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Academic Council member: »At first I thought: It cannot be true that there is this discrimination. But I became wiser«

Dentistry — Dogukan Jesper Gür has contacted the University Post on behalf of a number of minority ethnic dentistry students. The students describe how they are the object of systematic discrimination on their study programme, and how management is not taking their problem seriously.

»At first I thought: It cannot be true that there is this discrimination. I thought that it was probably just a few, individual, cases, and that it probably had a basis in something personal. But I became wiser.«

The words are from Dogukan Jesper Gür, member of the Academic Council at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences. He has contacted the University Post to put something on the agenda that, according to him, has been going on for years inside the faculty’s Panum buildings.

More specifically at the Department of Odontology (School of Dentistry), where many male students with minority ethnic backgrounds feel that they are subjected to systematic discrimination due to their ethnicity.

Dogukan Jesper Gür has a strong network among students at the faculty by way of his student political work. He himself is of Turkish descent, and many minority ethnic students see him as someone who they can speak to about their own complaints and problems when they feel that others do not listen, he says. He admits that he was sceptical the first handful of times his fellow students came to him and shared their stories.

Those who are exposed to discrimination will typically internalise the feeling of not being up to standard

PhD Lea Skewes

»The number of specific episodes however, where dark-skinned young men claim to experience discrimination is overwhelming, and there are more and more of them. When so many of them recount almost identical stories, there has to be something structural at stake,« says Dogukan Jesper Gür, who is a medical student himself.

In recent years, he has received a remarkable number of enquiries from male students with minority ethnic backgrounds on the master’s degree programme in dentistry. The University Post has been in contact with almost 20 of them. They say that they are generally assessed more harshly in their clinical skills than their ethnic Danish fellow students, and that good performance is not recognised to the same extent as their majority ethnic classmates.

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The numbers are overwhelming

According to Dogukan Jesper Gür and the dental students that the University Post has been in contact with, the discrimination is worst in the clinical courses, which start on the fifth semester. Here, the students are assessed on an ongoing basis by their teacher, who, at the end of the course, decides whether the student will pass or fail. In contrast to the study programme’s written exams, which are assessed by an instructor and an external examiner, it is the instructor’s assessment alone that determines whether the students pass or have to wait one more year to retake the course.


Bias means an inclination towards, or a prejudice. Biases are those cultural and habitual patterns that we use to understand the world around us. They are used to navigate through the world and allow us to make quick decisions. But biases also threaten to distort and influence what we see in a stereotypical direction.

The research distinguishes between two kinds of bias: Explicit and implicit. Explicit bias are those beliefs and attitudes that we are conscious of, and which we can consciously express when, and if, we want to do so. Implicit bias are the points of view and attitudes that we are not necessarily aware of. They are automatically triggered when we encounter different people or situations

Source: Professor Sara Louise Muhr

Discrimination is defined as the negative treatment of different groups based on prejudices. Discrimination is most often seen in areas like gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation as well as physical and mental disabilities.

Source: Danish encyclopedia ‘Den Store Danske’

»There are a number of objective, academic goals that you are assessed on. But the actual assessment of clinical skills is ultimately based on what the individual instructor thinks. There are many opportunities, therefore, for personal bias and subjective attitudes to come into play. Judging from the personal narratives that we have seen, this is happening on a large scale,« says Dogukan Jesper Gür.

He points to a number of cases where students have been told that they have failed because they looked tired, turned up late once, or would just ‘benefit from waiting a year to proceed’. Or they were penalized for mistakes and blunders that ethnic Danish students would have been able to commit without consequence.

Discussed in the Board of Studies

In the latest well-being survey from the Department of Odontology (School of Dentistry), the students were asked whether they had felt discrimination over the past 12 months, e.g. because of sexual orientation, religion, gender, ethnicity or disability. 33 per cent of master’s students who chose to respond to the study say that they experienced discrimination at some point in the past year – either daily, weekly, monthly or less often. The corresponding data for the entire Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences is, by comparison, only 14 per cent.

Discrimination was on the agenda of a meeting of the Odontological Board of Studies in May 2022. From the minutes of the meeting it can be seen that »some of the male students with a non-Danish ethnic origin experience resistance from the male instructors in particular.«

According to the minutes, it is commented on that students who experience »offensive behaviour or comments,« should »talk to them [the offenders, ed.], particularly if it is an instructor,« adding that »it is also possible to involve the head of studies if necessary.« If the students feel dissatisfied, they should be referred to the student counselling office,« it states in the meeting minutes.

Dogukan Jesper Gür calls it ‘sweeping it under the carpet’.

