By Levin Stamm
When Elisa Goppion arrived in Science Park as an incoming first-year student in August 2019, the community of AUC felt not only excellent, but also diverse to her. “At first, I was impressed by all those people from different countries,” she says. But as the excitement of the first months wore off and the once-inspiring mix of nationalities became the new normal, Social Science major Goppion noticed that most new students she kept bumping into were from wealthy, educated families.
Noticing the absence of socio-economic diversity at AUC, she felt history repeating itself. Goppion could not help but feel reminded of a contrast that had already existed throughout her childhood: On the one hand, the cosmopolitan city of Milan, where she completed high school; on the other hand, a 5000-people village in rural Tuscany where she had spent most summer and winter breaks at her grandparents’ house. In the latter, unemployment rates were high, and the people who lived there for most of their lives did so because of the lack of alternatives. “For many of my friends from there, university was not even an option – they just felt that it remained outside their realm of possibilities,” she recalls.
“AUC prides itself on being diverse, but would I call this diversity? I don’t think so”Elisa goppion, 2022 auc graduate
Goppion thus went on a quest and wrote her capstone on a topic that many may consider being AUC’s million-dollar question: “Community, excellence, and diversity: Can universities really have it all?” And what better sample could Goppion have had at hand than the one of her own university, the one that, until recently, boasted “excellence and diversity in a global city”?
It did not take long – Goppion had just made 87 AUC students fill out her 33-question survey – until some of the impressions that had enticed her to write the capstone were confirmed: 82.8 percent of the respondents had at least one parent or guardian with a university degree, and only a little more than 10 percent of the respondents were first-generation students. “AUC prides itself on being diverse, but would I call this diversity? I don’t think so,” Goppion comments.
Anyone that skims through Goppion’s 92-page capstone will quickly realise that diversity is the most contested aspect at AUC: Not only did non-white and less well-off respondents report that they felt significantly less a part of AUC’s community, a third of all students who took the survey also indicated that they felt restricted about the opinions they could share with peers in classes. Is AUC thus no great place for minorities, nor for people valuing free speech? It would be a concerning finding for an institution that states on its website to “aim to create an environment where every member of our community feels safe and knows their contribution is valued.”
Dr. Lia van Wesenbeeck, professor at AUC since 2016, supervised Goppion’s capstone in the 2022 spring semester. Was she surprised by her supervisee’s findings? “Unfortunately, they rather confirmed a lot of impressions that I’ve obtained over the years at AUC,” van Wesenbeeck says.
According to van Wesenbeeck, Goppion’s capstone highlights the paradox of diverse communities: “Members of a community often agree to share certain values. Agreeing to disagree could of course be such a value, but in reality, that’s often very difficult to achieve,” she says.
“A student indicated in the capstone survey that they were surprised to arrive at AUC and to see a lot less ethnic diversity than AUC’s online presence would have suggested”Dr. Lia van wesenbeeck, goppion’s capstone supervisor
AUC’s dean, Prof. Dr. Martin van Hees, is quoted in Goppion’s capstone, stating that “respect, tolerance and diversity mean that you don’t try to prevent others from expressing their opinions. Even though you strongly disagree with them.” A view of diversity that also van Wesenbeeck agrees with: “Even extreme ideas – when not against the law – should be allowed to be exchanged, and the possibility of dialogue should come before dogmatically sticking to our ideas,” she says.
Dean van Hees similarly states that “racist views don’t have a place, sexist views don’t have a place, people who want to oppress others politically don’t have a place [at AUC]. I think that there’s a clear line [between oppression and disagreement],” at the same time admitting that, with non-extreme ideas, the boundary becomes “fuzzy”.
Diversity of opinion does not seem to be the only value that is incompatible with the close-knit AUC community. What about the minority students who do not feel a sense of belonging at AUC, be it academically or socially? In this context, van Wesenbeeck shares an anecdote that seems to exemplify the issue at AUC: “A student indicated in the capstone survey that they were surprised to arrive at AUC and to see a lot less ethnic diversity than AUC’s online presence would have suggested,” van Weseenbeck says.
