the approach to be taken is already a challenge. Some see racist or other exclusionary incidents as anomalies that need to be dealt with individually, while others see underlying structural problems that need to be confronted. Part of those in managerial positions, often inspired by our communication advisors who are afraid of negative publicity, want to act behind closed doors, others believe that only full-openness will make change possible. Guess where we at International Studies stand.
It has become clear to me that acknowledging that there is something fundamentally exclusionary about our practices as an institution and in our teaching is something that is not universally shared. At a recent gathering surrounding the installation of our new diversity officer, the main speaker, Professor Kalwant Bhopal, highlighted how British academia is essentially racist in its hiring practices, stating that there are only about 0.1% black scholars among its more than 13.000 professors. The extent to which this existed clearly surprised the audience, which included senior university administrators. This showed me that many of us in academia still believe that because they think that we are not racist ourselves, we are immune to exclusionary practices. It has, however, become evident that as an institution we tend to replicate existing exclusionary structures in our hiring practices and are only very slowly able to change. The celebration of the very slowly rising representation of women among professors is a case in point. Even if there are more women on interview panels they still predominantly hire white males.
Operating within this university-wide context I have found developing an inclusionary environment a challenge, which, as Chair of the programme, I have not always been able to live up to. It is a complicated issue which is often easier to forget than confront. The discussions surrounding the invitation of Professor Eric Kaufmann to speak at our opening of the academic year were, for instance, an illuminating experience in that regard. Kaufman has written a controversial book about the rise of populism and its consequences, entitled Whiteshift. Some have subsequently accused him of racism in his suggested remedies. Not knowing the content of the book, I failed to recognise the potential problems when inviting him. Having looked into his work since, I can now see his genuine attempt to explain the rise of right-wing populism in western society, but also recognise the potentially racist implications of his ideas. My colleague, Timothy Stacey, has nicely identified this dichotomy in his recent blog.
Retrospectively I believe that this was not the kind of topic or speaker suited for the opening of the year, which was also a celebratory occasion for students receiving their first-year diplomas. Such issues are better debated in a panel discussion format. However, wider issues than the suitability of time and place came up as a consequence. Some colleagues raised the question whether we should provide a platform to a speaker who by some is seen to propagate racist viewpoints, even if it is in the context of an exercise in free speech in which all academically supported ideas can be debated. At a legal level, it is simple: racism is not allowed, but ideas can often not be so clearly labelled or recognised and the university is no place for censorship either. So how should we deal with controversial topics? The extremes in the range of viewpoints on Zwarte Piet: is it racist, or the expression of an ‘innocent’ tradition, of which I indicated in my essay mentioned above that it is both, show how difficult this is and how it can lead to confrontation and exclusion, and even draw in and force those in-between who have more nuanced positions to take sides.
Making our own teaching practices and curriculum more inclusive has also proven to be a challenge. I have become increasingly aware that making our programme more inclusive is a long-term process that needs involvement from all sides. Although there is now a growing attention to this, even at university level, in practice it is difficult to make progress. Confronting our own and each other’s prejudices and practices is not an easy thing to do, and tends to make many colleagues and students easily wary. As a result even keeping the discussion going can be hard.
As a programme we will, nevertheless, continue to pay attention to this at all levels of our teaching and will, in the future, attempt to integrate aspects of inclusion in our curriculum, but in order to challenge the fundamental issues, more is needed. It will be difficult to find the right formula and to keep inclusion on the agenda while avoiding this wariness, so in order to make change possible we need to keep each other and particularly the management sharp, that includes me, by continuing to ask critical questions and by engaging actively.
I am hopeful though. It is my belief that fundamentally all of us are well-intending people who want the best for as many other people as possible, even if there is an unhelpful tendency to concentrate on those closest to us. A lot of exclusionary practices would be overcome if we all managed to see those who are most different from us in the same way as our own family. To me, the closest professional community is our own diverse International Studies community, where I strive, within legal and ethical boundaries, to facilitate the respectful exchange of opinions intended to bring our diversity of points of view and backgrounds together in a common humanity. The freedom to express opinion, feelings and concerns without being silenced or marginalised, particularly for those who are least heard, must therefore always stand at the core of our values.