Ambitious new African American Initiative aims to improve climate

“For too long, African Americans on our campus have faced obstacles to feeling fully included in the life of our university,” says Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, explaining the impetus behind the just-announced UC Berkeley African American Initiative. The initiative — a comprehensive effort to address the underrepresentation and campus climate for African American students, faculty and staff — includes plans for a $20 million endowed scholarship fund, as well as a number of steps aimed at boosting recruitment and yield for black undergrads, and at improving the campus’s social, personal and academic support to current and future African American students.

While the initiative is “predicated on our collective determination to engage and improve the campus climate for African Americans across every sector of our community,” progress “cannot and will not happen solely as the result of administrative dictate,” notes Dirks. “The success of this initiative will depend on effective and ongoing collaboration among all of us here on the campus and, crucially, our alumni and friends, whose support will be essential if we are to make good on our aspirations.”

For a closer look at the initiative, Berkeley News met recently with three of the campus officials responsible for its creation and future success: Claude Steele, executive vice chancellor and provost; Gibor Basri, outgoing vice chancellor for equity and inclusion; and African American studies chair Na’ilah Nasir, who takes over from Basri on Nov. 1.

Claude Steele

Claude Steele

Berkeley News: This is an ambitious initiative, aimed at tackling a problem that’s existed at UC Berkeley for some time. How did this come about, and why now?

Claude Steele: Both Nick [Dirks] and I approach this issue with a great amount of concern and empathy. The numbers of African American students have gotten so small on this campus as to affect the experience of being a black student here. If you’re such a small minority, you can feel a kind of spotlight pressure that starts to be a factor in how you are able to engage the institution, and to engage the opportunities here, and the resources here.  It’s something you’ve got to deal with.

The low percentage of African American students may also play a role in a kind of negative cycle: There’s not a large number here, and therefore it’s harder to recruit people to come here. And so I think we worry about that for the educational implications of that kind of situation for a group of students.

Gibor Basri: We’re very excited about this new initiative. We see it as the next step in what have been a long set of various sorts of actions to support campus climate and increase diversity. But the start for this particular initiative was almost three years ago, when we did an analysis of UCUES [University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey] data, the undergraduate survey that takes place systemwide.

Gibor Basri

Gibor Basri

We identified very clear results: one, that Berkeley’s African American students assess the campus climate as quite poor, and two, that at other campuses where there are more black students, they’re less unhappy. There’s actually a relationship between the fraction of black students present and the dissatisfaction. Our efforts intensified this past year in response to listening to our students express their needs, and in response to a renewed national attention on issues of race.

There was a widely reported set of demands made in February by the Black Student Union at Berkeley. Does this initiative reflect their concerns?

Basri: Yes, it does. Not yet aware of the initial draft we were working on, the students met independently at the systemwide black students conference and decided to take action on the same topic. So that generated the BSU demands. And then we spent the semester talking with them, listening to their needs and adapting the initiative accordingly. We very much appreciate the innovative thinking of our students, which enhanced the initiative.

Na'ilah Nasir

Na’ilah Nasir

Na’ilah Nasir: Student activism is a really important part of the Berkeley tradition, and the students’ thinking and energy and dedication to this has played an important role in the process.

Central to this initiative is a $20 million scholarship fund. To what extent do black students decide not to attend Berkeley for financial reasons, as opposed to thinking they’ll find a more favorable climate at some other campus?

Basri: We don’t know precisely how many students would say they didn’t come because of the climate versus how many had a better offer — although we do know that they almost always have a better offer somewhere else. The question of whether they come here or go somewhere else has to do with a variety of things — among them family input, wanting to be close to home, level of financial support.

Nasir: In this regard, we have also learned from a successful effort at UCLA, where the black alumni group raised funds for a scholarship fund similar to the one that we envision. The enrollment there increased quite significantly as a result. So we do have at least that level of evidence.

