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How can universities create a diverse environment for students?

By Chloe Lane

Updated January 13, 2022 Updated January 13, 2022

Sponsored by Bocconi University  

A diverse, inclusive university is one that accepts and respects students from many different backgrounds, including those of different races, ethnicities, ages, religious beliefs and political beliefs.  

At Bocconi University in Italy, diversity and inclusion are two key elements of the university’s strategic priorities. In 2020 the school elected Professor Catherine de Vries, as its Dean for Diversity and Inclusion.  

In her role, Professor de Vries helps to increase diversity among the school’s staff and students.  

On 24 January 2022, Professor de Vries is hosting a free online masterclass discussing the political implications of COVID-19 restrictions. Sign up here, or browse Bocconi University’s full masterclass schedule here

TopUniversities spoke to Professor Catherine de Vries about her role as Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Bocconi University, why she believes diversity is important and what universities can do to promote diversity.  

What constitutes a diverse environment?  

A diverse university understands that every student is unique, recognising and celebrating students’ individual differences.  

“Diversity and inclusion should not only be about numbers and about checking boxes,” said Professor de Vries. “It's about doing the hard work needed to create inclusive work and study environments in which students, faculty and staff feel that they can be who they are, and that they are heard.” 

With its main campus based in Italy’s iconic city, Milan, Bocconi University is in the heart of Europe. As part of the European academic community, Bocconi University is committed to diversity and inclusion, taking active steps to improve it.    

However, according to Professor de Vries, universities are not doing enough. 

“In recent years, we have made significant progress in Europe when it comes to the diversity of students and staff. But it is not enough, we need to do more,” says Professor de Vries. 

Why is diversity important? 

Promoting a diverse and inclusive culture creates an environment in which it’s possible to combat discrimination and where everyone can reach their full potential, explains Professor de Vries. 

 “Within the higher education landscape, we definitely need to do more when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” said Professor de Vries. “Our academic institutions do not reflect the make-up of the societies that we serve, especially when we look at senior and management positions.” 

Professor de Vries’ position as Dean for Diversity and Inclusion gives her the opportunity to design and implement inclusion policies within Bocconi University.  

The Bocconi Inclusion Service helps deliver these policies, focusing on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, learning disability, nationality, ethnicity, religion and socio-economic background.  

Professor de Vries said: “Diversity and inclusion practices are crucial for academic institutions as they are motors of innovation – something that is the core of what academia is about. Research also suggests that work satisfaction and student success increase with a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion.” 

How can universities create inclusive, diverse environments for students? 

To create an environment that is welcoming to all students, universities must take a pro-active approach. 

Bocconi University has implemented policies to work towards its commitment to support and promote social mobility, inclusivity, diversity and sustainability. As part of these policies, the university has adopted an Honour Code for the Bocconi community, which includes a commitment to diversity and inclusion. 

In her role, Professor de Vries contributes to national initiatives to foster diversity and inclusion that have been set up in Italy and elsewhere in the EU. 

Closer to home, at Bocconi University, Professor de Vries encourages students and staff to talk about their needs and experiences, as well as collecting data on diversity and inclusion activities throughout Bocconi. This information is then summarised in a report, which will be published online in 2022. 

This will be a start of a series of reports monitoring and recording the university’s progress in diversity and inclusion. Bocconi’s procedures are frequently reviewed and updated to ensure that the activities are meeting the needs and requirements of the students and staff.  

“We aim to embed diversity and inclusion in the university’s day-to-day activities, and we track our diversity goals carefully through dedicated metrics,” said Professor de Vries.  

What impact has COVID-19 had on diversity and inclusivity? 

Alongside her role as Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Professor de Vries is also a professor of political science at Bocconi University. She explains how COVID-19 restrictions have played a significant part in increasing inequality among students. 

She said: “Early work on the effects of coronavirus restrictions suggests that mental health concerns have increased substantially among students during the pandemic.  

“In addition, remote learning requires resources that are unevenly distributed, which may have increased inequality among students.  

“This may have a long-lasting impact on inequality and social exclusion, which we need to monitor closely at university and at the workplace, when students transition into work.”  

Professor de Vries says that in many countries in Europe, commitments to diversity and inclusion are becoming politicised and politically attacked.  

She said: “It is crucial to ensure that academic and societal debates become even more pluralistic and open. This also means pointing out when different viewpoints are being marginalised.  

“EU public debate is served by hearing different voices while respecting people's fundamental rights. Universities and their students and staff have a crucial role to play in this respect.” 

If you would like to find out more about the consequences of the pandemic on democracy, populism and international cooperation, Professor de Vries will be hosting a free online masterclass on 24 January 2022, as part of Bocconi University’s series of masterclasses. View the full schedule here.  

This article was originally published in January 2022 .

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Written by

As Content Editor for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Chloe creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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