DIversity and Internationalization

Guest blog by Vincenzo Raimo (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement)  

I’m a passionate advocate for the benefits that we all gain through the internationalization of our universities. Among the reasons that I was particularly keen to rejoin Reading University as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement in 2014, was its very strong and long-standing international relationships and its extensive global footprint. As a student, here in the 1980s, I remember a very international population of staff and students, like we have today, and living with students from a very diverse set of countries including Sudan, Oman, Rwanda, India, Cyprus and elsewhere. Almost 30-years on I’ve been privileged to visit most of these countries and to have met Reading graduates all over the world who, like me, have been profoundly influenced by the international experience they enjoyed as students here.

 

I’m sometimes met by skepticism in my belief in the benefits we all gain through greater internationalization on our campuses – a belief that by bringing students and scholars together from across the world we can share knowledge as well as developing a greater understanding and mutual respect for our fellow citizens of this planet. There are also significant benefits in terms of economic flows and in diplomatic relationships, but most crucially in creating a better and safer world which we can share together.

Internationalization does not, however, come without its challenges: the current challenges at home in relation to government policies, including the immigration and Brexit debates played out daily on our news screens, but also those challenges pertinent to operating as a transnational organization. Here in the UK we are home to more than 16000 students and 3700 staff representing most of the world’s nations, and a large number of the world’s religions and faiths. We need to be supportive of the diverse communities which we welcome to our campuses and ensure that we are sensitive and receptive to their particular needs.

We also have almost 3000 University of Reading students on our campuses and study sites outside of the UK including in South Africa, China and Malaysia as well as growing staff populations in those countries and an increasingly mobile staff travelling between Reading’s campuses.

Among the most significant challenges we face as a transnational organization are the very different legal and cultural environments we encounter in some of the countries to which our staff and students travel and in which the University of Reading is located today. It’s important to stress that while we obviously work within the different legal and cultural environments in which our people travel and in which we are located, our core values and principles as a University community remain unchanged – values of respect, tolerance and freedom of expression.

The University’s Diversity and Inclusion Strategy is, as the name says, about being inclusive and welcoming to all people, irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or disability. It is about ensuring that our practices do not exclude, marginalise or disadvantage people and that we create environments, as Rebecca Hilsenrath, Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has described, in which “students and staff feel confident expressing who they are and what they believe in”.

The fact that we have a Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, recognises that we still have work to do at our campuses in the UK to ensure our values are fully embedded. But this work also goes beyond our UK shores. While recognising that we can’t control the experiences of our staff and students away from the University, our campuses themselves, wherever they may be located, must be open and inclusive places. That may mean challenging assumptions and local cultures  – in part this is what universities have always done – but we must also be sensitive to the safety and the feelings of our people within the contexts in which we operate.

To support our Global Engagement Strategy, the University has signed-up as a Stonewall Global Diversity Champion as from 1st June 2017. This will help us to assess more accurately how we are meeting our University Values in our overseas sites, as well as helping us to provide the best possible advice and support we can to our staff and students who are currently working or studying at one of our branch campuses, or considering doing so.

Lesbian Visibility Day

by Simon Chandler-Wilde

Today, April 26th, is internationally celebrated in the LGBT+ community and beyond as Lesbian Visibility Day. Stonewall, the UK’s leading representational, campaigning, and support organisation for LGBT+ people and their allies – the University is a Stonewall Diversity Champion – has used today to launch a new video with many lesbian voices advocating the importance of lesbian visibility – and visibility of a variety of lesbian voices and backgrounds and intersectionalities. Here are a couple of stills from the video. These show first Stonewall and mental health advocate Yvonne Stewart-Williams, and then Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s Chief Executive. We’re really excited that Ruth will give our inaugural Wolfenden Lecture next week 4 May at 7pm – booking is still open here.

The voices on this video advocate powerfully for the importance of visible role models across society – and this message is taken up in Stonewall’s publication ‘The Double-Glazed Glass Ceiling: Lesbians in the Workplace‘, with a key recommendation that: ‘Having visible, open lesbian and bisexual female leaders in the organisation reassures lesbian employees that they won’t be discriminated against and encourages them to be out at work.’ The report also advocates strong support for role models, which is why we are so keen to support our LGBT staff financially and otherwise on Stonewall’s LGBT Role Models Programme. Watch the Staff Portal and the LGBT Plus network’s Twitter feed next week for details of funding for 8 more places, or talk for more info to my favourite lesbian and gay role models Deb Heighes and Calvin Smith, the co-chairs of LGBT Plus, who are both graduates of this one-day programme.

Talking this over this evening, my teenage daughter has emphasised to me the importance of visibility of younger role models. She means here role models at School and University  – RUSU and its LGBT+ Society do a great job locally at Reading of providing many role models, not least Nikki Ray our RUSU LGBT+ Part-Time Officer – but, equally, visible role models in the media and in the programmes that teens watch – a great example is Emily in Pretty Little Liars – that make clear that lesbian identities are normal, everyday, and across our diverse society.

