23 February 2018

Diversity Officer Constance Sommerey on her new position

In January 2018, UM appointed Constance Sommerey as its first Diversity Officer to translate its diversity and inclusivity aims into concrete policy measures. She has been at UM for 15 years, first as a student and then as academic staff member. Sommerey is looking forward to the opportunity to work with the whole UM community on making our organisation a place like home for students and staff alike. 

So what is diversity, and why?

Diversity is about differences in ideas and points of view, motivated by different facets of human identity such as gender, ethnicity, language, abilities, etc. We want to foster a respectful, inclusive atmosphere in which everyone can feel at home, can feel appreciated and valued not despite but because of the diversity they bring to the table.

How will you go about that then – being white and all?

It would be fatuous to pretend that I can really understand the experiences of e.g. a student of colour in Maastricht – I can’t. What I can do is ask questions, listen, and try to affect change that will allow this student to feel more at home here. So, if you read this and feel you have a story to share or ideas to contribute, do not hesitate to contact me: constance.sommerey[at]maastrichtuniversity[dot]nl.

Fair enough but do we need an extra position for this sort of thing – isn’t UM already one of the most international universities in Europe?

Yes, UM has been doing a lot and we certainly compare well nationally and internationally. However, when you look beyond the numbers (which could still be better) and listen carefully, staff and students alike do not always feel valued and at home here. Changing that requires a lot of work – we can’t just assume that things improve by themselves - ‘komt goed’ does not apply here. We, as a community, have to structurally integrate efforts towards creating and harnessing diversity; from the International Classroom, over hiring practices to age- and family-friendly workplace policies.

Constance Sommerey is UM's first Diversity Officer.

She has earned a PhD from UM in 2015 and is a lecturer at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Diversity and inclusivity also play a big role in her research.

Maastricht University Diversity Day
On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2018, the Centre for Gender and Diversity and the new UM Diversity Officer launch a Diversity Day for the whole UM community.

Doesn’t this kind of diversity just complicate things – surely, decision-making is easier and faster in homogenous groups?

Let’s be clear – diversity is work! Of course it is much easier to come to a compromise in a group that shares assumptions and convictions; but research shows that diverse groups produce better ideas, are more adaptable and more creative – this is also one of the ideas behind Problem Based Learning. Intellectual growth is contingent on cherishing, discussing and utilising different viewpoints. It’s also more fun that way!

So what does diversity mean in the context of our PBL International Classroom then?

Appreciating diversity means moving beyond the confines of your own intellectual and cultural framework, and coming together to accumulate and synthesise different insights in order to develop nuanced ideas. To get there, the International Classroom has to be a forum in which everyone feels comfortable to contribute.

In a similar vein, we should also try to diversify our still very ethnocentric curriculum – to hear more voices than just those of the usual suspects: mostly white, male authors.

But white, male authors are the most influential ones, no?

But are they also the greatest ones? Their canonical status should be understood within the framework of existing power structures in Western society past and present. We should make an active effort to include more diversity, not to make up the numbers, but because there are great thinkers beyond the mainstream. Deconstructing the notion that the history of ideas consists exclusively of that established canon allows us to emancipate ourselves from our narrow, perfunctory understanding of Western thought.

Constance Sommerey attending the inaugural meeting of the UM Advisory Council Diversity & Inclusivity.

During the Diversity and Inclusivity Day, UM had already discussed its policies aimed at creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to inspire and be inspired.

So a more eclectic reading list for a white Western student body? 

Diversifying the curriculum is one thing, addressing the make-up of the student body another. We are already a very international university but still too homogeneous in socio-economic terms. I think this is due to our idea of ‘talent’, which is biased in favour of those pupils who have already benefitted from active encouragement and chances to develop the skills we value; like improving English language skills during a stay abroad. There are talented young people who haven’t enjoyed the same opportunities, such as first generation students (both with Western and non-Western backgrounds). If we want a more diverse student body, we need to proactively approach these groups.

Getting the most out of our International Classroom also requires investing in our staff: tutors need the awareness and skills to harness diversity in group discussion. At the same time, everyone has to learn to respectfully negotiate differences. 

That sounds like diversity also increases the potential for conflict?

Of course it does, but it’s a price worth paying! We have an evolving code of conduct to find the limits of tolerance – a kind of lowest common denominator for what we deem acceptable. Every culture has a different etiquette and taboos – and even within those cultures everyone is different. Being inclusive is not about being prescriptive. It is about fostering a fair and open culture where we are comfortable enough to express offence, patient enough to listen and courageous enough to apologise.

That sounds ever so valiant…

No one has all the answers. Thinking consciously about those issues has led me to me some painful confrontations with my own implicit bias. I was grading essays and gave a 9. Seeing that this student had a non-Western name, I caught myself being surprised at the student’s excellent result – which made me cringe instantaneously. Noticing your own biases is awful but it’s very important to understand how you think and judge people.

Uncovering implicit bias is not about pointing fingers – it is about understanding the social structures we live in, and how they affect those individuals and groups outside the norm. It takes a critical conversation and a concerted effort to move towards a system in which we level the playing field instead of continuously privileging white Western middle-aged men.

Rector Rianne Letschert chairs the inaugural meeting of the UM DIversity and Inclusivity Council.

"A real ‘community’ will only come about when people who differ on many fronts don’t just tolerate each other, but work together and learn from each other."

Read an interview with Rianne Letschert: The first year of the 'Rector of Diversity'.

Hold on – that’s basically me! This all sounds like a terrible idea…

I feel for you… No, seriously, I do understand the fear. Being more diverse and inclusive will mean reshuffling resources to create a level playing field. That doesn’t mean all white male professors have to make room for women, but it does mean actively encouraging and training those who need more help to develop their full potential.  

So what will your first steps be?

First, I want to listen to people’s experiences and collect their ideas. I will visit all faculties to understand their respective assessment and vision with regard to inclusivity.

Eventually, together with the Advisory Council for Diversity & Inclusivity chaired by our rector, we will set priorities and formulate clear goals that help us become a more diverse and inclusive university.

Have you had positive reactions so far?

This university is ready. As you would expect, some are strongly in favour, some quite reluctant – but by far the majority are very willing to listen. I get support from all layers of our organization. On the whole, I’m very hopeful. I have the feeling that UM is well aware of the value of diversity. Now we just have translate this awareness into action!

UM is the most international university in the Netherlands and dedicated accross the board to foster an environment in which everyone feels welcome and valued.

Several years ago, UM had commissioned five workgroups to look into diversity and inclusivity - the outcome was the policy paper Diversity at the CORE.

By: Florian Raith