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.”