Marijk van der Wende is the founding dean of my undergraduate institute, Amsterdam University College, whose motto is Excellence and Diversity in a Global City. A few years after my graduation, we talk about the founding principles of the college that aimed to push against systemic racism in higher education and promote collaboration.
I’m from Haarlem, the Netherlands. My mother is from Friesland, and my father was born in Amsterdam. Very distinct cultures and I can see both of them in my personality.
I don’t think anyone, looking from the outside, would recognise those differences because both my parents were Dutch.
Confusion is fertile ground
I like situations and tasks that I don’t quite understand. These are easier to come by in environments different to my own.
They take me out of my comfort zone and make me work through confusion. This is something that intrigues me. It makes me think and opens for questioning many things I take for granted.
One of my first experiences as a scholar (I was already in my early thirties) of this was an international project on internationalisation of curricula. I was coordinating it with a Japanese professor who, at the time, was already rather senior in age and rank.
The first thing we had to figure out was, what do you mean by curriculum? Our ideas were very different. Another question was, who’s in the room and why. At some point, I said what a pity that students weren’t involved.
The next day, there were about fifteen students with us except they didn’t speak any English. They weren’t there to participate. They were to please me.
Work global and local
I don’t like traveling as such and I’m not an academic tourist. In academia, there is a cosmopolitan bubble of people who are always traveling; never at their home institutions; always having the same conversations about airports and jetlag.
At some point, I got bored and went radically local.
At that time, I was also ready to make a difference, which is something you can only do when you stay in one place with your feet on the ground.
When you work locally, you have to follow up. You have to commit and then you have to deliver; otherwise you lose face. In a cosmopolitan bubble there is no accountability. Being local, it’s concrete and practical.
Global problems, local reality
Certainly in places like Amsterdam and other diverse cities, global concerns are local reality.
We founded Amsterdam University College (AUC) on the values of excellence and diversity in a global city; people nowadays have to compete, but they also have to live and work with people who are not like them.
Between the lines, what we were saying was that AUC, a liberal arts college, was not going to be a white, middle-class institution in an otherwise half-black city.
Networks of people who end up in responsible positions are often formed in college or graduate school.
Elite colleges are often very middle-class and very white, but the world is a diverse place. It cannot be run by white elites.
People must meet
Any institution training elites has to make sure that people from different backgrounds are getting to know each other.
The world needs people who connect with people of different backgrounds. These groups often live next door to each other, but they don’t know each other.
We cannot live in isolation
When you say this to people, everyone says, ah, but of course! And yet, there is a lot of pushback.
When we were starting out, not everyone got this right away, not the founding universities, especially University of Amsterdam.
We realised quickly that we needed to get people on board, have an exclusive mission, a scholarship fund and an outreach program.
Interestingly, the corporate sector found this very natural and became a major scholarship donor.
They were way ahead of some of the academics and the founding universities. The big, multinational corporates already have diversity programs and they get it. After all, markets and workforce are international.
Universities are late to diversity
They’re still getting there; recent protests, again especially at University of Amsterdam, have moved this along, but these conversations are still very relevant and subject to lively debate.
As AUC was starting, I knew that the international students would come, but to get the Dutch minority students to come would be much harder.
The so-called winners of globalisation, they have a way of finding each other. People that are on the other side of globalisation, children of immigrants who were brought to a western country as cheap labour, for example, it takes effort to bring them in.
We couldn’t expect them to come to us. They would not; not even for an open day. It was and remains our responsibility to go to them and help them build confidence.
Social mobility trauma
We bring over the kids who are already in college to work with the kids who are still at school. We engage with their teachers; allow them to learn about who we are and what we do. We help them find ways to support their students on the way to university.
Then, once everybody is in a room, we still have to pay a lot of attention, and not only to minority students.
We had students who lived around the corner, who were from less well-off or less cosmopolitan backgrounds, who were intimidated by the cosmopolitan cliques (which were partially Dutch or from international schools), and became severely homesick.
Homesickness might be part of going to university, but it's stronger in an elite environment.
Anticipating all this, we designed a course to help make these issues and problems explicit. We wanted to give people a language and a framework to be able to talk about what they were observing and experiencing. None of this is easy. It takes a lot of time to make sense out of it.
Seeing the "other" takes effort
We wanted to help students see themselves with a different set of eyes; take them out of their comfort zone to consider the different types of people that live next door.
We wanted them to become aware of the differences between each other and to learn to respect these differences. This doesn’t happen on its own.
The teachers, especially the anthropologists, were very keen to teach this, but they quickly ran into problems. Western anthropologists are used to teaching female students, who are by nature very interested in other people.
At AUC, they also had to teach eighteen-year-old-boys who were majoring in physics and didn’t see the relevance of these discussions.
European population by residents' place of birth (Source: Eurostat 2016)
At the same time, students were from an enormously wide range of countries and backgrounds and they didn’t necessarily consider interesting what the Dutch anthropology teacher considered interesting.
Over time, we changed the teaching team to become more diverse in itself and that helped at lot. It’s a course that’s important and one that you can’t evaluate at the end of a term. Those concepts and ideas need time to sink in.
Collaboration and integration
We’re at a point in history where there's no alternative to collaboration and integration. People from the very unstable global south will continue to seek access to western countries, particularly Europe. There is no way to stop this completely.
At the same time, Europe needs immigration, at the very least, because of demographic and economic reasons.
But living together isn’t easy. Integration is not a fairy tale. It comes with pain.
The future elites need to take responsibility for the problems that come with it. They need to develop processes to make diverse societies work.
I’m very optimistic; I believe educators ought to be optimistic.
Marijk van der Wende is a Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at Utrecht University’s Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance. Her research focuses on the impact of globalization and internationalization on higher education. She has published widely on the impact of these processes on higher education systems, institutions, curricula, and teaching and learning arrangements.