A historian of science and medicine, Professor Kassell’s work begins with the premise that "nature and the natural are socially constructed, and that knowledge is made - it's always made, it's never found." Her work focuses on everyday experience, celebrating difference.
As a Professor at the History Department, Kassell's job is more than research. She has extensive experience in teaching undergraduates and supervising graduate students, mentoring post-docs, and in contributing to university administration. Professor Kassell has also been engaged in a number of projects with people who are neither historians nor academics.
"In all of this work as an academic historian, I have encountered, and I hope fostered, different styles of thinking and different styles of working," she explains. "Diversity for me is what has made this academic work interesting."
Now, in reacting to her new role as the EUI's Dean for Equality, Diversity, and Inclusiveness, Professor Kassell shares a feeling of excitement, emphasising how much progress has already been made at the EUI, and how much appetite there is to make real changes. Inclusivity and diversity have always been central to how she works, how she teaches, how she conducts her research, the kinds of research questions she asks, and how she interacts with people.
As we sat down with Professor Kassell to discuss her new position as the Dean for EDI, she reflected on the role and what it means for the broader EUI community.
What are the priorities of your Deanship?
My answer to this is that it isn’t my deanship. I work on behalf of everyone at the EUI, and the starting point for me is that equality, diversity, and inclusiveness are everyone's problem, but that also means they are everyone’s opportunity. So, another way of answering that question is to say that one of my tasks is to work out what the priorities of the institution are, and that means from the perspective of all of the people, not just the perspective of the professors, but the perspective of the staff, of the post-docs, of the researchers, of everyone who works here.
I am committed to ensuring that the EUI is a place where people continue to do excellent work, and that they are part of a community which is inclusive and diverse. This sounds idealistic, but I actually think it's optimistic. I have only been here 18 months, but what I could tell from the outset is that this is an enormously diverse institution. It was set up to bring researchers from across Europe together, with the ultimate aim of promoting research across borders and encouraging genuinely European perspectives. Now, 50 years later, we are poised to address the diversity-related challenges and opportunities of an international university.
The notion of diversity, in fact, has changed enormously since the EUI was founded. And so, this university, like all universities, needs to be a place where social diversity is part of its structural and operational machinery, but also of the everyday fabric. I say I'm an optimist, because I think these are challenges, but they are opportunities for the place to become even better than it already is.
What is the biggest challenge that you foresee in your new role?
I really am very keen at this early stage in the role, to borrow someone else's wording, "to work out how to work with the institution, without working for the institution." By that, I mean working within the constraints of the institution but not endorsing the aspects of the institution that are not conducive to inclusivity, diversity and equality.
My way of doing this is to ask a lot of simple questions, that is my mode of doing most things, whether its research, teaching, or this kind of work. In this way, you get a lot of complex answers back that you have to make sense of. Although I do not have a particular agenda, I am very committed to avoiding so-called checkbox diversity, where the objective is to fulfil criteria or hit targets without effecting substantive change. I'd also like to be sure to work against an antagonistic "us/them" culture. Changing the culture, or fostering and maintaining a healthy culture, is much more difficult than ticking boxes. I hope that my work as Dean of EDI will help to cultivate and maintain trust and mutual respect within the EUI community.
What makes universities exciting is that they are competitive and emotionally charged places, and this can be fun, but it also needs to be safe for everyone. So, if you catch me in the right mood, I'll insist that I am the Dean for EDI but not the "Dean Killjoy."
In which area of the EDI dossier does the EUI shine and why? In which area does the EUI need to dedicate more work and how will it do so?
I think it's an amazing moment to have taken on this role. My understanding is that there were numerous ground-up initiatives at the EUI, into which a lot of people put a lot of informal work, and that the Institute began to formalise its commitment to what we now call EDI. One of the ways that this formalisation took shape was with the creation of the Dean for EDI, which was first held by my predecessor, Neha Jain.
There is now a Gender Equality Plan 2022-25, and a Gender Equality Committee, whose work is progressing well. In March 2023, Giuseppe Zago arrived as the new EDI Officer, sitting both at the Human Resources Service and acting as secretariat in these committees. Giuseppe Zago joins the EUI after having served as EDI specialist both in the academic and private sector. He is beginning to get to know the people and groups who are the cornerstone of our vibrant community, and he is eager to listen to their experiences and understand their needs and expectations. He has experience of enhancing and supporting EDI official and informal networks, developing policy documents, and embedding an inclusive culture in everyday practices. We are extremely lucky to have him as the first incumbent of this key role.
An Ethnic and Racial Diversity Plan is now our top priority. This was developed by a working group, and they will be reconstituted as the Diversity Committee. The new Harassment Policy came into effect on 1 January, and the Harassment Policy Committee will conduct its first bi-annual review of the policy in June. A Disability and Special Educational Needs Policy for students and researchers is administered through the Academic Service, and work is underway to extend provision to the whole community.
All of these separate initiatives that I have listed need to be brought together. Intersectionality is another one of these jargon terms, but addressing it will be one of my principal tasks as Dean. By chairing the relevant committees, and by working together with the EDI Officer, we can try to ensure that we are not creating silos where we focus on the headline issues like gender and sexuality, ethnicity and race, and disability in isolation from each other. Taking an intersectional approach means attending to the ways in which inequalities based on race, gender, class, disability, and other factors contribute to complex, intersecting, forms of discrimination.
The Dean's mandate is for three years. Professor Kassell will serve until 2026. A dedicated EDI page is available on the EUI website, representing much of the work mentioned in this article and will showcase the many EDI-related events, initiatives, and activities taking place at the EUI.