"COVID has reinforced the need to incorporate an inclusive approach across the academic field"

Following an appointment from the Minister of Education, Culture and Science (OCW), Ingrid van Engelshoven, EUR’s Chief Diversity Officer, Prof. Semiha Denktaş will join the National Advisory Committee on Diversity in Higher Education and Research. This committee monitors and advises the ministry and the academic sector on achieving the objectives of the new National Diversity Action Plan. We asked Prof. Denktaş about the new action plan and its potential impact on EUR and the wider academic sector.

The Dutch government recently developed a new action plan for diversity and inclusion. What are its main conclusions?

Firstly, the main aim is for this action plan is that diversity and inclusion are ‘better anchored in existing instruments, such as quality assurance, evaluation and NWO instruments.’ Specifically, this begins with the assessment of research proposals, programs and curricula.  Secondly, outlining better what must be present to implement diversity policies in education and research.

Also, better embedding diversity and inclusion more in existing accreditation, assessment and qualification instruments, such as in educational qualifications (BKO, SKO).

And finally encouraging expertise in diversity and inclusion as an integral part of competence and selection criteria in vacancies, appointments, leadership and management positions.

What benefits do you see from this plan?

What encourages me is that, purely by its formation, it underlines formally the importance of diversity and inclusion to the core business of academic institutions as well as sets the tone for actors within our institutions to promote it.

Secondly, this action plan as a statement and through its operation invites whole institutions and not just diversity officers to think meaningfully about their D&I priorities, aims and how they are embracing or can embrace the broader lessons of D&I. I believe that it is a very positive addition.

Furthermore, I see it as setting a framework to enable motivated individuals and institutions to work together and learn from each other, which builds momentum.

Simply, it encourages the raising of standards for all academic institutions, which can only benefit, students, researchers, workers and broader society. 

Why do you see that such an action plan is needed in academic education and research?

Academia is a competitive industry; and diverse, inclusive environments where people feel high levels of social safety, are places that enable the innovative thinking and co-operation that is needed to generate high-quality research.

Whilst we have looked to develop strategies to incorporate diversity and inclusion thinking into their practices, there is still much work to do. The truth is that the overall landscape remains uneven and that many students, researchers and workers thus do not yet receive or recognise the direct benefits that come from an explicit diversity and inclusion approach. Simply, they do not know how to get involved in promoting said approach and is it not clear whether it even matters. 

Consequently, this action plan is useful as it encourages and supports institutions to embed diversity and inclusion policy in a structural and meaningful manner and to support wider actions that promote it also.

You are also a member of the governments’ COVID taskforce- another major societal challenge. Do you see points where these challenges intersect?

Absolutely! Whether you are looking at the impact of COVID-19, economic inequalities, or systemic barriers of racism, sexism, etc. many of the critical challenges of our societies relate to diversity and inclusion. If anything, COVID has reinforced the need to incorporate an inclusive approach across the academic field and within our community.

Notwithstanding the emotional strain individuals face across our community and beyond, we have seen specific and unique challenges faced by certain groups. For example, research output by women fell back as during lockdown as household duties were placed mainly on women, also, economically insecure students also faced reduced access to the high-quality facilities that EUR provide, without the ability to compensate for this in their home lives. These unique challenges mean that to re-enfranchise these individuals means acknowledging the impact of certain equality dimensions on their abilities to be a productive colleague or student, namely, gender and income in these. examples. Our COVID white paper, authored by researchers at the Diversity office came to this conclusion, offering action perspectives for all relevant parties.  

Many of the recommendations of this national plan will need to be implemented within academic institutions like EUR. How important is our Diversity Office to ensuring this within EUR?

Diversity offices/officers are important, but ensuring diversity and inclusion is far too important to be left solely to them.

Diversity officers at present have an essential role to be ambassadors, advocates, as well as active and engaged leaders in implementing these comprehensive plans to promote inclusivity at their institutions. But there are limits to this role, as such, the most important is getting enough buy-in and support from all individuals and actors within EUR. Getting all colleagues to recognise their responsibilities in understanding how aspects of diversity affect their work, and in taking ownership, whether structurally or individually to create an equitable environment. Of course, that starts with support from the top management within the institution.

Lastly, next month you will begin your tenure on the advisory committee overseeing this plan. What are your thoughts about that?

I am pleased to join this promising committee, and I look forward to continuing the great efforts we have made in making EUR a more safe and equitable institution. I am eager to bring these principles at a wider level through membership of this committee. I believe by working closely with the ministry and with esteemed colleagues, we can better ensure the inclusivity and equity that is the prerequisite to academic excellence.

More information

More information about diversity and inclusion at EUR

Read more on the pages about diversity and inclusion at Erasmus University Rotterdam, or send an email to diversity@eur.nl.