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27.10.2022 from 
Campus + City
Respect turns groups into a community

The University of Magdeburg has committed - and, indeed, has included this aim in its mission statement - to putting equal opportunity training, studying and working conditions into practice. It celebrates and values diversity in research, teaching and everyday working life, and aims to act as a model institution in the state of Saxony-Anhalt too. But how do we go about dealing with the differences between people and opinions, points of view and perspectives in everyday university life? Where are our opportunities, how do we recognize barriers, when do we find joint solutions? Katharina Vorwerk interviewed the Vice-President for Research, Technology and Equal Opportunities, Professor Borna Relja, about these issues.

Portrait Prof. Borna Relja (c) Jana Dünnhaupt Uni MagdeburgPortrait of Prof. Borna Relja (Photo: Jana Dünnhaupt / Uni Magdeburg)

In general, what, for you, does diversity at a university mean?

Diversity means that variations from supposed norms are so self-evident that they simply are not an issue and do not pose any kind of challenge. The cultural or social background of the students or employees, their educational background, experiences, life circumstances, age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities or illnesses do not have a decisive role to play in the study program that they pursue, the success of their studies or their career path. Instead, this can solely be a matter of individual ability and motivation.

Is the University of Magdeburg already diverse, or do we still need to become more so?

There are as many answers to this question as there are students and employees at the university. If you look at the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Network webpage, you will see that our students and colleagues define diversity in many different ways. What unites them, however, is the desire to improve. We are, after all, diverse, simply as a result of the different subject cultures or the fact that over 25 per cent of our students come from an international background. However, together we need to make greater efforts to see diversity as an enormous source of potential at and for the university. If each and every one of us were to be able to answer the question as to whether we are free from prejudices or if valuing one another is part of the natural culture of interaction at our university with a direct, unreserved and credible YES, then everything would be ok. However I suspect that we are still harboring a great deal more potential than we recognize.

Can we measure diversity? Are there parameters that define how good we are?

Of course. Inclusion, for example, is easy to measure both subjectively and objectively. Let us look at our complex management levels in the University, in the faculties, institutes, working groups, departmental management levels, the student body and so on. Here, we can record and publish the diverse groups to which people belong in pure percentage terms. However, we need more than just the pure figures to tell us how good we actually are. With diversity it is also about a psychological sense of security. For this reason, anonymous surveys, for example like the current survey conducted by the FEMPower Network of the state of Saxony-Anhalt on experiences of discrimination are very important. They ask, for example, if somebody feels that they belong in a group, if they feel free to share their own intentions, without being sanctioned for them.

Diversity means recognizing group identities, appreciating other perspectives, accepting different needs. Without difference and distinctions from one another, there would be no diversity. How is a university community created from groups and what unites us?

Diversity means accepting many different things, characteristics and possibilities. Appreciating other perspectives, accepting different needs is, after all, essentially expressing basic respect for individuality. Respect turns groups into a community. When individuals are able to freely contribute with their personality and identity, inequalities are broken down, we are more motivated, perform better and are more satisfied and a university community is created. We have to ask ourselves why difference should be a problem. Difference in the university community is a prerequisite for innovation and learning. Fundamentally, difference is what unites us and what drives us forward.

A year ago we signed the Diversity Charter, more or less strategically anchoring diversity. What has happened since then?

By signing the Diversity Charter, the University of Magdeburg sent an important signal and thus initiated the active implementation of diversity management at OVGU. And slowly things are progressing. Since the signing of the charter, there has been a greater awareness of the topic. We have to develop this further in order to demonstrate that diversity represents an opportunity for the university as a whole. The Office for Equal Opportunities is very active in this regard, for example with its anti-discrimination campaign, “Lived Diversity”, with the student Diversity Challenge, with the establishment of the Anti-Discrimination Working Group, with the organization of the interdisciplinary online exhibition, “Disciplinary research with gender and diversity in mind”, with lectures and many other things. Supporting sustainable structures is important too. The network addresses topics such as anti-discrimination and anti-racism, as well as barrier-free access to the homepage or the development of diversity structures. Furthermore, we will soon be adopting the Guidelines to Combat Discrimination and Sexualized Violence at the University of Magdeburg. And equality cannot be achieved without quotas. For this reason, the new Constitution of the University, which sets out a requirement for committees to reflect gender parity in their makeup, should be viewed positively. We must progress step by step and together strive for cultural change. An ability to face the challenges of the future starts in the mind and is a personal challenge for each and every one of us.

Equal Opportunities and Diversity Network at the signing of the Diversity Charter (c) Jana Dünnhaupt Uni Magdeburg Professor Borna Relja (left) with the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Network and the President, Professor Dr.-Ing. Jens Strackeljan, during the signing of the Diversity Charter (Photo: Jana Duennhaupt / University of Magdeburg)

What are you dissatisfied with?

