The UvA is Changing

By Anne de Graaf

uva isWelcome to the University of Amsterdam’s Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) Team blog. This originated out of the need for a communication medium to supplement the UvA website as well as media reports. I am Anne de Graaf, the CDO whose privilege it is to head up the team of (in alphabetical order) Alfie Martis, Fatima Kamal, Inez van der Zee, Nini Pieters, Pieta Harsveld and Tarim Flach. We’ll be using this blog to amplify voices and explore issues and solutions that make our university community even more inclusive, equitable, and diverse. This is the first of many blog posts that make more visible all that my team and I are busy doing, and we’ll be posting them every week, so please be sure to check back and see what’s new!

I don’t really have an average week in my position as CDO, but last week what I did, for example, included giving a talk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Diplomacy and Diversity, attending the University Forum, and meeting to discuss bringing a big-name civil rights activist to the UvA for various events in the spring. But every week is different!

Our mission and work

I’ve been doing this job for nearly a year, and there are many concrete initiatives already taking place. Bottom line: what’s changed? Just a few  chosen milestones include the following:

  • We now have faculty diversity officers at all seven UvA faculties, who meet monthly with and are part of the CDO Team. Each of them is working hard in their respective faculty to raise awareness and improve policies, and will provide updates on a regular basis. These updates will be posted on the UvA Diversity Website
  • We are working with a group of students, helping develop student workshops, called Our Bodies, Our Voice, aimed at raising awareness about and preventing sexual aggression and promoting gender equality
  • Mapping diversity in UvA faculties in order to better identify areas needing attention
  • We developed a best practices booklet based on other universities’ diversity policies and initiatives. You can find this here
  • There is a new central policy on accessibility of facilities (buildings being adjusted and initiatives such as a Disability Office) which is currently being implemented.
  • Learning from and cooperating with parties such as the Diversity Forum (representatives from groups including the University of Colour, De Nieuwe Universiteit, Rethink UvA, Humanities Rally, New Urban Collective and ASVA) by including their representatives as CDO Team members
  • Diversity events (starting 8 November 2018) to raise awareness, open listening spaces, exchange ideas and plan related activities
  • I meet regularly with the VSNU (Vereniging van Universiteiten), LNVH (Stichting Landelijk Netwerk Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren) and diversity officers from other Dutch universities (and even more often with the VU (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)), as well as with diversity organizations like ECHO (where the UvA is a full partner) and Stichting Diversity, and the Ministry of OCW (Education, Culture & Science) to help change national policy and achieve greater equality in Dutch higher education in general.

In addition to the above list, there are many different things happening, but sometime they may be overlooked because of their scattered nature. If you have any questions about one or more of our initiatives, or if you have any ideas or suggestions, please do not hesitate to contact the CDO team!

To create structure for the academic year 2018-2019 we will focus on the following priorities:

Students

  • Academic Diversity Programme (ADP) (peer-to-peer academic and social mentoring programme) in cooperation with Amsterdam United

Students and staff

  • Enhancement of reporting protocol and complaints procedure
  • Open Communication workshops for people in leadership positions (raising awareness about implicit bias and aggression), and contributing in this respect to the UvA’s Academic Leadership Program.

Staff

  • More equitable selection, recruitment, and hiring policies (pilot for a new selection process, review of policies re. pregnancy leave, promotion procedures, etc.)

Amsterdam

  • Homework coaching in primary schools at pre-CITO level (in cooperation with partners from various Amsterdam communities).

Culture change

You can find our full mission statement here. However, in order to truly achieve this a culture change needs to take place. To change a culture like the one at the UvA takes time. As the UVA community we are in the process of that change. We learn, but we could do much better. And that means being committed to goals like becoming more welcoming for a diverse student population and workforce, cultivating diversity literacy, embracing diversity of knowledges, and growing relationships with local communities. Some of these processes are already underway. Of the more than 30,000 students and 6,000 employees, many are working hard to create a better equity, inclusion, and diversity policy. It’s a long game, striving for sustainable rewiring of the biggest university in the country means top-down, bottom-up, and sideways initiatives all combining to create momentum as our norms and values shift and we come to realize our own implicit biases, and as we learn to listen to others’ stories and suggestions of how to make our university even more welcoming, fair, and enriched by different perspectives.

A tricky concept

Diversity is a tricky concept and forty years into the movements to make salaries fairer, and working places and lecture halls more welcoming, we often still struggle with an us-and-them mentality. It’s only a small step to take a workshop on implicit bias or learn the latest definitions for describing a given community (although these are excellent starting steps). And the concept of diversity is so broad it covers gender, ethnic, special needs, socio-economic and many other often layered identities and areas of intersectionality.

Window of opportunity

The UvA is in a unique position because of major structural changes these last few years. We are experiencing what is termed in the human rights world as a window of opportunity. I took on this job 1 November 2017. The post of CDO comes out of the report on diversity, called “Let’s do diversity.” This report named the need for a CDO at the UvA, as part of a major shift in policy focus toward greater diversity, equity and inclusion at the UvA. We now also have a new CvB, new management heads such as Human Resources and Academic Affairs, and new deans at six of the seven faculties. This is enormously significant as it means I’m not knocking on closed doors, but that there is a recognition and willingness at the very highest level that change must take place. It is not a question of willingness, but more about when and how, as we are changing! It is a privilege to work with students and staff as we formulate proposals, create policy, and facilitate this shift toward understanding better how our community can become even more welcoming and equitable.

Controversies and commitment

It’s a tough job, though. For some I’m moving too fast, as change is, by its nature, threatening. And for others I’m moving too slowly, as micro-aggressions and the pain of experiencing prejudice and ignorance cut deep. The diversity report provides a road map for what we do, we are tracking our progress according to the issues discussed in the report, as well as by other means, including identifying benchmarks and researching indicators. I am so very inspired by the efforts of students and staff. In my role as facilitator, I hear stories every week that vary from a new pregnancy leave policy at the FEB to a new course in Black Studies at FgW. As a lecturer in human rights and human security, as well as peacebuilding, and as a researcher in the field of peace and conflict studies, I am deeply committed to helping make the UvA more equitable, more welcoming, and more diverse. Diversity is one of those win-win things: it enriches us on all levels, academically, research-wise, and as individuals.

Since November there have been several media articles about me and diversity policy at the UvA. I’ve received mixed feedback. One interview in particular seemed to resonate with people from various backgrounds and it used the term safe space. Safe space can mean something different if it is contained in quotation marks, like “safe space,” which could refer to so-called safe space, as in politically correct and let’s not rock the boat by saying anything controversial. Safe space can also refer to a place where people don’t need to be wary of being othered or stereotyped or misunderstood because of their differences. Safe space can also mean a place where there is no fear. Words can have different meanings and when they are twisted out of context that can be dangerous. The term safer space is more nuanced than safe space, which is why we want to use the former. However, it’s also important to try and understand the background of fear and aggression and vulnerability that make a phrase like safe space such a source of controversy. In any case, I want to be clear that I am absolutely committed to making the UvA a place where all our students and staff can flourish, be respected, and develop to their full potential. I champion this cause.

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