28. September 2022

“Everyone Benefits” “Everyone Benefits” - Diversity and equal opportunity: an enrichment to everyday university life

Diversity and equal opportunity: an enrichment to everyday university life

Equal opportunity, gender equality and inclusion are some of the buzzwords one often hears in connection with “diversity”. What do we mean when we talk about “diversity”? And what in particular is its significance in a university context? An interview with Prof. Dr. Irmgard Förster, Vice Rector for Equal Opportunity and Diversity, and Anna Hollstegge, Head of the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Unit.

Prof. Dr. Irmgard Förster (left) is Vice Rector for Equal Opportunity and Diversity, Anna Hollstegge (right) is head of the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Office.
Prof. Dr. Irmgard Förster (left) is Vice Rector for Equal Opportunity and Diversity, Anna Hollstegge (right) is head of the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Office. © Barbara Frommann / University of Bonn
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What characterizes a diverse university?

Hollstegge: We believe that to have a “diverse university” we have to promote equal opportunity and raise awareness of the importance diversity. Doing so is an endeavor that all of us have to move forward together, which concerns and impacts all areas of campus life and work at the University. In interacting with each other, all University staff and students need to be aware of their respective responsibilities in this regard.

It is a priority for us to work with as many different stakeholder groups as possible on this issue and get them engaged with each other. These efforts serve to promote cooperation, bundle our strengths and systematically eliminate barriers in our way.

The goal is to thus establish study and work conditions that are non-discriminatory, family-friendly and characterized by equal opportunity and inclusivity. For the benefit of all: irrespective of ethnicity, gender, disability status, religion, creed, age or sexual identity.

Is there an issue that you are particularly passionate about?

Förster: We purposefully avoid narrowing our focus to only one of the dimensions of diversity mentioned above, because the aim is to leave no one behind.

Although obviously certain priorities have been defined. One issue I am particular concerned with is family justice, which falls within the purview of the University Office of Family Services.

I am also very active in promoting gender equality, specifically by promoting a greater proportion of female professors. And there are many other diversity-related aspects of course that we address, in close cooperation with the Gender Equality Office.

How did you first get involved with these issues?

Förster: After completing my degree in human biology I decided to work in academia, and it was then that I noticed how underrepresented women are in the academic community, particularly in leadership positions. The existence of gender-specific challenges in this regard was very clear, and became even clearer after I gave birth. It’s hard when you have a small child to find the flexibility and mobility that is necessary to be successful in academia. My personal experiences led to my dedication to making women more visible in the profession, and making the work environment more family-friendly.

Hollstegge: We have to keep all of the various dimensions present in mind, of course, and to adopt an inter-sectional perspective. But since I grew up with parents who never pursued higher education, I have a particular interest in equal education opportunity. Roughly 30 percent of the student body are the first in their family to ever attend university. It’s a matter of importance to me that we create offerings targeted to their specific needs which better enable them to successfully complete their studies.

Was there a particular “a-ha” moment for you when you realized how important diversity is?

Hollstegge: A few years ago I was coordinator for a program for individuals without a university degree. One program participant had gone back and finished her qualification for university study years after graduating high school; she told me about the difficulty she had getting oriented once she was enrolled at university, and with being accepted as an older person in the student community.

In what areas is the University of Bonn already well organized?

Förster: Well, to cite a few examples from recent years, there is STEP, for one—a program for enhancing equal opportunity processes. Funded from the Excellence Strategy budget, the program purpose is to provide women academic career support throughout the various advancement stages. Female professors at the University have risen from 19 to 26 percent of the overall professorate within the last five years as a result of this initiative.

We also support the MitSprache program, which is a learning service provided by students to help recent immigrants learn German.

Our institution is a member of the Inclusive University funding program of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, measures under which are aimed at helping students with disabilities and/or chronic illness successfully complete their studies without disadvantagement. Our program activities are coordinated by my colleague Vice Rector Sandmann and his team.

There is also a lot going on within the faculties, transdisciplinary research areas and clusters. There are working groups devoted to diversity as a general issue, and there are projects addressing individual aspects or dimensions of diversity, such as the use of language. Additionally, there is a new research post at the Faculty of Philosophy concerned with diversity.

Are there any areas where we need to catch up?

Hollstegge: There is certainly room for improvement in the areas of anti-discrimination and critical race theory. New policies are forthcoming and additional hiring is planned, which together will help the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Unit in its operations. One accomplishment of ours is forming a critical race theory advising offering aimed at external parties. This was a suggestion advanced by student members of the BIPoC, an autonomous section of the General Students Committee. Currently we are further expanding the Pathways to Research program for students and researchers from immigrant or refugee backgrounds.

