Inspiring people at Wageningen University & Research
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
I had the honor to be interviewed by the very kind Liesbeth Idema from Wageningen University & Research for their Inspiring People @WUR column. Here's the text below from 7 June 2022:
"I’m a cultural geographer with American and Portuguese citizenship, and I’ve studied and worked all my adult life - more than 20 years - in various parts of Europe and Southeast Asia on migration, care and citizenship. As a critical social scientist, woman and immigrant myself, I bring my concern about how differently mobile people's roots, rights and vulnerabilities are recognised in the places they visit and in which they live to my research, teaching and societal engagement. Diversity and inclusion are fundamental to the work I do, so I’m honoured to reflect on these subjects with you. There is still work to do within WUR!"
Wageningen University & Research is committed to inclusion, diversity and equal opportunities, because we are convinced that this contributes to better research and education. Is this objective already becoming reality? And is there room for improvement? Meghann Ormond, Associate Professor (UHD2) in Cultural Geography (GEO) at the Environmental Sciences Group responds to questions about diversity and inclusion in this interview.
Inclusion Can you be 100% yourself at work? That’s a difficult question. The high-pressured academic environment in which we’re working doesn’t really enable people to fully be themselves. There’s an emphasis on a particular kind of ‘excellence’ that requires scholars to compete with one another for academic prestige. That pressure to publish and acquire funding and PhD students dissuades scholars from being able to carve out the time and space necessary to creatively explore ideas and to forge innovative and meaningful (inter-/trans-/disciplinary) collaborations. The current system, therefore, is very much out of tune with the aspirations outlined in the Dutch Recognition & Rewards (R&R) vision.
“A greater range of things we do should be recognised and rewarded”
We need to insist that a greater range of things we do – for our colleagues, students, fellow citizens, and planet – be recognised and rewarded. I had a burnout in 2018. During that time, I realised then that I’d spent most of my career trying to tick all the ‘right’ boxes to be someone else’s definition of a ‘good scholar’. When I returned to work, I made a conscious effort to recognise, honour and practice my own definition of what a ’good scholar’ is. That hasn’t been easy. But I’ve consciously chosen to focus on helping bring about the kind of university in which I want to work. That’s led to me co-founding the Transformative Learning Hub and getting involved in the Centre for Unusual Collaborations (CUCo); two initiatives in which I can say that I truly can be myself at WUR. Both forge unconventional spaces for scholars to regularly engage with each other in ways that support learning together how to do research and educate in more inclusive, more humane, and less competitive ways.
Unfortunately, the work I do in these initiatives is not valued in the tenure-track system. But we’re working to change that, and a fundamental avenue for change is the R&R policy currently being developed. Together with others in the Wageningen Young Academy’s working group on diversity and inclusion, we recently co-authored a position paper with recommendations seeking to challenge WUR to incorporate more critical awareness of, and action regarding, Gender+ diversity issues in its new R&R policy. Our message got greater attention from WUR, however, when a revised version targeting all Dutch universities was published in Nature.
Some of our recommendations can already be implemented at the chair group level (e.g., redistributing and regularly rotating tasks among staff within chair groups, receiving training to reduce bias towards Gender+ diverse people,etc.), yet unfortunately there seems to be hesitation in, and barriers to, bringing about much change at that level or beyond.
For example, we currently don’t have in-house training offered by WUR to reduce bias towards Gender+ diverse people, which means that chair groups must use their own budgets to pay external experts unfamiliar with the WUR context to train them. I think that the DARE taskforce, a unit committed to tackling racism and other forms of discrimination within our organization and on campus, would be a great place to house such expertise, and for such training to be rolled out and made routine throughout the university, not exclusively for chair groups able and willing to pay for it. If WUR aims to have an inclusive and safe working and study environment, then we all need dedicated funding, time, and space to make that happen.
When you started working at WUR, did you feel welcome on campus? While originally from the USA, I studied and worked in Canada, Morocco, Belgium, Portugal, Scotland, and Malaysia before coming to the Netherlands. Perhaps surprisingly, then, when I came to the Netherlands 12 years ago, it was a culture shock for me. I had assumed that working in a Dutch university was going to be like the way things were in Scotland, where I’d done my PhD. But WUR was different from what I expected. While WUR was very eager to become an international university, the administration was not always very aware of the kind of support international staff needed. Language was also a challenge. My academic colleagues all spoke English to me, but on the administrative level nearly everything was written in Dutch. The infrastructure has improved now: more documents are available in English, but the My Projects system is still only available in Dutch! Also, now there’s more support with the Expat Centre. Providing help to newcomers is a very important part of inclusion.