“If you only select based on grades, what you then get is a student population that is mostly white, mostly female, mostly upper-middle and upper-class, mostly European”Dr. Michiel van drunen, director of education at Auc
Goppion believes that the problem of demographic representation occurs before AUC students sit through their first lecture – namely, during the admissions process. “AUC still focuses a great deal on grades when it comes to selecting applicants”, she says, “and this already makes it a lot harder for students from non-academic households to be admitted in the first place.”
Goppion’s impression that academic excellence (in the sense of achieving a high GPA) and demographic diversity are a trade-off is confirmed by AUC’s Director of Education, Dr. Michiel van Drunen: “You can have very objective criteria for excellence, namely grades of students. But if you only select based on grades, what you then get is a student population that is mostly white, mostly female, mostly upper-middle and upper-class, mostly European,” he states in Goppion’s capstone.
AUC’s Admissions Coordinator, Dr. Cor Zonneveld, makes no secret of the fact that high grades – and, as such, “proven performance”, as he calls it – remain the key component of admission to AUC. In Goppion’s capstone, he states that “we would like to be certain […] that if we invite an applicant to study at AUC, we don’t set them up for failure.” Zonneveld explains his sharp choice of words to The Herring as follows: “If we select candidates based on different criteria than proven performance, there is a risk to invite students who are underprepared. If that were the case, these students would have a higher risk of failing at AUC, something we would like to avoid as much as we can.”
It was not always the case that AUC almost exclusively focused on grades during the application process: Zonneveld himself introduced a so-called star rating system four years ago to flag outstanding candidates and better their chance of admission, even if their grades were not deemed competitive – an opportunity especially for students from non-academic households to make up for possible grade deficits. The problem: The admissions team never specified what an outstanding applicant constituted and abandoned the star system last academic year “because of concerns of (un-)conscious bias in rating an applicant as a star candidate,” as Zonneveld explains.
Capstone supervisor van Wesenbeeck deems the abolishment of the star system a missed opportunity: “To only look at grades is easy and risk-free, but by barely ticking boxes, you may lose true excellence in the end,” she says, hinting at the fact that a GPA is only limitedly indicative of a student’s quality. Making the admissions process more subjective would have allowed for the selection of what van Weseenbeck calls “high-potential students”. “It would be a true commitment to the value of diversity,” van Wesenbeeck says.
“We will never be able to achieve a significantly different community if we do not invest much more in outreach”Dr. Cor zonneveld, admissions coordinator at auc
The excessive focus on grades in admissions is nothing new to AUC. Already in spring 2021, inclusivity consultants Nina Blussé and Sahil Achahboun flagged what seemed to be a contradiction in the way AUC presented itself to the outside – namely its dedication to diversity – and the admissions procedure that mostly takes academic performance into account. The evaluation by the two experts had been requested by the subgroup of AUC Next that dedicates itself to admissions and outreach, chaired by Head of Academic Core Dr. Marianne Riphagen.
Riphagen names a few changes that have been made since the evaluation: The admissions tutors went through two unconscious bias workshops for the admissions tutors, they no longer have a “meet and greet” with applicants before the final admission decision is made, and they also eliminated the star system. Blussé and Achahboun’s recommendation to “consider how admissions can be used to gain more insight into valuable unique experiences and backgrounds that applicants would bring to AUC,” as Riphagen explains it, will only be examined this academic year.
Admissions Coordinator Zonneveld does not consider the selection process to be the bone of contention for more diversity at AUC. “In my opinion, we will never be able to achieve a significantly different community if we do not invest much more in outreach,” he says, noting that groups like first-generation students are not only underrepresented in the studying cohort but also in the applicant pool. Zonneveld states that “only by establishing an applicant pool that is more representative of society as a whole can we build a more diverse cohort.”
For 2022 graduate Goppion, memories of the intense discussions about diversity are already fading as she moves on to her post-AUC life. “Now it’s up to the AUC management to start engaging with my work,” she says.
A truly excellent work, Goppion’s capstone was awarded a distinction.
Read Goppion’s full capstone here: