New E&I chief Nasir: ‘We could be a model nationally’

Na’ilah Suad Nasir, professor of education and chair of African American Studies, has been named as UC Berkeley’s next vice chancellor for equity and inclusion. A member of the faculty since 2008, Nasir studies cultural and racial dimensions of schooling and learning. She is the mother of four, ages 10 to 23, the oldest of whom graduated from Berkeley last spring. For the past five years, Nasir has been a member of the Resident Faculty, supporting undergraduates by living alongside them, with her family, in campus housing.

Nasir’s appointment was announced July 23 in a Cal Message to campus. Shortly before, she spoke with Berkeley News writer Cathy Cockrell about her new post, starting Nov. 1, on the campus’s senior leadership team. 

Na'ilah Suad Nasir

Professor Na’ilah Suad Nasir (UC Berkeley photo by Cathy Cockrell)

Berkeley News: Where do you see the Berkeley campus today in terms of equity and inclusion?

Na’ilah Nasir:  The campus has its challenges; the world has its challenges, and what happens on the campus is a microcosm of the world. I think this is a really critical time. The things that are happening in the national arena — a new public awareness of institutional racism, of gender violence, of transgender issues — we’re in a really heartbreaking and exciting time. Heartbreaking because we keep coming face to face with the knowledge that these issues — which we thought we’d made more progress on — are still heated, contentious and troubling for our society.

The Division of Equity and Inclusion has accomplished a lot in its first eight years under Vice Chancellor Gibor Basri’s leadership. Luckily we’re on a campus that is progressive and willing to engage and talk about these important issues. That’s a real plus. But I do think there’s a lot of work left to do.

How do you plan to approach the work ahead?

Coming in the door, the first thing is to take a clear, hard look at where we are, and to set an agenda for the next several years; to think collectively to figure out what’s most important to those most affected by the key challenges. What does the campus community want to see this office working on? What are the hot-button issues? What things can we make progress on? And what things are going to take a little longer?

So engaging the campus community as partners will be important?

Absolutely. Part of what I love about this kind of work is pulling people together to create and enact a vision. That’s one of the powerful things you can do in a position like this: think together, with various stakeholders. There are a lot of brilliant, amazing people on this campus — students, faculty and staff — who have great ideas and insights. So it has to start, for me, with listening to what folks feel is needed. And with this kind of work there’s so much to do; we can’t do everything all at once. So it will be important to set priorities.

What are some of Berkeley’s assets and challenges in this arena?

We do a great job in terms of socioeconomic diversity on campus. That’s one thing we have, uniquely, and it’s a good thing to be able to build upon. One challenge, clearly, is that the racial diversity of our students, faculty and staff is not yet what it should be in an incredibly diverse state like California.

But this is a time where people are ready to have conversations around these issues, and to put in serious, focused work. Many people across campus share the vision that our community could be a model nationally. We can create a climate at Berkeley that people would emulate across the nation.

In terms of representation, it sounds like you feel the campus can make headway despite Prop. 209, which prohibits considerations of race, gender or ethnicity in things like admissions and hiring.

Yes, there’s a lot that we can do, such as extending the way that we connect to communities, building new and deeper relationships with local schools and thinking carefully about our admissions process. There’s a lot we can do around faculty recruiting and retention. With staff, one of the key issues is creating pathways for advancement. We can work on these things, even though 209 is part of the reality we have to live with for now.

What expertise and experience do you bring to your new role?

First of all the capacity to listen. And a really deep commitment to creating spaces where people can contribute effectively. That’s my passion: helping people get what they need out of institutions, to make institutions more humane places.

We can create a climate at Berkeley that people would emulate across the nation.

– Na’ilah Nasir

I’ve also been doing administrative work for several years now — some of which has been creating structures that support people. And I’m looking forward to thinking about equity and inclusion as it relates to our teaching mission. Where does equity and inclusion work intersect with teaching, and with our research? How can we draw on the amazing scholarship Berkeley is producing in this area, and pull more faculty into our thinking and planning? I think my experience as a scholar, researcher and faculty member who studies issues of race and schooling is going to be really important there.

What drew you to your field of study?

I went to El Cerrito High, which at the time, like many schools, had a strong tracking system — stratifying people into different tracks based on some sense of their academic potential. I remember sitting in my AP honors class, looking around and thinking “This school is full of African American and Latino students. Why am I only one of three in this class?”

Going to a working class public high school, I saw the ways that inequities matter for people’s lives. I went to school with people who were smarter than me, people who — by virtue of how they were treated by the institution — did not have the opportunity to go to college. For me there’s something deeply wrong about a society that does that. So I’ve always been concerned with understanding that reality more deeply and trying to figure out how we can do it differently.

You mentioned renewed energy nationally around these issues. How do you feel about leading Berkeley’s equity and inclusion effort at this moment in time?

It’s an amazing moment to be taking on this role. Many of our students have been deeply engaged around the #Black Lives Matter movement and other national protest movements. They’re looking not only at issues of police violence, but are examining their own experience on campus. They’re feeling empowered to think about what they need and the ways the campus does and does not support them. We have newly created programs focused on undocumented students and student veterans. I’m excited to be able to support our student communities and to plan with them.