Large metropolitan universities like to market themselves in the image of their urban environment. They think of themselves as great public institutions, open to all, inviting and lucrative to foreigners, cutting edge with 21st century buildings, institutional outlooks and visions. But the reality is that academia lost touch with what is going on around it. Ultra conservative in its demographic makeup, and plagued by institutional racism, academia is socially retrograde. To date, no UvA board member was held accountable for the criminalization of the recent protest through identifying suspicious “Moroccans” at the Maagdenhuis as grounds for the aggressive police crackdown on April 11. It is very rare that institutional racism rears its ugly head in such a difficult to ignore way. Most of the time it is just business as usual for the university that is indifferent at best and openly hostile at worst to challenges to entrenched whiteness. Its “benign neglect” approach to the diversity agenda is a fundamental institutional failure that is yet to be seriously addressed in current debates on the future of higher education.
The idea that university should be neutral about diversity and not have group-specific policies is nothing new. In the age of neoliberal academia, however, it is no longer defended with the argument that benign neglect is in fact genuine equal treatment, or in other words, in the name of the discarded liberal value of equality. It is now defended as simply irrelevant and unnecessary. It is unnecessary because the university is sufficiently diverse (attracting enough international students and scholars), and irrelevant because academia valorizes objective, fair competitions. Under the current regime of quantification, standardization and objectification, it matters not who, but how much. Diversity is irrelevant because academia rewards whoever is good at generating output and monetary value.
For anyone looking at institutional policies up close, however, it is immediately clear that the first justification, the story that the university is diverse enough, is a big lie. No, Dutch universities are not diverse enough. Even at the VU, where statistics are officially suppressed to avoid tarnishing the reputation of the university by what is by now common knowledge that it is turning “black,” the number of students with minority background or as it is called in politically correct parlance first-generation-students is shockingly low. UvA is perhaps the worst of all. In a city where demographers anticipate that the Dutch autochthon population will become just one minority group among many in the coming decade, the university has a negligent number of minority students. When student Lida Daniels called the UvA een blanke eenheidsworst [a white sameness-sausage] some months ago, the angry response was “go to the VU.” No administrator has paid serious attention to Daniels’ call to acknowledge that the university falls way short of the diversity standards of Amsterdam as a city. Amsterdam United is the only voluntary student-led initiative that keeps this issue on the agenda. The 10% percent are left to carry this burden on their own and without any resources.
The second justification that the value of competition, or more generally the market logic that has been so central to our academic lives makes the diversity agenda redundant is just as patently false. The changing conditions for the production of knowledge and its evaluation under a regime of strict content-indifferent quantification is believed to work as equalizers, creating blind, flat and open to all promotion circuits. Neoliberal academia indeed subscribes to technological triumphalism. It claims to be democratic, efficient and progressive in its eagerness to eliminate old guards on permanent contracts. Yet, year after year it reproduces the same type of knowledge, and the same self-perpetuating academic elites. In the neoliberal context, this sorry state is not seen as institutionally or even socially problematic. It is the individual’s failure for having to take a significantly longer route via professional schools to get to university. It is an individual’s failure not to keep up, to fail as academic entrepreneurs or not to have the right skills and enormous cultural capital necessary for generating monetary value under conditions of fierce competition. In this context, diversity is seen as contradicting excellence. The VU’s fear of being perceived as “black” is a case in point; the UvA’s near to zero investment in diversity compared to its grand ambitions in the area of “excellence” is yet another. Amsterdam University College, the preferred choice for sons and daughters of UvA professors, skirts around the shockingly low average despite its modest institutional investment in diversity work. This failure in other words is systemic. Universities urgently need to be rattled up for an inevitable change to occur.
This call for change is coming from within. We are not begging the university to let anyone in. Scholars and students are not seeking any handouts or favors to compensate for their ethnic backgrounds. Students and scholars of color simply are the university of the future. Without the richness of different intellectual lineages, the energies, talents and life experiences of intellectuals with minority backgrounds, Dutch academia is doomed to irrelevance. It is already preposterously obsolete in its detachment from the social environment around it. The university should be committed to civic engagement; it should be filled with proud activists, developing collaborations and support networks that foster and promote diversity. It should embrace the anti-racism movement in the Netherlands, and highly value its educational and social justice agenda. Our new university should be capable of sustaining meaningful relationships not with banks but with regions affected by war, conflict and authoritarianism. Such meaningful relationships can begin with embracing refugees’ right to access higher education. Underground educational programs for asylum seekers should be brought in and fostered by established universities. The struggle against neoliberal academia and for a new university, in short, must not stay restricted to rolling back financialization or rendementsdenken, leaving the diversity agenda last and least, and with it the white university intact. This cause is nothing short of a demand for a true democratization of academia. True democratization begins with holding accountable the current university governance for its institutional racism, failures and misconceptions on diversity. True democratization requires that the new university embodies and envisions the kind of academic community that a super diverse society ought to have. True democratization means building an academic community that fosters solidarity within and outside it, and that lives by, teaches, breeds, preaches and practices anti-racism.