‘Using your Voice to Make a Difference’: Jess Phillips MP at the University of Reading on June 1st

Guest post by Madeleine Davies (English Literature): update 20th April 2017, due to the 8th June General Election this talk will be postponed until some time in October to be confirmed.

In Jess Phillips’ recently published book, Everywoman (Hutchinson, 2017), the Labour MP discusses the ways in which female voices are silenced. She declares that this problem has deep historical roots as she observes the male and female gargoyles decorating the central lobby and the committee rooms in the House of Commons: Phillips notes that the men are depicted open mouthed in speech while the women are gagged, their mouths literally covered with stone muzzles (p.56).

The silencing of women’s voices is by no means a recent phenomenon but it has assumed a disturbing new manifestation in the digital age. In a particularly compelling section of her book, Phillips discusses online trolling and abuse and she explains ‘dog-piling’ which is a technique used by online trolls to shut down someone (often a woman) who speaks out. ‘Dog-piling’ involves hundreds or even thousands of people bombarding a Twitter account with messages over a short space of time. It is designed to drown out other voices, to intimidate the tweeter, and to effectively ‘block’ the voice.

Phillips recalls a horrifying example of this being used against her when a men’s rights activist made a comment about how ‘he wouldn’t even rape me’. As a statement, this is shocking enough, but what followed is even worse. As soon as the initial comment had been made, Phillips recalls the ‘dog-piling’ attack it initiated:

‘A glance at my twitter feed that day was a bit like reading a sinister Dr Seuss:

I will not rape her on a plane

I will not rape her on a train

I will not rape her in the car

I will not rape her on a star

I will not rape her HERE or THERE

I will not rape her anywhere

I will not rape her on a tram

I will not rape her, MAN-I-AM (pp.215-6)

That sufficient numbers of people required for a ‘dog-pile’ can find this abuse either funny or acceptable in the C21st staggered me. I am not a regular user of Twitter or Facebook, and reading Phillips’ book seemed to confirm my instinct that it might be a good idea to retain this policy.

But as Phillips notes, ‘dog-piling’ and other tactics (including ‘isolating’) are designed to coerce women into silence and she forges a connection between witch-hunts and the contemporary digital world when she notes that the feeling of being the victim of dog-piling is ‘akin to being stood in front of an enormous angry mob waving burning torches and pitchforks’ (p.215).

When women give in to the bullying and absent themselves from social media, the bullies win, so Phillips is firm in her argument that such tactics must not deter women from asserting their voices online, painful though the consequences can be. For this reason, Phillips was involved in the launch of Recl@im, an Internet campaign looking at laws and regulations that could be better used to stop abuse.  She is also involved in #NotTheCost, a campaign led by Madeleine Albright to combat the violence inflicted against politically active women around the world. Phillips’ engagement with this issue is clear – Jo Cox was one of her closest friends.

Phillips does not whine – she takes action and she asks all of us to do the same. She is, I think, an inspiring woman and it does not matter whether you agree with her politics or not. That she is willing to become the voice for all people who have no access to platforms from which to speak, positions her as a woman to be admired.

Jess Phillips is giving a talk at the University of Reading on June 1st. The Vice-Chancellor will introduce her at 6pm, and there will be a Q & A session and a book signing (for Everywoman) following the session. The talk takes place in the Van Emden Lecture Theatre and the book signing will be in the First Floor Foyer (both are in the Edith Morley Building, entrance 1a).

I have invited Jess to the University because I believe that she has a voice that needs to be heard by us all. Our students need fearless role models like her (though Phillips says she feels anything but ‘fearless’).  I hope that colleagues and students from across the University will come and hear Jess and contribute to the debate afterwards. After all, as she states:

‘By demanding to be heard, by dealing with our

imposter syndrome, by being cheerleaders,

doers not sayers, creating our own networks

and by daring to believe that we can make a

difference, we can.’

How would you describe our students?

At the Curriculum framework conference on 25th January 2017, it was a delight to present with Sed Joshi, Diversity and Inclusion Sabbatical officer from RUSU on the topic of “How well do we know our students?” We gave staff a quiz, presented facts and figures about our students from the Annual Diversity and Inclusion Report, and discussed what we are doing to try to make our staff body look more like our student body. Video testimonies from students told us why this was important and also what made them feel included.

But it’s always good to try new technology, and we decided to adopt something I learnt from the Association of Science Educations conference – an evolving word cloud. So, we asked 73 participants for 3 words they would use to describe our students, and via Mentimeter, got this (Size of words indicates how many times that response was made):

 

Perhaps given that we were primed by being in a session about diversity it is not a surprise that the largest word is diverse! What would you add?