“In the Netherlands, there’s an illusion that everyone is equal, and that people are tolerant”
Can you compare the situation within WUR with your previous employer or life abroad? When I migrated to Portugal 20 years ago, people were hospitable and generous to me as an immigrant because Portugal had long been a country of emigration. They knew what it was like for me as a newcomer, and I felt welcome.
In the Netherlands, there’s an illusion that everyone is equal, and that people are tolerant of others who are unlike from themselves. Yet, some of the most racist and xenophobic jokes I’ve ever heard have been made here in the Netherlands by highly educated folks about people with Moroccan, Turkish or Surinamese backgrounds. In any case, tolerance isn’t the same thing as inclusion. Tolerance may be a first step towards recognising difference, but inclusion takes far more effort and humility from all parties involved.
And, in that vein, I do also want to mention a positive side of working in the Netherlands. Unlike the other places I’ve lived in, people here tend to be very direct. While I found that directness quite painful at first, I also learned to be more direct myself over time, and I found it very liberating!
What can we do to exclude people less? How can we reduce unequal opportunities in your opinion? We must try to create an academic culture that fosters greater empathy and more humane and democratic research, teaching and citizenship practices. Currently, scholars are organised into tribe-like chair groups that compete with one another for ‘territory’ (e.g., research and PhD funding, teaching income, etc.).
At the Centre for Space, Place and Society (CSPS), a Wageningen School of Social Sciences (WASS) research unit comprising four chair groups across SSG and ESG in which I’m embedded. We are trying to reduce the tribalism and to collaborate in a more horizontal way around shared research interests, acknowledging that researchers and research processes are themselves dynamic. I think that’s a step in a good direction. I’d like to see the same thing happen with our teaching.
Diversity Within WUR, the vision is it doesn't matter who you love, what language you speak, where you were born or what you believe in. What is your experience? I have worked on diversity and inclusion issues for a long time in my research on the intersections between migration, tourism, and citizenship. And what I see is that celebrations of multicultural diversity (e.g., showcasing different groups’ cuisines, dances, folk costumes, etc.) are often used to demonstrate ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusivity’ towards ‘foreign’ others. Yet such celebrations often remain at a superficial level and unfortunately can exotify people more than include them. Cultivating inclusion isn’t as simple as only celebrating the fun parts of diversity one week per year. That’s certainly a start, but there also needs to be sustained commitment throughout the year from all on campus to also engage with the not-so-fun questions that surround diversity and inclusion, like the ways in which different school systems around the world (including the Netherlands!) create learners with different challenges and assets. And there needs to be more care to recognise people as complex intersectional individuals, not just as representatives of the cultures in their places of origin.
“We must learn how to acknowledge who’s in the room, what they bring with them, and what matters to them”
Many great initiatives at WUR - like all of OtherWise’s initiatives, Wageningen Dialogues led by Simone Ritzer, DARE, the growing emphasis on developing students’ ‘boundary-crossing’ competences spearheaded by Karen Fortuin and the Educational Support Centre (ESC), the Transdisciplinary Research Hub led by Jillian Student, and the Transformative Learning Hub and CUCo, which I mentioned earlier – already exist that can help support both staff and students develop competences to communicate and learn in inclusive ways that recognise and value diversity. WUR would greatly benefit by supporting those of us involved in these initiatives so that we can have the necessary time and resources to work together more. Doing so would foster a more holistic approach to inclusion that understands the diversity not only along the lines of categories like gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, faith/ideology and (dis)ability, but also relative to disciplinary and epistemological diversity. On the latter point, consider, for instance, how WUR frames itself as a Life Sciences university. Its privileging of life sciences marginalises the social sciences. Inclusion concerns not only learning how to reach out but also learning how to acknowledge who’s in the room, what they bring with them, and what matters to them.
How do you make sure you stay inspired and motivated at work? I love that my job enables me to involve students into my transdisciplinary projects. For instance, I’m very proud of the Roots Guide, an atypical guidebook that invites its users to deeply connect with diverse people and places throughout the Netherlands. It’s a project that takes an inclusive, out-of-the-box approach to address anti-immigration sentiment in the Netherlands. The book is the result of a years-long collaboration between people with diverse migration backgrounds, social entrepreneurs, artists, scholars, and students. I don’t get any points in the tenure-track system for this book, but this is very important work and I’ve learned so much from closely collaborating with others outside the university context. That keeps me motivated.
What are your plans for 10 years from now? Do you see yourself still working at WUR? I’m an intrapreneur – someone seeking to bring about transformation, both within the space of the university and between the university and the broader society in which it is embedded. So, given my focus on engaged scholarship, I’m interested in developing a living lab together with scholars and societal partners on topics related to transnational mobilities (e.g., migration and tourism) and citizenship beliefs and practices. I plan to stay at WUR, and over the next decade I’ll keep trying to embody the change I want to see in universities.