»I do not know exactly what has been said at that meeting, but on the back of the minutes I think that the problem is pushed away far too easily. No one seems curious to find out whether there is actually anything going on,« he says.

An individual problem

According to professor in diversity and management at the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) Sara Louise Muhr, who has done research on discrimination and bias for a number of years, it comes as no surprise that minority ethnic young men experience discrimination on the master’s degree programme in dentistry.

»Discrimination based on skin colour is a recognised phenomenon in research, which, unfortunately, is seen in all contexts,« she says.

It is well-documented, for example, that children with dark skin are underestimated already in primary and lower secondary school relative to their white classmates, and that jobseekers with a non-western sounding name need to send up to 50 per cent more applications in order to get to an interview. At the same time, a study shows that dark-skinned service staff need to exert themselves more in emotional work in the form of positive attitudes, smiles and politeness, in order to be seen as just as competent as their white colleagues.

»We know from research that young, brown men are associated with troublemaking, violence, low intelligence and non-conformity. So from a research perspective, there is a high probability that the young men on the dentistry degree programme are not only underestimated in terms of their academic skills, but also on social skills and their ‘attitude’,« says Sara Louise Muhr, who points to the study programme’s clinical courses as an obvious place where discrimination can occur.

Management cannot just neglect the problem, because it has serious consequences for male students with minority ethnic backgrounds.

Dogukan Jesper Gür

»The bias that can result in discrimination is particularly evident in contexts where there are no specific criteria for the assessment, but where the evaluation is based on an overall assessment. And this is compounded when there is only one person that is doing the assessing,« says Sara Louise Muhr.

Lea Skewes, a PhD and assistant professor at VIA University College and the founder of the Gendering in Research network at Aarhus University agrees with her. She does research on discrimination and bias in gender, and in sexism, and she points out that the protest from minority ethnic students, and their experience of not being heard by management is an expression of a very classic problem when it comes to cases of discrimination.

»It is typical that the majority do not see the problem when minorities try to address the discrimination they are exposed to. Those who engage in discrimination are rarely aware of it, and because they have not experienced something similar themselves, they often do not recognise the other people’s perceptions of the world when they are confronted with it,« says Lea Skewes.

She points out that it is often difficult to prove that discrimination takes place because it is rarely expressed explicitly, but most often takes place subtly and unconsciously. So when someone who is the object of discrimination addresses it, he will typically be met by so-called gaslighting, where doubts are raised about his perception of reality, she says.

»The person who – consciously or unconsciously – practises discrimination, will typically encounter criticism with individual feedback, and maintain that the person is lacking in academic proficiency, or find other, personal, reasons why the wronged person has been treated the way he has,« she says.

Those who are exposed to discrimination will typically internalise the feeling of not being up to standard, she says.

»There is the risk that the resistance will have a major impact on your future life. You either drop out and give up. Or you live with a feeling that you are academically poor, even though in reality there is systematic discrimination.«

Can lead to a ‘huge backlash’

In this case, many students have joined up to formulate their criticism together. Is there not the risk that this is all a tempest in a tea cup and that they exaggerate the discrimination because they focus on it and reciprocally confirm each other?

»In fact, it is typically the opposite we see. That minorities who have been subjected to discrimination tend to underreport and downplay what they have experienced because they largely take discrimination as an expression of individual inadequacy. If you want to address the problem in a way that takes it seriously, you therefore almost always have to join groups to show how it is systematic,« says Lea Skewes.

In addition, there are absolutely zero benefits in addressing discrimination, she points out.

»I know that the narrative in these cases is often that some do it to get attention and draw the victim card, and that they are just waiting to call out an offence. But you have to remember that it has a big cost to articulate this. It typically leads to increased marginalisation, and it risks leading to a huge backlash.«

Hopes for debate and dialogue

This is something that Dogukan Jesper Gür is very aware of. This also goes for the nearly 20 students who have been very concerned about coming forward with their version of reality. They all hope that management will take them seriously and consider what can be done about it.

»We have to put this on the agenda at the faculty. Management cannot just neglect the problem, because it has serious consequences for male students with minority ethnic backgrounds. Those who do not have the personal resources will be lost and end up retaking several years, or dropping out. And the present testimony is only the tip of the iceberg. Many people do not have the energy to stand up and say what they experience,« says Dogukan Jesper Gür.

»I hope that this will set off a debate. And I hope that management will now listen to us and offer us the dialogue that has been lacking,« says medical student Dogukan Jesper Gür.

READ ALSO: Department of Odontology to investigate its study environment after claims by minority ethnic students