1 June 2017

Launch of the Diversity Task Force

How can we ensure that the university is a place where creative and innovative ideas can flourish? By engaging with perspectives and views that are different from our own. To ensure that Utrecht University is a place where academic debate is enriched through a variety of backgrounds, diversity – of gender, ethnicity, class, religion and sexuality, among others – is a key theme of the Strategic Plan. In order to achieve these aims, the diversity task force was launched on Monday 15 May.

“What percentage of our students is from a Dutch background?”, was the question that Marjan Oudeman, chair of the Executive Board, asked students, lecturers and staff. The auditorium of the Parnassos cultural centre remained relatively quiet. “Sixty-six per cent of residents of Utrecht is from a Dutch background, but the figure for our students is 90 per cent”, answered Oudeman. “What percentage of our students is female?”, she went on to ask the audience. “Sixty per cent. And the percentage of female professors? Twenty-two per cent. Not bad compared with the national level, but it doesn’t reflect who we are as a society.” Work thus remains to be done, Oudeman concluded. Explaining why this is the case is hardly necessary, in her opinion: “We all understand the importance of diversity.” But she did have one point to make on this: “If, as a university, we want to be at the heart of society, then we need to reflect that society.”

‘Outsiders’ as drivers of radical innovation

Werner Raub, another speaker at the kick-off event for the diversity taskforce and dean of the faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, did impress upon the audience why much is to be gained from making the university a more diverse environment. “In our quest for knowledge, we benefit from different perspectives.” To substantiate this, he cited research by Anton Blok, which found that innovative thinkers such as Einstein often came from ‘unfavourable’ backgrounds. Their position as outsiders inspired them to take a critical view of prevailing opinions, which created space for new ideas. This was endorsed by Saya Abdullah, shortly to graduate in Medicine and a member of the taskforce: ‘Everyone has something unique to contribute, and if we combine all this talent, we will be able to do more than we could alone.”

The diversity taskforce is not only responsible for analysing the current state of affairs in the university, however; it is also focusing on developing measures that will play an essential role in increasing diversity. Something on which, in Oudeman’s view, they cannot start fast enough: ‘Rather than spending time convincing one another of the importance of diversity, let’s all give the task force a boost.”

Rather than spending time convincing one another of the importance of diversity, let’s all give the taskforce a boost.
Marjan Oudeman
President of the Executive Board

Not limited by your background

The step to how to achieve diversity in practice was made at Monday’s event by Stephanie Lee, head of increasing participation and outreach at the University of Manchester. Her account of how she increased participation among young people from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ struck a chord with many people, as shown by the brainstorm sessions. Many thought that the Manchester Access Programme in particular is something that Utrecht University could adopt. In this programme, young people with academic potential, but lower exam grades (ABB as opposed to AAA), receive coaching to help them make the most of opportunities at university nevertheless. Well before the start of the academic year, they embark on courses in academic skills, for example, and write a paper under supervision. If they are thereby able to gain enough points, participation in the programme is seen as compensation for their lower examination grades.

“Thanks to the Manchester Access Programme, I’m not limited by my background,” said Scott, one of the participating students. Interestingly, as Stephanie Lee explained, students like Scott ultimately perform better in the job market than regular students. Within the lecture halls, they score better on some aspects and less well on others, but in the world of work, they do better. Given that students in the outreach programme ultimately perform better, Manchester is considering offering the programme to a broader group of students.

Celebrating diversity together

This idea was welcomed enthusiastically by the various attendees. But the members of the audience – around one hundred students, lecturers and staff from the UU – also had their own ideas about how the university could work on diversity in practice. At the end of the kick-off, the members of the taskforce shared a number of suggestions that had been made. These ranged from partying together more often to developing training on subconscious bias for members of selection panels; and from demonstrating what is already being done within the university to developing joint programmes with schools and societal stakeholders.