Lustrum

'All inclusive' a touchy theme

United in disapproval

The theme of this year’s Lustrum celebration – inclusivity – generated controversy from the start. But the point was always to start a conversation, says Elmer Sterken, ‘not to act like we’ve got it all figured out. We still have a way to go.’
By Megan Embry

Lustrum organisers were surprised by the immediate pushback they got about their ‘all inclusive’ theme for the 2019 Lustrum. Even the student assistants hired to help with event-planning were critical. ‘I was worried that the university was going to weaponise the theme just to brand themselves as an inclusive institution’, says student assistant Manuel Pinto Reyes.

It was a concern the organisers heard often in the weeks that followed, says Frank den Hollander, who was hired to be on the core organisational team. ‘Some people think that the theme means we are claiming the university is already inclusive. That’s a big misunderstanding.’

Frank says that at first, Rector Magnificus Elmer Sterken suggested the theme should be ‘women in science’. But an academic council – mostly comprised of women – worried that people who weren’t women or didn’t work in the sciences might feel excluded. ‘Then someone said, “we should make sure this is all inclusive”. That stuck. “All inclusive” is also a fun theme in the travel branch, so that puts a nice stamp on the lighter parts of the program.’

Controversy

But that light feeling quickly dissipated as criticism started rolling in. ‘We ended up being the messengers that got shot’, says Frank. ‘People thought that we were the chief diversity officers trying to implement policy – but we are only a production team hired to organise the Lustrum program.’

The team realised just how controversial the theme was during the Lustrum launch. ‘At the kick-off, my colleague Bram and I took turns with the powerpoint to explain the event. Then we got angry emails complaining that the launch was led by two white Dutch men – “so typical”.’

But actually, says his colleague Jessica Hoekstra, the most important topics were presented by women. ‘I explained Throwback Saturday and Monica Lopez-Lopez, the scientific head of Lustrum, explained the conference.’

The baking competition glaringly signified the woman’s role at home

The UKrant has seen copies of some of the emails the Lustrum team received after the launch. Writers criticised a Dutch-only essay competition, the presenter ratios that skewed white-male, and the treatment of religious diversity throughout the evening. But the optics of that night’s baking competition seemed to be a particular sore spot for several people. One wrote: ‘In the middle of the presentation [given by men] there was mention of a baking competition in which a young female student was brought forward to describe the cakes she made for the event. This glaringly signified the woman’s role at home (or “in the kitchen”).’

Frank shakes his head. ‘We thought cake and champagne would be a nice, informal kick-off. One of the students who works for us liked the idea and wanted to bake a cake, so we encouraged her to present it – because she did all that work.’

The team didn’t respond. ‘Of course we weren’t going to explain that she loves to bake and volunteered to do it’, says Jessica. ‘We didn’t think cake would be problematic.’

Missteps

But the letter-writers had more substantive concerns as well. Specifically, people couldn’t understand why no one at the RUG who specialises in inclusivity, diversity, or internationalisation seemed to have been consulted in the development of the event.

‘This is a very important and sensitive theme’, wrote one letter-writer. ‘But from an outsider perspective – that of an international working on internationalisation – it feels that there is no actual awareness about the theme, that it has not been well defined, and that it is not being taken seriously.’

Lustrum student assistant Kimberly Malone Crossley agrees: it’s crucial to hear from the people working on the front lines of inclusivity, she says. It was one of the things she and the other students assistants insisted on from the start. And perhaps if they had listened, the organisers would have made fewer missteps early on.

‘For example, we got a lot of criticism for the Lustrum banner on the website’, says Kimberly. ‘Many of the students in the image were approached in a very tokenizing way. Some of them had the impression that they were selected because of their ideas, but none of that was mentioned in the end. Others were just approached randomly.’

We were accused of tokenizing

Jessica agrees; there were criticisms from every corner, she says, and it was impossible to please anyone. ‘We had a lot of criticism on our conference invite, because a lot of people who are keynote speakers are also people of colour. So the criticism was, “can we only join the conference if we are coloured?”. But on the other hand, we received a number of accusations in the press and on social media that we were “tokenizing”.’

