Diversity and inclusivity beyond the ivory tower: let’s “make it happen”...together!
On 22 November 2018, I attended what I find to be a vital discussion on turning EUR into a more inclusive institution. The fully booked seminar “Creating an Inclusive University” was held at the Erasmus Pavilion. The event opened with an inspiring speech given by Rector Magnificus Prof. Rutger Engels who promised to take concrete steps towards diversity and inclusivity. Chief Diversity Officer Prof. Semiha Denktas also addressed the audience and provided an important vision for inclusivity at the level of our University and beyond. Keynote of the seminar, Prof. Curt Rice, elaborated on the “anecdata” (not scientifically backed anecdote-influenced information) that surrounds the topic of diversity and inclusivity and advocated for a scientifically-supported approach to the process. These presentations and a consequent panel discussion with inputs from the audience inspired me to write this post and share my own thoughts on the topic that has been a personal issue for as long as I can remember.
Public Sphere is a key element in crafting solutions
The concept of public sphere implies “a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed” and where “access is guaranteed to all citizens” (Habermas, Lennox, & Lennox, 1964, p. 49). This public opinion should then, ideally, inform policy. Political actions to counter xenophobia, social, institutional and other inequalities are of dire relevance and importance globally. Fundamental problems arise when political will is not being informed and shaped by a diversity of voices. We can narrow down this political will to the level of a given country, a city, or a university. I would argue that the dynamic between these levels is mutually-influential, as the vision and action at the top are as important as the vision and action coming from all the lateral components of the society. In order to form a more informed understanding of true challenges to diversity and inclusivity, we need to get to know each other and collectively craft solutions. We need public sphere. As social boundaries and structural barriers continue to be omnipresent, bridges constructed within the university cannot function in isolation from the outside world. In order to “make it happen,” steps towards inclusivity and diversity must indeed reach beyond the academic institution. This implies a complexity of nuances that stretch across gender, ethnicity, religious confessions and lack thereof, nationality, economic background, social status, sexuality, age, health, linguistics, life experiences, etc., etc., etc. I know I am missing more elements, but the point is not to list them all here, the point is to spotlight the multitude and diversity of issues that can only be tackled with the help of the multitude and diversity of voices.
The first bridge
Amid the ongoing search for solutions, I would like to zoom in on one important programme that is already in action. The aim here is not to be in denial about the fundamental problems with diversity and inclusivity. On the contrary, the objective is to spotlight one of the current initiatives with the hope for more solutions.
This November I had an incredible opportunity to work with refugee students at our University as part of the Erasmus Preparatory Year. The programme prepares refugee students for the pursuit of higher education. I find this to be a true example of a logical action that reaches the community beyond campus. My contribution was rather humble and implied a workshop-type session on social media in the context of its harms and benefits. Yet, even one session was an incredibly rewarding experience for me for several reasons. When I learned about this programme I felt proud of our University. It is a gratifying feeling to be part of the institution that thinks beyond the ivory tower. In the workshop, I learned as much from the students as I hope they have learned from me. While pursuing my master’s degree, I studied media framing of refugees amid the so-called “European migration crisis,” and was devastated by the disturbing political manipulation and populist sentiments which were aided by too many media outlets globally. However, I did not know any refugees in Europe personally. My compassion was abstract, it was constructed at a distance...
Holding a session with refugee students and addressing fake news, and positive/negative aspects of visibility granted by social media platforms was an amazing experience. Many of these students had personal experiences with media manipulation. We had the chance to collectively address these phenomena and critically assess the role of traditional and new media in influencing public opinion. Most importantly, we connected. We shared. We informed and influenced each other. Erasmus university enabled the time and space where a PhD Candidate from Uzbekistan, working in the Netherlands on the topic of vigilant citizens in Russia, had the opportunity to connect with students from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and together address global media trends. To me, this was a true resemblance of the public sphere.
Habermas, J., Lennox, S., & Lennox, F. (1974). The public sphere: An encyclopedia article (1964). New German Critique, 3(3), 49-49. doi:10.2307/487737
Rashid Gabdulhakov is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Media and Communication of Erasmus School of History Culture and Communication. Supervised by Dr. Daniel Trottier and Professor Susanne Janssen, Rashid is investigating vigilant behavior in digital space as part of the ‘Digital Vigilantism: Mapping the terrain and assessing societal impact’ Project funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).