HAW Hamburg is open-minded and diverse. So why is it still important to formalise protection from discrimination in a policy?
Isabel Collien: The commitment to mutual respect and an open-minded approach is important and a signal for everyone who studies and works here. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that discrimination also takes place in everyday university life. On the one hand, it occurs in a subtle and unconscious way, through statements like 'Where are you from?' or 'Oh, you speak German well.' These are nevertheless instances of racist discrimination which convey to the person spoken to that they 'somehow do not belong'. And there is also more obvious discrimination at HAW Hamburg – for example, misogynist remarks in seminars or sexualised assaults.
Lynn Mecheril: The reality that discrimination extends to universities has to do with the fact that the university as an institution is part of society. This means that the structures, processes and logic of discrimination are deeply embedded and the existing societal norms and ideas are also present in the university. But we have an idea of how HAW Hamburg could be. It might be a long road, but we can adapt the structures and bring about change. The Anti-Discrimination Policy is an important instrument for reinforcing the path we want to take.
There is already a General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG), which also applies to students in Hamburg. So why do we even need an anti-discrimination policy?
Lynn Mecheril: The AGG is a law that provides a specific legal framework. The policy fills this framework with life and helps to implement the AGG in everyday life. With the Anti-Discrimination Policy, we have a tool that clearly outlines how the AGG should be applied at the university.
Isabel Collien: For example, the AGG states that there needs to be a complaints office. The law is directed primarily at companies. But universities don't function like companies. This means we have to spell out the requirements in a way specific to universities. This is what we've done with our policy. In concrete terms this means, for example, that we have also established an AGG Complaints Office for students in addition to the AGG Complaints Office for employees.
Lynn Mecheril: In addition to university members – i.e. students, doctoral students, staff and professors – we also have to take into account the tutors, sessional instructors and third parties such as cleaning and security staff, visitors and the Studierendenwerk staff when considering the issue.
Isabel Collien: Also, the AGG 'only' covers six types of discrimination, something that has long been the subject of criticism. In addition to racist discrimination and discrimination based on gender, religion or worldview, disability, age, or sexual orientation, the Anti-Discrimination Policy also addresses discrimination based on characteristics such as social origin, language or family status.
Is the Anti-Discrimination Policy intended to generate improvements or punishments?
Lynn Mecheril: It is intended to lead to changes in behaviour and ideally to self-reflection. This is why we go beyond the legal requirements for establishing an AGG Complaints Office with our system of counselling and support services. The Complaints Office reviews whether discrimination pursuant to the AGG has taken place and makes recommendations for action. But this isn't enough to drive change, especially since many of those impacted do not want to take the often arduous path of pursuing legal action. In some cases they are simply interested in finding a solution through discussions and mediation.
Isabel Collien: As Lynn says, in many cases those impacted aren't interested in punishments; they want to create change for the better. This is only possible together, when we talk to one another. At the same time, though, when boundaries are violated this must be made clear. This is clearly the case for harassment, violence and fundamentally inhumane, discriminatory behaviour. In these cases we need to take a stand, and we're all responsible for doing so.
Lynn Mecheril: It is often the case that people want a precise plan for how to react and act in cases of discrimination. But each case is and will remain individual. What is most important here is to look at the needs of those impacted.
Why is it important, especially at a university, to make visible and talk about the issue of discrimination?
Isabel Collien: At HAW Hamburg we have committed to educating students to shape the future. This means that we ourselves have to embody this highly complex, diverse future. At the same time, the reality at universities often still looks different. This is why we need to take a look at the history: Where do universities come from, and who founded them? They were usually founded by white men of a certain age, who didn't have caregiving responsibilities, and they were intended for this clientele for a long time. If we look at our students today, they are much more diverse, and the administration and the instructors are also slowly becoming less homogenous. But the structures, processes and our university culture often still lag behind this diversity, or even have an exclusionary effect.
Lynn Mecheril: I would like to add that as educational institutions, universities are already at the end of various selection processes. The chain of discrimination extends through the entire educational sector – for example, when in the end it is primarily students from academic families who complete a Master's degree. This is why society-wide changes and reforms are needed.
What exactly does the Anti-Discrimination Policy regulate and who is it directed at?
Lynn Mecheril: The policy primarily regulates two aspects: On the reactive level, it outlines the procedures to be followed in cases of discrimination and what concrete actions can be taken. And on the preventative level, it makes suggestions regarding what can be done to prevent or reduce discrimination. Additionally, the policy outlines what is meant by the different types of discrimination. Only in this way can we reach a joint understanding of which structures and processes at HAW Hamburg promote discrimination and how we can work preventatively to counter this. With our awareness-raising measures, 'Respecting one another' brochure series, training offers and workshops, we are already implementing a great deal. A documentation system that captures what types of cases are being brought to the counselling services and what then happens with them will also be starting soon. This will help us more precisely identify and evaluate what needs and potential courses of action exist.
Isabel Collien: We even start one step earlier by informing applicants – both prospective students and prospective employees – that we have and live an Anti-Discrimination Policy. Here we work closely with the Student Admissions and Registration Office and the Personnel Department.
What can be done in the event of discrimination at HAW Hamburg?
Lynn Mecheril: If someone has experienced discrimination, they can seek advice from our counselling and support services as a first step. Together with the individual in question, the staff of these services identify possible courses of action, such as a mediation discussion held together with a member of the management staff. If the incident involved grounds of discrimination covered under the AGG, the individual can also submit a complaint to the AGG Complaints Office, which will review the incident, interview witnesses, obtain statements and ultimately make a recommendation for further action.
Isabel Collien: For those who have experienced discrimination it is often a great effort to bring the discrimination to light. This is why it's important to us that they know that the counselling and support services are working to support their interests and to empower them. There are established hierarchies and relationships of dependency at universities which have to be taken into account in the advising sessions.
How do we work together to become a discrimination-free university?
Isabel Collien: A shift in our thinking has to take place. Discrimination is not an isolated phenomenon, it is systemic. And someone who has experienced discrimination as a student at HAW Hamburg may experience a drop in their performance and their grades as a result. In the worst case they may drop out of their studies and vent their frustrations via social media. Discrimination therefore not only massively harms those impacted, but can also damage the university and impact important figures, such as the number of degrees completed.
Lynn Mecheril: With the Anti-Discrimination Policy we are strengthening the position of those impacted, making discriminatory structures visible and entering into discourse. We have to understand that anti-discrimination is a system-relevant element. To create a discrimination-free university we need resources – in terms of both staff and financing. There are already many people at HAW Hamburg who are providing advising and counselling 'on top' of their actual job.
Isabel Collien: We can only become a discrimination-free university if we do it together – it is not just the responsibility of the Equal Opportunities Office. And anyone who has ideas or wants to talk is welcome to enter into a discussion with us. Because we all have a responsibility.
Interview: Anke Blacha
The Anti-Discrimination Policy, which outlines measures to support respectful interaction and protection from discrimination at the university, enters into force on 23 September 2021. The complete policy is available on the HAW Hamburg website. Students and employees can also find information on the website about the counselling and support services available to them if they experience or have experienced discrimination at the university.