Catherine de Vries, Bocconi University

An open and diverse university community that can benefit all society


Catherine De Vries was recently appointed as the first Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Bocconi University. In this interview she talks about the importance of fostering diversity and inclusion in the academic world, making it part of the DNA of universities, promoting open debate in the European landscape, and about the role CIVICA can play as a hub for best practices.

You were recently appointed Bocconi University's inaugural Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. Tell us about some of your upcoming projects in this role.

I am absolutely thrilled to serve as Bocconi's inaugural Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. Diversity and inclusion are core principles of Bocconi's mission, the main goal of this deanship is to make them a core part of our DNA. That is to say, diversity and inclusion practices become fully merged into everything we plan and do.

My initial stint is for two years and the first year will be focused on listening and examining. I will be focused on starting open lines of communication with students and staff about their needs and experiences and collecting data on diversity and inclusion activities throughout Bocconi. This will form the basis for diversity and inclusion reporting that we hope to do annually to monitor our progress and benchmark it, while at the same time identifying new areas where we progress even more. On the organizational side, there will be a review of our diversity and inclusion related procedures and a merging of different lines of reporting and execution so that we can better tailor our activities and services to the needs and requirements of students and staff.

Finally, we will contribute to national initiatives to foster diversity and inclusion that have been set up in Italy as well as to the working group on diversity within CIVICA. This also helps us with benchmarking and defining best practices.

Research and academia shape not only the world of today but also the world of tomorrow. How can they contribute to the future without perpetuating today’s biases, particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion?

What we study and how we organize our universities are reflections of how committed we really are to diversity and inclusion as a European academic community. 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.

Diversity and inclusion should not only be about numbers and about checking boxes. It is about doing the hard work needed to create inclusive work and study environments in which students and staff feel that they can be who they are, and that they are heard. This requires a cultural shift in the way we operate as universities. It is about making diversity and inclusion part of our academic DNA.

Your research zooms in on contemporary European challenges. What is it significance of diversity and inclusion in the current European landscape?

Within the European landscape we definitely need to do more when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Our academic institutions do not reflect the make-up of the societies that we serve, especially when we look at senior and management positions. 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. 

You are an active contributor to the EU public debate. What can universities do to encourage a multidimensional public debate on diversity and inclusion at EU level?

We are at a time when we need to scale up our diversity and inclusion efforts, yet we are also facing some backlash. In many European countries, commitments to diversity and inclusion are becoming politicized and politically attacked. In this context, 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 marginalized. EU public debate is served by hearing different voices whilst respecting people's fundamental rights. Universities and their students and staff have a crucial role to play in this respect.

Diversity and inclusion are also core values of CIVICA, which Bocconi is part of. What do you think is the role of higher ed alliances such as CIVICA in ensuring a more diverse and inclusive academic environment in Europe?

I think CIVICA is a great initiative that is already in its core diverse. It includes universities from member states from North to South and East to West. By facilitating academic exchange, we can already help to break down barriers and stereotypes.

But even more specifically, CIVICA includes working groups on diversity and inclusion related topics, hence it fosters the exchange of best practices and allows for sharing experiences from very diverse institutions. CIVICA really has the potential to become a knowledge and experience hub for diversity and inclusion practices within European academia. It is a step change for European academia and should instill in all of us a deep commitment to make it a lasting success.

Interview conducted by Tomaso Eridani (Bocconi University)

Photo credit: Bocconi University 

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