Vice-rector Mieke Van Herreweghe: Diversity is simply a necessity for a university

(19-06-2020) For a few weeks now there has been fierce debate in society at large about racism and decolonisation. The death of George Floyd set in motion an unprecedented wave of activism.

The Black Lives Matter movement resurrected worldwide.  Also in Belgium. On Sunday 7 June a protest took place on the Place Poelaert in Brussels and statues of Leopold II and other colonisers were in sight.

We asked vice-rector Mieke Van Herreweghe , what the past few weeks meant to him.

Mieke Van HerrewegheIn between the sometimes hectic corona moments of the last few days, I have often wondered whether or not we as Ghent University should make a statement about Black Lives Matter. When you make such a statement, you have to be sure that your actions follow: that’s called "Walk the talk". We don’t want to engage in window dressing. Of course we condemn all forms of racism. Of course, we are a university that has made it very clear that diversity is an added value rather than a problem.

Our educational vision is based on multiperspectivism as a central starting point, and that is only possible if people approach things from diverse angles. Diversity is therefore simply a necessity for a university, we as rector and vice-rector are 100% convinced of that. 

But what about our actions? Can we ensure that every member of staff at Ghent University also supports this principle? No, we can't, and that might not even be desirable, because here also diversity is important. But there are limits. A few years ago, the Board of Governors approved a non-discrimination declaration, linked to an academic code of conduct that clearly condemns discrimination. In 2018, the Board of Governors also approved a code of conduct on boundary-crossing behaviour in which it is clearly stated that discrimination is regarded as boundary-crossing behaviour and cannot be tolerated at Ghent University. We have a human rights policy with which we want to promote respect for human rights and minimise the risks of human rights violations. These are all important and guiding policy instruments with which we hope to have impact.  

But is that enough? This week I happened to watch an episode of the wonderful series Children of the Holocaust. It dealt with the widely known reaction of ordinary Germans after the liberation of the first concentration camps: "Wir haben as nicht gewußt”." I don't want to go into the very polarised discussion whether you can compare the situation today with that of WWII, but I do know that this attitude is a kind of far-reaching "passive bystander" attitude. That is exactly why we at Ghent University organise "active bystander"-training (on how to deal with witnessing harassment) and "implicit bias"-training (to make members of staff aware of subconscious forms of discrimination). That's also why I decided to write this text.       

This week I also happened to watch Becoming, the documentary which follows Michelle Obama during her book tour in the United States. At a certain point she is talking to a group of Native American university students. When asked how "us reservation kids" can deal with the implicit racism that is having an enormous impact on their daily lives at an American university, Michelle Obama states:

"I cannot imagine how tough it must be for you all. And I want you guys to have perspective as you're going through it and not let this time shape what will be. So, you're in school. Be in school. Get your fricking education. You know, Barack and I, all through this presidency, all through the lies and stuff they said about us, all we could do was wake up every day and do our jobs, and let our jobs and our lives speak for themselves."

I can only add that Ghent University students (and of course also members of staff) from diverse backgrounds are very welcome at Ghent University. We will try to educate you in such a way that your actions will speak for you and that you can make a difference in society. That’s our job.   

 

Mieke Van Herreweghe
Vice-rector Ghent University