What is another example of your efforts to promote diversity at the University?

Förster: Part of our mission is to advance proposals for improvements of a structural nature. That includes for example drafting new diversity and anti-discrimination policies, in close cooperation with other actors. Administrative structures directly affect the conditions that frame the issues at the University.

As an example, transgender students and staff at the University of Bonn are now allowed to change their name and stated gender on file with administration before having completed the necessary court procedure for a name change. Transgender people thus no longer face the situation of having to reveal in order to correct people addressing them by the wrong name.

How diverse is our University?

Hollstegge: It’s as diverse and colorful as society itself. The individual backgrounds of staff and students at the University are highly varied, thus there are differences in values, approaches and motivation factors that very clearly impact learning and are crucial for successful study. In many cases these can be positively influenced through socialization at the University. A recent student body survey by the ZEM (Evaluation and Methodology Center) has revealed important data, with nearly 9% of respondents saying they suffer either chronic illness or disability, over 5% reporting that they are caring for a relative and around 3% reporting that they look after one or more children within their family. More than 11% of professors and 15% of students at our institution are of an international background.

In what ways do we benefit from such diversity?

Förster: Greater diversity on research teams translates into more innovative research results. Promoting diversity is thus important as an influencing factor on the success of our Excellence Strategy, as it enriches us in terms of perspectives, experience and out-of-the-box thinking. The German Research Foundation (DFG), the German Council of Science and Humanities and other grant providers are willing to commit funding for these aims.

Hollstegge: Raising awareness, eliminating barriers and valuing diversity change the University for the better as an organization, promoting greater employee loyalty, for example, through a stronger “we” feeling, while also improving student performance (decreased dropout) and reducing employee turnover.

What is your approach to promoting equal opportunity and diversity within the University’s stakeholder groups?

Förster: The aim is to foster a culture of appreciation and recognition. I believe it is essential to ensure transparent communication and utilize multipliers who are committed to the cause. That’s why cultivating trust within networks is so important to us. We want to see greater networking between students, instructors and researchers as this facilitates developing new ideas together that can move the University forward as a whole. We are thus interested in creating an environment into which our combined knowledge and experience can flow. This will help the University better anchor equal opportunity within its organizational structures, which, together with diversity, is a key element within our Excellence Strategy.

What will it take to successfully raise awareness about diversity?

Hollstegge: Many staff and instructors are already supportive of diversity, but most of us can still learn more about certain dimensions of it. Efforts to sensitize and educate people, which can occur in one-on-one conversations or workshops and other events, can effectively close awareness gaps and foster greater understanding regarding specific issues and societal groups.

How do you get staff members on board?

Hollstegge: Talk of change often triggers a certain automatic resistance at first. Some people may feel like “others” are getting special treatment. That is a situation when the diversity message is important that we are all different in positive ways. Measures we implement may initially only be of benefit to a specific group of people, but ultimately everyone benefits—the entire higher learning organization and larger society—as these propel us to preferable solutions.

What are some of your accomplishments thus far that you are most satisfied with?

Förster: One thing we are very proud of is the Free Menstrual Products for Students pilot project launched jointly with the General Students Committee in the summer semester of 2022. The feedback received on this project has been almost exclusively positive, and the Rectorate has approved continuation of the project, I am pleased to report.

Our activities connected with the nationwide Diversity Day in late May were really a noteworthy highlight.

What specific measures is the University planning for the medium and longer term?

Förster: Well, how much time do we have left to talk? (laughs)

We have a Vielfalt gestalten diversity re-audit coming up, conducted by the German donors association Stifterverband, and there’s an Excellence Strategy evaluation coming up; we are in the middle of an accessibility status quo assessment that includes digital accessibility issues, we are planning a series of workshops and we are also supporting the planning process for building a daycare center on the Poppelsdorf Campus.

We are trying to get as many researchers, instructors and students as possible involved as members of our University-wide network as a way to magnify our strengths and learn from each other.

Verna Myers, a leading expert on diversity and inclusion, once famously said: “Diversity means being invited to the party. Inclusion is when someone asks you to dance”.

We want everybody to get invited dance! That is our goal.

For more information on University projects and plans around equal opportunity and diversity and contact data see our special portal at: https://www.chancengerechtigkeit.uni-bonn.de/en/equal-opportunity-and-diversity-unit?set_language=en


Dimensions of diversity

Age, social origin, sexual orientation, religion and world view, physical and mental
abilities, gender and gender identity, ethnic origin, and nationality.

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