"Diversity is an extremely important issue for universities"

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Renate Schubert, the Executive Board’s Delegate for Equal Opportunities, a
Renate Schubert, the Executive Board’s Delegate for Equal Opportunities, and ETH President JoŽl Mesot comment on the topic of diversity. (Photograph: Screenshot)

The "Black Lives Matter" protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the US have spilled over into Europe and Switzerland as well. ETH President JoŽl Mesot and Renate Schubert, the Executive Board’s Delegate for Equal Opportunities, explain why this issue also affects ETH Zurich, and stress the importance of diversity for the university.

Professor Mesot, the debate on racism is dominating the headlines. How does it affect ETH Zurich? JoŽl Mesot: The events in America are quite alarming and cannot simply be ignored. Even though the circumstances in the US are very different from this side of the Atlantic, the current debate forces all of us to face up to this issue and think about our own prejudices. This is also particularly true for ETH Zurich, whose staff and students come from more than 120 different countries. I would like to expand your original question even further: How do we create an environment free of discrimination of any kind? As a university, do we give enough consideration to the diversity of our members?

I’d like to pass this question straight on to you, professor Schubert, as Associate Vice President for Equal Opportunities. How does the university approach the diversity of its members? Renate Schubert: Diversity is an issue that ETH Zurich has actively engaged with for some time now. JoŽl Mesot has already mentioned the international character of our university. People from different cultural and religious backgrounds come together at ETH Zurich and bring interests from vastly different areas. We have people with different sexual orientation or gender identity. And we have people of all ages, people with physical or cognitive impairments, as well as those whose time and space are limited by other responsibilities, such as care-giving, high-level competitive sports or rehabilitation after an illness. In order to live this diversity in a fitting and effective manner, and fully exploit its potential, the first major step for all of us is to be aware of our own stereotyping of "other" groups. We need to consciously act against stereotypes or try to eliminate them.

JoŽl Mesot: It’s important for the Executive Board to know which issues most affect the various groups. For example, our rector Sarah Springman has regular exchanges with different student groups and has been in contact with the African Students Association Zurich to discuss recent events. At the same time, various institutes and groups, such as the Association of Scientific Staff, AVETH, has joined in the debate on racism and made its position clear. These initiatives are important and confirm the awareness of this issue at ETH Zurich. We need to encourage this awareness even further, as none of us can be entirely free of prejudice. We want to address questions of diversity and equal opportunities where we can have the biggest impact: on ourselves.

So what specific action is ETH taking on these issues? Renate Schubert: Almost three years ago ETH Zurich launched the Respect Campaign and approved the Respect Code of Conduct which applies to all ETH members. This code states that discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, and threats or violence of any kind will not be tolerated at ETH. That is our fundamental ethos. Anyone affected by disrespectful behaviour, or who witnesses such conduct, can easily report it to one of the various contact and advice services. We also offer training for dealing with unconscious stereotyping and as of 2020 have an explicit focus on diversity in our monitoring of equal opportunities. Last but not least, we have a diversity webpage providing up-to-date information and notices of events available to different groups.

JoŽl Mesot: Diversity is one of ETH Zurich’s key values. It’s important to me that all ETH members share this value and live it to the full. In the months ahead we will be launching an in-depth discussion about diversity and other values across the entire community as part of the restructuring project rETHink.

We started this interview talking about the demonstrations worldwide against racism and discrimination. Is ETH also doing something to promote equal opportunities at the global level? JoŽl Mesot: A number of initiatives and centres of excellence are helping to reduce global inequalities. For example, the World Food Systems Center addresses the issue of safe and healthy nutrition, which is something that affects poorer countries much more than rich. Another example is the Sawiris scholarships that allow young scientists from developing countries to study for a doctorate at ETH Zurich. We are also working with partners on a global and local level to develop sustainable solutions for relevant problems. And we will continue to expand this type of partnership, for example as part of our ETH for Development (ETH4D) initiative. Equal opportunity is also important in climate research. Devastating impacts in poorer countries in particular can only be avoided if we manage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. The work of our Singapore-ETH-Centre is also important, as one of their aims is to improve the resilience of people living in densely populated cities who have to endure extreme tropical temperatures.

Renate Schubert: I’d like to add here that ETH Zurich’s NADEL initiative is the oldest career development programme in Switzerland’s international aid effort. On top of that, a number of departments, such as the Department of Environmental Systems Science (D’USYS), are working to raise the awareness of both BSc and MSc students about global and national inequalities. And they are also showing students which instruments and methods can be used to reduce these inequalities.

JoŽl Mesot: Renate Schubert mentioned national inequalities. I think that’s important. I immediately think of access to higher education establishments such as ETH.

Why? Is equal access not assured in Switzerland? Joel Mesot: Unfortunately not. Various studies have shown that gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds in Switzerland have less chance of getting a grammar school place than children whose parents have been to university. ETH Zurich wants to change this. The Chair for Research on Learning and Instruction, for example, raises the awareness of primary school teachers about this problem. It also works with these teachers on ways of inspiring children’s sustained interest in the natural sciences and technology. This type of initiative encourages equal opportunity and in doing so ensures the potential of young people is used more effectively for the benefit of society. The "Youth Academy" programme recently approved by the ETH Executive Board also plays its part here by giving gifted pupils the opportunity to get to grips with MINT subjects.

Going back to where we started: does ETH Zurich have concrete plans for how to continue the discussions in future that have been prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement? Renate Schubert: Yes: over the next few days the university’s Equal Opportunities & Diversity team will be publishing a reading list, as well as a selection of seminal films, on the racism debate on its diversity webpage. In the Autumn Semester 2020 a series of events focusing on the issue of racism are planned as part of our "Diversity Talks". Here the focus will be not just on events in other countries, but above all on the situation in Switzerland. We are working with the groups affected on developing these formats and look forward to collaborating with other interested parties. And a number of other ideas are already being discussed for potential events on the topic of diversity.

Do you think ETH Zurich will benefit from such events and discussions? Renate Schubert: ETH Zurich will benefit when we all recognise how important equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion are for the quality of our university.

JoŽl Mesot: I agree entirely. If we manage to see the diversity of opinions, outlook and experiences as something that enriches our community and we incorporate it in our continuing development, ETH Zurich can become a role model for an open and knowledge-based society.

Roland Baumann