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Our columnist Bob van Vliet believes that emphasising diversity and its supposed advantages distracts from the more fundamental values that universities should uphold.
Bob van Vliet: "More difference is not by definition better." (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Our columnist Bob van Vliet believes that emphasising diversity and its supposed advantages distracts from the more fundamental values that universities should uphold.

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Last week, the Eindhoven University of Technology had to defend itself before The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights for its policy to offer vacancies only to women. For the time being, they will only consider men if they haven’t found a suitable female candidate after six months of looking. I hope they win. But I noticed that TU Eindhoven doesn’t use the term ‘diversity’ at all in its defence. In contrast, TU Delft’s strategies, visions, and codes, have elevated diversity to a core value.

This presents diversity as a universal value. I have more and more doubts about whether that’s a good idea. More difference is not by definition better. At the same time the value of diversity is often promoted for instrumental reasons. Not only does that conflict with the idea that it’s a fundamental value, I think it’s counterproductive.

TU Delft sees ‘diversity [as] an important precondition for excellence’. The rector in Eindhoven feels that its policy is a success ‘in the light of scientific quality’.

‘Diversity is not a human right, it is a fact’

This risks derailing the discussion. Are all those white men unable to do quality science? Implying they’re bad at their job won’t increase those men’s sympathy for policies that put them at a disadvantage. Let alone get their support. But quite a number of them will have to step aside, as is the case now in Eindhoven. Promoting diversity because it would lead to better science distracts from the deeper values that commit us to combatting uniformity at our institutions.

The recent proposal for a Delft Code of Conduct starts off better by referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the fundamental equality of all people. Two sentences later, however, we’re already back to the claim that the differences between people ‘add value, not only to our daily lives but also to the results of the work we do together’. As if the most important thing is that we’re getting something out of it.

If you need to sell a core value by saying what other things it buys you, then perhaps that value isn’t quite so ‘core’ after all.

Diversity is not a human right, it is a fact. Or at least, it is in the wider world. Much less so at universities of technology. The underlying values that make this lack of diversity a problem are freedom, equality, and democracy.

Democracy in particular fades into the background when you promote diversity as such as a core value. As much difference as possible is not the goal. But at TU Delft, TU Eindhoven, and in so many other places that shape society, we differ from each other much less than the public that we serve differs. One group is strongly overrepresented and has more influence because of it. Others stand outside that position of power. That is undemocratic. Unjust. But nowhere in all those policy documents and press releases is this pointed out.

As a public institution in a democracy, we should try to be of, by, and for everyone. This means we should be committed to an academic community that is representative of society in everything but intellectual capacity. Period.

We don’t have to be more diverse than our society. But sadly, we are nowhere near that level.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the Faculty 3mE, after having been a lecturer at Industrial Design Engineering and Architecture before.

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