Generally it is difficult to set priorities. After all, which diversity measure should take precedence? Compatibility of family and work, diversity in HR development, selection of students, accessibility, diversity-aware teaching? I would like to see the continuous discussion of goals that have been achieved become easier, and to find the right platform for intensive dialog. We are not yet at the point where we include diversity management considerations in every decision. Each individual measure that is implemented pleases me, but overall we have not yet found a solution. In principle, I am dissatisfied when diversity is seen as a threat or disadvantage.

Tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare, which literally means “to bear”. Have we forgotten how to endure others?

A question that for me personally in a sense is an almost provocative question in connection with diversity, which is probably better left to the philosophers to answer. Luckily in the meantime we have developed a different understanding of tolerance. The question is, how far we have actually internalized the meaning. I think that children are good role models in this regard. They generally react curiously to new things, but also how those around them react. In principle, every day we have opportunities to practice exercising tolerance.

If we think of diverse teams as national teams, then good training would be critical to their collective success. That is because strong individual performances produce successful teams. Do we - in the figurative sense - have training places and trainers at OVGU?

Yes, we do. And we still have a lot of hard training ahead of us. But we also have a good team. The following are all involved:

and so on. The university has a whole host of service structures. Only interaction between all the bodies mentioned can ensure that preventive diversity measures are embodied in networks across OVGU in such a structured way as to credibly and visibly ensure a fair course of play, so that in turn we will make ourselves attractive to young talent for whom a sustainable, diverse, inclusive team culture is important. And a good game should be broadcast, which means that suitably tailored advertising and communications strategies are key here.

OVGU has an international make-up, over 100 nationalities are represented on campus. What is a great opportunity at this point, and where do we face challenges?

The great opportunity is that all these people are already studying and working with us. The major task is to ensure that they progress and, above all, that they also stay. For years, studies have shown that companies with high levels of diversity return above average profits. Individual prospects, experiences and knowledge lead to increased creativity and innovation. Creativity and open innovation processes are also crucial for the sustainable development of our university. We must support and require this diversity in such a structured way that its potential can become established in teams and be able to unfold across the university as a whole. We have to assemble the teams correctly, pay attention to turnover rates and commitment, offer training in intercultural skills, language courses and development programs, openly and purposefully promote diversity, and also, on the other hand, analyze the development of skills and structures in the transformation process in a targeted way so that we can know where what kind of diversity will produce results at the university. And sometimes, the purely architectural measures are a challenge, as with the case of the new “Welcome Center” at the University of Magdeburg. Municipal structures are critical too; apartments, rents, traffic and mobility, social infrastructure, urban development are important for us.

International students on the campus of the University of Magdeburg (c) Jana Dünnhaupt Uni MagdeburgOver 100 different nationalities and cultures come together at the University of Magdeburg. (Photo: Jana Duennhaupt/University of Magdeburg)

Diversity means making all viewpoints and talents visible and supporting them. Are we prepared for this as a university community?

That is a very important question. Creativity and innovation are probably the most fundamental tasks and at the same time are what drive a university and its community. We cannot simply ignore diversity out of concern that we will not manage the balancing act between “tolerance” and “chaos”. Diversity is fundamentally nothing new, it is just more present. Every individual in the university community should ask themselves: am I out of my depth, and if yes, why? There are clear values and aims that maintain civilized behavior and a highly educated society. So it is not just a matter of making all points of view and talents visible in the university community and promoting them, but instead promoting diversity in such a way that nobody has the feeling of social or structural injustice, right?

Do you see a mission for the University of Magdeburg as a societal role model?

Absolutely. And as a role model, we may not satisfy ourselves with paying symbolic lip service to diversity, but instead must organize and implement the structural transformation process in such a way that variety and diversity are visibly embodied as an aspirational goal for society

What do you think of the fact that only women may hold the post of Equality Officer?

In my opinion it is right that here this position is reserved for women. The statistics still indicate disadvantage. However, for the period of office from 2000 to 2022 we have had three male deputy equality officers, in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology, the Faculty of Mathematics and the Faculty of Process and Systems Engineering. We know that these colleagues work just as hard to combat disadvantage and discrimination as their female counterparts. They are making a significant contribution to the change that is needed in the stereotypical understanding of gender roles. I am happy about every male colleague that actively works towards diversity, given that it also takes courage to oppose the existing structures.

Living diversity demands commitment and work, which, however, is worthwhile, since as a university community, we will become more resilient and flexible. Is there, for you, an ideal situation that you would like to see for the University of Magdeburg, when it turns 30 next year?

Quite honestly, I think diversity is so dynamic that there cannot be an ideal situation, instead only a good pathway towards dealing with diversity and an open, diversity-aware performance culture. For our birthday, I would like for us to make progress over the coming year with the many topics raised here and for us to have a bigger budget available for supporting diversity. Then we can make the University of Magdeburg more open, diverse and equal and break down the inequalities that remain.

Professor Relja, thank you very much for the interview!