The team felt there was no winning – failing to include diverse speakers would obviously be problematic, but inviting representative speakers was also met with criticism.

‘It’s very important to make sure you are not tokenizing people, and that can be very difficult’, Jessica frowns. ‘But in the end, the people we invited are all experts in their fields and passionate about the subject matter. That’s why we asked them to come – we never thought, “what do they look like”?’

Legacy

The six student assistants anticipated objections about tokenizing before the core organisational team saw them coming, says Kimberly, and started making ‘a new banner plan’ in response to the complaints. ‘We wanted to feature people who were already involved in the work of inclusivity, not just people who “looked diverse”’, she says. But their ideas to improve the banner were never realised, and the original banner still heads the Lustrum website.

The students say they accepted the assistantships because they hoped to leave some kind of meaningful legacy. ‘But in the end I think the organisers underestimated the impact we wanted to have. I sometimes wish they had just admitted they wanted some students to handle the social media’, laughs Kimberly. ‘But the Lustrum job is still better than washing dishes, which is what I was doing before.’

I’m terrified that nothing will change at all

But Kimberly and Manuel agree that  they would do it all again. Lustrum really is helping to normalise the conversation around inclusivity, says Kimberly. ‘The event is really a first step. For a lot of us, it was like: “finally, let’s go all out!” But for others, it was the first time they were having this conversation, so we learned to be patient.’ The students believe in the project, and have seen the attitudes of the other organisers grow and develop over the process as well, which Manuel calls ‘a win’.

Both the organisers and the student assistants hope their efforts will result in concrete inclusivity policies at the RUG. ‘Policy was always the goal’, says Manuel. But Kimberly isn’t sure the administration sees the Lustrum as more than a nice party. ‘I have no idea what they will do after this. I’m terrified that nothing will change at all. I guess only time will tell.’

Representation

Elmer Sterken, on the other hand, isn’t terrified – he’s optimistic. ‘The goal of the Lustrum was to put inclusivity on the agenda’, he says, ‘and it has. I think we can expect to see that reflected in the new diversity policies that are currently underway.’

But he also thinks many people at the RUG are still confused about what ‘inclusivity’ really means.

‘There was an article in the Ukrant recently – I didn’t really read the article, but I saw comments saying that we are not there yet, we are not actually inclusive. I think that is completely right. But there is an important distinction between representation and inclusion, and many people confuse the two. They believe we should have complete representation of everyone.

I don’t think that’s what inclusion is. Inclusion means that all people – no matter where you come from or what your background is – should feel welcome. If you want to contribute – to optimize teaching and research or become a student – you should feel welcome. If you are a part of this community, you should feel like it. There should be no extra obstacles for you.

Complete representation of a diverse student body won’t be possible

And I know that sometimes you might feel more welcome if you could identify role models who look like you – if you could admire a person next to you. Cultural distance does matter; it does play a part in feeling welcome. I think having role models might even play a part in that. But complete representation of an increasingly diverse student body won’t be possible.’

Back in 2018, Sterken responded to a popular UKrant article about the phenomenon of subtle prejudice at the RUG; at the time he said he wanted to create a platform to address the issue of inclusivity. He thinks the 2019 Lustrum might finally be that platform.

‘It’s a good fit for us; it’s good for a community of academics to make a scientific study of the question, because that is what we do best. And it’s an issue that you can’t solve in an easy way – you naturally think about it from your own cultural perspective, so it’s hard to imagine what is going on in the minds of others.’

Sterken says this Lustrum – and the overdue conversations about inclusivity and diversity – are a big part of his personal legacy. ‘As we internationalise and bring more and more students and scholars from all over the world into our community, we are seeing a massive transformation in attitudes. All institutions must think about how to organise truly inclusive policies. If I may be modest about it, I am proud to be part of getting that process started. But we still have a way to go yet.’

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