In a recent attempt to address the underrepresentation of female professors in the Netherlands, the Dutch government made extra funds available to universities to appoint women. To the dismay of many people at Erasmus University, the university refused to fill over half of the available positions and sent the money back. This triggered Willem Schinkel’s personal essay in which he explains how he feels alienated from a university whose masculine dominance is closely tied to its corporate character.
If an alien from an exoplanet came to Erasmus University, or to any other university in the Netherlands, and if that alien considered the composition of the university in terms of gender and race, it would most likely draw one of two conclusions. One, this space has been invaded by white men. Two, the model that best describes the spread of white men through institutions of higher learning is that of some kind of plague or epidemic. Of course us earthlings would be quick to explain to our alien friend that the unequal distribution of men and women, of white people and people of color, is normal – even though it is not a normal distribution in the statistical sense! You see, we would tell this alien, the principle that governs our distribution over institutions of knowledge and power, is what we call quality. To which the alien might rightfully respond: ‘I see. And what is the principle that governs the distribution of your quality?’
At this point in time, I don’t think administrators at Erasmus University have a good answer to this question. Recently, our university refused government money for the appointment of so-called Westerdijk chairs for female professors. The dean of the Rotterdam School of Management, Steef van de Velde, made a classic patriarchal move and wasn’t shy about it: in an interview with Erasmus Magazine he said he hadn’t appointed any women because he wanted to “protect” them. After all, an appointment on a Westerdijk chair would be perceived as “stigmatising”, since people would think ‘that they needed this type of appointment because they could not get an appointment on their own merits.’ Moreover, he said, this was not at all a question of money – the RSM has plenty and doesn’t need such money to appoint women. To top it, he said there were plenty of upcoming women in tenure tracks – and why give some women some money (in Dutch, he spoke of a “sweetener”, or douceurtje) and others not?
This kind of reasoning and rhetoric is an affront on so many levels, including the level of intellectual discussion befitting a university. I have no intention to counter it with all the good reasons for the appointment of women. I don’t think it’s my place in particular to make that case, and I also think that the case has been made over and over again. We know all the arguments – that is, if we choose to pay due attention to the scientific study of “diversity” – but they run aground in the morass of the white male dean-dominated powerhouses that university faculties are in this country and elsewhere in the world. So this essay is not a case for diversity. If anything, it’s a case for a university that may be gone, and that more likely may have never existed.
The alien in my hypothetical example might assume that an invasion had occurred. And in a way, of course, the invasion has always already taken place. We are in a state of occupation. Getting serious about undoing it is what is called “decolonising the university”. Here’s another way to think about what it means that our appointments are so one-sided. If I often feel alienated from the university it has something to do with the model of living together we embody.
The university, like any other setting, is always also one answer to the question how to live together, how to be social, how to practice sociality as being in the world together. And I guess it just keeps on being disappointing that this – the current composition of the university – is the modality of sociality that keeps on being reproduced. Ours is a conditioned stupidity. It is conditioned by an imagination limited to market-based modes of finding value in life. But being so conditioned is not a condition; it is a constraint that is enforced, but over which we might have control.
So whatever happens, let it be obvious that our “diversity”, that is, the composition of our togetherness, is a choice. And the university as it is produces what might be best called a form of paleness. By this I mean a uniformity and homogeneity, a desire for and expression of an order of looking and working alike, an order of whiteness and masculinity, in which “I don’t recognize this picture of the university” even counts as an argument. This paleness is of course a form of whiteness. But the paleness I’m alluding to is also an intellectual desolation or drabness, an achromatics of thinking. And it is a submission to neoliberal procedural routines in the ways we work, as well as a general appreciation of mediocrity sold as “excellence” – remember that, after appointing men on half the positions available, we’re tapping into the lower tiers of intellect and creativity if we continue to appoint men.
And what a bleak picture it is to see those with a ticket to inclusion! What has happened when students (they are not to blame for this!) don’t even think to criticise the curriculum set by the order of pale sameness? What has happened when technocratic markers of achievement that are “evidence based” take precedence when in fact most have no clue what a genuine spirit of inquiry would be, what intelligence might be as a mode of sociality beyond individuated IQ indicators, or how study might be a shared venture to recompose the world in ways that subvert the pale order of sameness to which we currently sacrifice ourselves, but mostly others, for the noble cause of producing “knowledge”?
If anything is clear, it’s that the university is invested in state and corporate power, including criminal fossil fuel companies, and divested in diversity. And when we keep on seeing how diversity basically functions as what Sarah Ahmed calls a “non-performative” – something designed not to produce its stated goals – the only way to move forward is to step up our critical reflection on, and our subversion of, the university at large. The point is thus not to consider the university as basically fine as it is, and to just grant access to it to a greater number of people, or by people of a variety of gender and “race”. It’s not about letting others get a piece of the pie, of sharing in the otherwise unchanged corporate paleness that marks the university today. Much more fundamentally, it is a matter of living as such, of living together. After all, this is what we do on campus: during the day, ours is a specific modality of being together, a selective, tilted, and pale form of intimacy. So the question who gets to be there is pertinent, and concerns us all.
 See: Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, Durham: Duke University Press.
About the author:
Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).