“Female and foreign Professor: I am an example of Bocconi’s efforts to be inclusive.”
Diversity and inclusiveness are top priorities for our University. For this reason, Rector Gianmario Verona appointed Catherine De Vries, full professor at the Department of Social and Political Sciences, as Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, a new role within the Rectoral Committee.
Professor De Vries is Dutch by birth, but she has built an international career. After her studies in Germany, USA and Netherlands, she worked for almost ten years in the UK, at Oxford University and University of Essex. In 2018 she became an affiliate professor at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Very recently, in January 2020, she joined Bocconi University, where she teaches European Politics and Public Opinion and Media. Her work focuses on the key challenges for Europe nowadays, such as Euroscepticism, political fragmentation, migration and corruption.
The importance of diversity, the challenges and the goals within this role are some points that we discussed in an interview with Professor De Vries.
Professor De Vries, why did you choose to come to Bocconi University?
Bocconi is a very good university. The research quality is excellent and there are some great academics in my Department. The community strives to be international and this fits my personality. After having worked abroad for a long time, I consider Bocconi the best place to stay now: I am not too far away from my country, the Netherlands, but at the same time I am not in it.
How has your experience at Bocconi been so far?
I moved to Milan about a year ago, before Christmas. The first couple of months were great: meeting new people, being in a new place, my daughter going to school etc. Then, we went into lockdown and in-person interactions stopped. Luckily, I had great support from my Bocconi colleagues and from people in Milan in general. It was a very strange but also beautiful introduction.
Why do we need a Dean for Diversity and Inclusion?
Like in many other universities and private sector organizations, there has been a lot of work at Bocconi to try to internationalize and to have different viewpoints within the campus. Indeed, it is not only a matter of nationality, but also of gender, ethnic backgrounds, religious, sexual orientation, convictions. It is important to work on the matter of disability, to make the campus more accessible, and to deal with mental health issues. Before the creation of the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, these activities were spread out around the university and there was no one responsible for the coordination of them. However, Bocconi must pay attention to these matters in many circumstances: every time a new event is organized, when a new building is open, when someone is hired, when we teach etc.
Why do you think to fit well in this role?
I have experience in a similar position: since 2018 I am Chair of the Diversity Committee of the European Political Science Association (EPSA). Also, I am perhaps not what you would think about when you think of a stereotypical Bocconi Professor: I am a woman and a foreigner. So, I can give some personal insights to the matters too.
Currently, what is the situation at Bocconi in terms of Diversity and Inclusion? What could be improved?
No university is perfect when it comes to these themes. Decades ago, Bocconi was very much focused on Italian students and professors, while in recent years it changed its profile. This made it necessary to work on the new needs which were introduced with these changes, for example the integration of international students and faculty in the campus life. Bocconi has been great to address them: Equal Opportunities committees were set up. However, the challenge is not only in terms of procedure, but also in terms of culture and communication. For example, some activities are still carried out only in Italian. Sometimes this is needed because of the topic, but sometimes these could be more inclusive. Building a community that is the most inclusive as possible is still work in progress.
What are your goals for the next months?
I will serve the university in the best way possible. I want to make sure that it is an open space for ideas, which allows to achieve academic quality, and that all students, faculty and staff are involved. So, the first step will be to map the achievements of the past and make those procedures and activities better: for example, by ensuring that the various groups dealing with the issues within the university communicate with us. Also, I will look at the good practices of other organizations.
Why is diversity important?
I believe that you can talk about diversity from two standpoints: from a philosophical point of view and one more “practical”. Philosophically, we know that there are inequalities in education and academia and that organizations should try to reduce them. We must foster talents regardless of where they come from. This is especially relevant in a time in which we get more and more information about systemic discrimination. The more practical answer is drawn up from research. Diverse teams tend to operate better and innovate more.
You mentioned systemic discrimination. Considering your research works and late developments, do you think that we are currently facing a sort of backlash in inclusive conducts worldwide?
It is true that we are witnessing some backlash against diversity in society and that recently these sentiments have been mobilized by political parties. Research suggests is mainly due to uncertainty, economic (status) anxiety and nostalgia. One factor is the perceived competition for resources or for jobs: on this point I am currently carrying out research. Another explanation is that there may be cultural roots to it: some people are more socially conservative than others. However, despite these widespread conducts, we are still doing extremely well compared to decades ago. More and more people of different gender/race/sexual orientation are now holding positions that before could not hold. One clear example is Ursula Von Der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, who will be the guest speaker of Bocconi’s academic year opening ceremony. A woman at the head of one of Europe’s most powerful institutions with important responsibility in the Covid-19 crisis.