When students at an elite university in Berlin charged the school with condoning racist attitudes, the administration had no formal procedures in place to deal with the spat. Even its diversity czar said it was out of her hands.
The dispute at the Hertie School — one of Germany’s top training grounds for civil servants — was sparked by a professor characterizing the toppling of statues by protesters as barbaric. The ad-hoc way the institution dealt with the controversy highlights how many universities in Europe’s largest economy don’t have mechanisms in place to address potential discrimination.
While all German employers — including universities — are required by law to have a way for staff to raise concerns about discrimination, only 58% of surveyed higher-education institutions have set up formal procedures, and only half of those have made those resources available to students, according to a recent report by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency.
Dannyelle Thompson — who is working on a master’s degree in public policy at Hertie — says Black students like herself risk finding themselves in hostile learning environments without official safeguards. “It’s about everyday racism that you have to fight to be acknowledged as racism,” she said. “It’s tiring.”
Yet even institutions with staff dedicated to handling individual harassment cases might not have the procedures and remit in place to deal with higher-level grievances. This issue was highlighted in July, when Hertie professor Alina Mungiu-Pippidi sparked complaints from students by writing an article for a political website in which she suggested protesters toppling statues was akin to acting “as any barbarian would have done hundreds of years ago.”
“Whoever blows up a monument or ties the rope around the neck of a statue, for whatever reason, does not advance civilization, but relapses into old behavioral patterns which should not make humanity really proud,” she wrote. The article was republished on Hertie’s website and social-media channels.
“The term ‘barbarian’ denounces those who are campaigning as they are as uncivilized,” Hertie student Babatunde Williams wrote in reply to the article by the professor. “There is a long history of people of color — especially Black people — being referred to as ‘barbarians.”’
In response to the student backlash, Diversity Ombudsperson Basak Cali said in emails obtained by Bloomberg that her mandate is “limited to allegations of harassment or sexual harassment involving a member of the community.” However, the university’s website says Cali should be contacted for “any concerns regarding diversity, inclusion, discrimination and sexual harassment at the Hertie School.”
Black Lives Matter protests have pushed corporations and educational institutions around the world to take a closer look at their diversity strategies. Local governments are also helping. This summer, Berlin became the first German state to introduce a law that requires public institutions to follow up on complaints about alleged discrimination.
An additional challenge to addressing structural racism in Germany is that little to no data exists on ethnic background, making the experiences of marginalized communities difficult to track.
“Many universities are beginning to understand that protection against discrimination is an important part of a diversity concept,” Schlenzka said. Until recently, universities in mainland Europe have often regarded themselves as places where discrimination wouldn’t happen, she said. As a result, “they haven’t seen the need to have an office for complaints and a strategy to prevent and counteract it.”While behind peers in the U.S. and the U.K., German universities are increasingly adopting guidelines on how to approach discrimination, according to Nathalie Schlenzka, who wrote the FADA report.
About a week after the article was published, Hertie President Henrik Enderlein issued a statement acknowledging the criticism. He said the university would remove the article from its website “to avoid any kind of misunderstanding that republishing this piece is an endorsement of content” and reiterated its “commitment to combat racism.”
Over the past two years, the university has participated in a “open discussion” with student representatives about diversity and inclusion on campus, spokeswoman Jennifer Beckermann said by email. Last fall, they made 83 recommendations.
“We are in the process of implementing them, including reviewing our procedures for violations of our Code of Conduct,” Beckermann said.
There needs to be more fundamental change in approach among German institutions, according to Karim Fereidooni, a professor at the Ruhr-University in Bochum who focuses on critical race theory in education. “German universities need to employ more people who are familiar with racism, and they need to do more to hire a diverse workforce,” he said.
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