Wageningen University & Research wants to be an inclusive and diverse organisation; there is no room for discrimination and racism in such a place. This is why, at the beginning of last year, WUR initiated a three-year project to minimise racism and discrimination: DARE. And that is a step in the right direction, said rector magnificus Arthur Mol.
“You can only change something if you’re aware of your own blind spots”
In February 2021 WUR initiated the DARE project. The acronym stands for Decolonization, Anti-Racism, Anti-Discrimination, Equity and Equal Chances. What was the incentive for this initiative?
“The increasingly prominent social discussion about racism arising from the Black Lives Matter movement gave rise to this initiative. We have been working on inclusiveness and discrimination at WUR for some time already, but often related to gender. The DARE project broadens our approach. The project will run for three years, after which the subject should be mainstream at WUR.”
The goal of DARE is to minimalise discrimination and racism at WUR. What does that actually mean?
“The general goal of DARE is to initiate a process to raise awareness, to see how discrimination and racism occur, to determine if that is incidental or structural and then to minimalise it. In our annual staff monitor we already asked employees about their experiences with discrimination and there were some reactions, but we had the idea that there was more going on than was being reported. Not conscious discrimination per se, but perhaps unconscious forms of discrimination. Because the staff monitor is anonymous, it often provides only limited insight and fewer handles for taking action. This is why we are promoting another, complementary approach.
DARE will ensure that we engage in the discussion and increase awareness at WUR. Culture & awareness constitute one of the project’s four pillars, and I think this is the most important one. If you want to change something, it really needs to be addressed throughout the organisation. That is only possible if you are aware of your own prejudices and blind spots. And everyone has those.”
What are the other three pillars of DARE?
“The first is Reporting discrimination and racism. This could include reducing the thresholds for reporting discrimination, for example by setting up a central reporting point, but also by cooperating with the working group on undesirable behaviour. The second pillar, Education & Research, focuses on our curriculum and our research programmes. For example, do they contain elements in which discrimination consciously or unconsciously plays a role? The last pillar, Documents & Policy, must ensure that WUR personnel and students receive equal access, equal opportunities and fair treatment.”
That central reporting point for discrimination and racism isn’t operational yet, but when it is, how do you feel such reports should be handled? Are they just for the statistics or should the person concerned also be called upon to account for their behaviour?
“The idea and objective is that such reports really translate into action. If the report can be traced back to a person, then of course we will speak with them. If the report is about institutionalised forms of discrimination, this may require adjustment of processes, policy and measures, for example in the recruitment process.”
“Those reports will also help us to get a better sense of what people experience and perceive as discrimination. Is there unequivocal discrimination in a given situation or do different cultures, different forms of conduct or different ways of communicating play a role in perceptions of discrimination? The reports will offer many possibilities for entering into discussions and taking measures within the WUR community. I expect that the discrimination reporting point will provide us with a lot of insight into both conscious and unconscious discrimination at WUR.”
As stated on the DARE page both WUR and the curriculum have to be decolonised. Can you give examples of what should be changed?
“I think decolonisation is a difficult term and one that I wouldn’t use so quickly myself, but I don’t think it’s wrong to be sensitive and to talk about it. Perhaps we have blind spots for colonial aspects in contemporary teaching and research. Compare it to medical research: because this is usually done on men, treatment and medication were less effective on women and forms of illness specific to women were less likely to be diagnosed. Medical science has only recently become aware of this. I am open to the question of whether something similar plays a role in decolonisation in teaching and research at WUR, but I myself haven’t seen it yet.”
DARE also focuses on ensuring equal access and opportunities for WUR personnel and students. Could you say something more about this?
“Let’s take the recruitment process as an example. For a long time, we have paid too little attention to the fact that women react differently than men to specific requirements in advertisements. We are now much more alert to this and we also consult experts. For example, we have our job vacancy texts screened for gender neutrality and we emphatically – and sometimes proactively – invite women and international scientists to apply. In addition, a diversity specialist is often also present at job interviews for professors in order to avoid or reduce a bias in the selection committee.”
“With regard to student admissions, of course we want to accept the best students and we want a diverse student community. Our current student body of Dutch students is quite white. It seems that Dutch students with a Moroccan, Turkish, Antillean or Surinamese background have difficulty finding their way to WUR. In part, that’s because of what we teach; traditionally these students tend to choose to study law, economics or medicine. But perhaps we aren’t inviting enough so that these groups of students don’t identify enough with WUR. In our information campaigns, we use WUR students who are, as said, predominantly white. That could create an unwelcoming image so we’re going to change this.”
How diverse are the managerial and board levels at WUR?
“Not diverse enough. There is increasingly more gender diversity, but that has long been emphasised. There is more diversity in the nationality of professors, but this is less so among managers. And yet that is important because that top also makes the work environment more sensitive. We want diversity to be present in all layers and not only among, for example, support staff or lecturers. But I am fully aware that these are very long processes in which awareness and cultural change are important.
These aren’t aspects that a rector can enforce, but I can make them subjects for discussion and can show that diversity and inclusivity are good and important for our organisation, because we want to be an international organisation. We have an international focus, and diversity and inclusiveness help us move forward. That should also be reflected in the organisation.”
The project began in February 2021. What has it accomplished so far?
“Because of corona the project’s start took more time than expected. These are sensitive issues that you’d rather discuss face to face, but the start had to be online. Since then, a number of workshops and training sessions have been given – also to management. During the Diversity Week various events were organised (a privilege walk and a Safe & Brave spaces session, ed.) and the website has been finished. We also worked hard on the reporting point.
DARE’s staff was also involved in channelling discussions between WUR, Impulse and the United Community of African Students (UCAS). UCAS was shocked by a photo exhibition of a WUR student. He did a final project about waste treatment in Ghana and created an exhibition about waste pickers, people who go through the mountains of waste in search of usable objects. UCAS felt that Africa had been framed colonially and incorrectly, while the student, with the best of intentions, had wanted to depict these people’s strength, cooperation and their contribution to sustainability. The discussion became very heated on both sides. At least it’s a start that the subject is now open for discussion.”
One good example leads to another they say. What do you yourself do to fight racism and stimulate equal treatment?
“That’s not so easy to say. No one wants to consciously discriminate even though we do that unconsciously. Take the Black Pete discussion for example. Twenty years ago, I wasn’t aware of the fact that Black Pete was offensive to a large segment of the population, but I am now. To become more aware of the issues at hand, I talk with international students and staff members about what they experience, what annoys them or what makes them feel stigmatised.
I also look at our processes – for example, recruitment and student information – with an open and inquisitive eye. Discrimination is obviously a highly charged word. People don’t talk about it easily, so you need to provide a safe context and environment. Asking questions that attack or accuse doesn’t work, in fact it even be counterproductive. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the staff of DARE; they invite us to an open dialogue without judging, and this is what we need.”