09 September 2021

‘Of course VU Amsterdam can always do more to fight racism’


Sad to say, discrimination and racism have not been banished from the VU campus. It is an illusion to think that this can ever happen completely within such a complex and diverse organization. The Diversity Office wants to hear about people’s experiences. As Chief Diversity Officer Ruard Ganzevoort explains, only then we can work on a solution.

The Black Archives, a damning report on racism in Amsterdam, has been attracting a good deal of attention in recent months. Ad Valvas devoted an article to the passages about VU Amsterdam last week. The report paints a picture of a university that refuses to acknowledge racism on campus and does too little to combat discrimination. The relevant section of the report even bore the heading ‘Institutional and anti-black racism at VU Amsterdam’.

The researchers looked at the university’s strategic plan and the long-term approach set out by the Diversity Office. Roundtable discussions were held with key figures from black communities and VU Amsterdam students and alumni. The report also makes extensive reference to issues that arose in the past, some dating from a long time ago. Regrettably, the researchers did not contact the university or our Diversity Office, nor did they take note of our Ad Valvas blog on the specific action taken in the twelve months following our statement on Black Lives Matter. This would have given a more current and nuanced picture.

The researchers claim that VU Amsterdam does not devote structural attention to combatting racism and discrimination. They infer this from the fact that the word racism does not feature in the university’s strategic plan and that racism and discrimination are not mentioned in its procedures and regulations. That is one side of the story. The strategic plan also makes no mention of sexism or ableism, to say nothing of pollution, academic misconduct and abuse of power. Yet these are all issues that we consider to be important and on which we have made concrete commitments. Something that is certainly true of racism and discrimination.

However, we do accept the report’s call for us to take a more explicit and transparent approach to raising issues of racism and discrimination. Many people remain unaware of our complaints procedures, and signals of discrimination do not always reach the right people. There is a need for an easily recognizable one-stop shop where both staff and students can go with their questions and experiences, and where we can advise them in their search for solutions.

Our academic staff is still disproportionately white

What we have done is develop an action plan to increase cultural and ethnic diversity among staff. Our academic staff in particular is still disproportionately white. We have also launched projects with the aim of taking a critical look at our colonial past and at issues of equality and inequality in our approach to international cooperation. We are working on a toolbox that will equip degree programmes to take a critical look at bias in their curriculum. We are exploring the extent to which specific groups feel at home at VU Amsterdam and their various experiences of discrimination and exclusion. And we are working closely with organizations such as groups who support students of colour.

Of course, this does not mean that discrimination and racism have been banished from the VU campus. It is an illusion to think that this can ever happen completely within such a complex and diverse organization. We continue to hear accounts of discriminatory comments aimed at black and Asian students and staff. Much of this behaviour occurs below the surface, but that does not make it any less at odds with the core values of the university. These values apply to staff and students, both their blind spots and any explicit instances of discrimination. If we are to banish such behaviour, this will first require greater awareness, backed by clear statements that our values do not tolerate discrimination of any kind. In spite of our best efforts, I do not exclude the possibility that our structures also contain discriminatory elements and that institutional racism may still exist at VU Amsterdam. For all these reasons, the Diversity Office wants to hear about people’s experiences. Only then we can work on a solution.

It’s because we recognize the importance of combating discrimination and racism that we devote so much time and effort to addressing these issues. But of course, we can always do more. We can always do better. The discussion about the accuracy of The Black Archives report should not distract us from the far more pressing issue of how we can come together to create a university community where everyone is treated equally and where we can take fair and effective action when things go wrong.

Ruard Ganzevoort is VU Amsterdam’s Chief Diversity Officer.


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