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19 October 2020

Quality through diversity

Not everybody is too happy with diversity policies. As Diversity Office we hear frequently the following reactions: “Gender and colour should make no difference when we are hiring someone.” “Why do LGBTI+-people need special attention at the university?” “I am colour-blind. I only see the individual in front of me.”

We are more aware of diversity and discrimination than in the past. We are paying attention to differences between individuals and to structural inequalities between groups. We discuss it in universities, we see it in the job market, we fight about it in social media. And since the Black Lives Matter-voices sound, we understand more than ever that cultural and ethnic backgrounds can make a difference in how you experience life and in which chances and support you get.

The opposite voices are also becoming stronger. For some ‘diversity’ has become a catchall phrase for all kinds of wokeness that undermine our work at the university and our peaceful coexistence. All this talk about diversity… why don’t we just focus on our academic work? Quality is all that counts.

Tempting!

A world in which gender and colour would make no difference sounds great to me. A world of equal opportunities and equal value is like a dream come true. Indeed, I enjoy the times when I really encounter someone as an individual, forgetting our differences in class, ethnicity, politics, gender, ability. Just as much as I enjoy the times I encounter someone so strange to me and we cherish our differences.

In my world, there is still a subtle privilege if you are white, male, middle-aged, straight, well educated, and able-bodied

But honestly … that is usually not the world I live in. In my world, there is still a subtle privilege if you are white, male, middle-aged, straight, well educated, and able-bodied. Subtle. No clear discriminating rules. No official racism. Just some taken-for-granted assumptions about what counts as quality when we are looking for an excellent academic. Just some minor bias in how we organise our buildings or our curricula. Just the convenience of focusing our research on white middle class people who happen to look like ‘the norm’…

I don’t blame myself or anyone else for being privileged. I didn’t choose my parents, my talents, my body. Just like I don’t pride myself for being in that privileged position as if it were something I merited. But somewhere in between blame and pride is responsibility. Life has dealt me a hand of cards and it is up to me play them. I can choose to make the best of my life. And I can choose to give others similar chances.

So indeed, gender and colour should make no difference. But because they do in all those subtle ways, I can try to balance that out. Sexual and gender diversity should not be relevant at university. But because it does sometimes lead to exclusion, I can try to work on inclusion.

Quality should be all that counts. And therefore in a perfect world we would have no diversity office. But until we reach that world, equality – giving each other the same chances – is the road to quality.

Ruard Ganzevoort

Ruard Ganzevoort

Chief Diversity Officer and dean Faculty of Religion & Theology

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