There has also been a systemwide effort to study this very thing, to look at all of the black students who were admitted to any UC but didn’t come. My colleague Professor Malo Hutson, in City and Regional Planning, is leading that study in Northern California. There’ll be more data on that in the coming year.

Basri: Na’ilah said the important thing here: The experiment has actually been done already by UCLA. That wasn’t an endowment, as we would like to have here. But they produced a fund that would enhance or supplement the financial aid that is already given by the UCs. And that had a huge effect on their enrollments.

The initiative refers to a “critical mass” of African American students. Is it possible to quantify the point at which black students might feel less isolated and more welcome at Berkeley?

Basri: There’s UCUES data that shows level of respect perceived by different populations as a function of their percentage of the population on campus. And there’s this very nice curve — we’re on the steep low part of it — and it reaches high levels at around 20 percent representation. African Americans are around 3 percent on this campus.

It’s tricky, though. It also depends on your history, your place in society. Critical mass means that in the social context that you’re in, what level of representation do you need before you feel like there are enough of you around that you’re relatively comfortable with this place? For African Americans, I think it’s likely that the climate and sense of inclusion would be much more healthy at double our current representation, so that it was similar to the state’s. That’s what it was at Berkeley prior to Proposition 209.

Prop. 209 was the1996 ballot initiative that prohibited public universities from considering race as a factor in admissions. Was any consideration given to working to end that affirmative-action ban in order to boost the percentage of black students here at Berkeley?

Steele: When the hearings happened years ago I testified against 209, so my opposition is on the record. Now I’m an officer of the University of California, and so my first priority has to be enforcing the law and living by the law. I think it’s a very unfortunate piece of legislation. But we have to operate under this constraint, and it gives us challenges that a lot of our private peers don’t have to deal with.

Basri: From my point of view, we chose recruitment and yield specifically so as not to directly face the constraint of Prop. 209. I got particularly discouraged a little over a year ago, when a number of California legislators started the process of trying to pass a bill to exempt higher education from 209. They didn’t get too far before outside lobbies came in and killed it. That convinced me that we may not be at a place politically right now where it’s useful for an initiative like this to directly challenge 209.

Both the recruitment and the yield pieces of the African American initiative avoid that issue directly. We’re talking about getting more people to apply, and then taking the people who are admitted through our race-blind, holistic process, and trying to get them to come. That’s what it’s about.

What kind of timeline are we talking about?

Basri: It will take a while, though maybe not that long if we’re really successful. Undergrads are here for four or five years. So in four or five years, if we’ve really changed things, we could be in a different place. And it doesn’t have to take that long with respect to climate. If people see that there’s progress happening, you could change perceptions even earlier.

Meanwhile, as we work toward critical mass, how do we improve the climate for those black students who do enroll here at Berkeley?

Steele: One thing I’d say is that the scholarship effort is a signal to the broader black community that Berkeley cares about this. So that right there helps climate, we hope. And we hope that creates some traction for us in increasing yields and the like. You know, how comfortable one feels is an assessment everybody does. And when there are enough other people like you there, then you can answer that more affirmatively.

Critical mass helps that effort to engage students. Responsiveness to students by not denying their feelings helps that. Trying to offer them the best — channeling into this opportunity structure that we have, good advising — all those things that I think are constructive parts of the university experience would be part of this, and contribute to that climate issue. You may not be able to get an extremely high number, but you can create an environment where all students feel that sense of belonging.

Nasir: I think there’s something else this initiative signals about institutional values. It signals to the community externally, to our communities, that Berkeley cares about fostering diversity. It also signals to our internal community here on campus, our students and our staff and our faculty, that this is something that’s important, that this is something that we care about, and that we’re going to work together to foster a more diverse and inclusive community. And I think that is really important work.

So we’re talking about scholarships and recruitment efforts, but also about changing perceptions.

Basri: The whole communications part of this is really new. The last part of the initiative is about the way we message ourselves to the outside and internal communities. As Claude suggests, this initiative signals that we’re not just trying to do more of the same things. We’re actually trying to do some new things with the same goals that we’ve always had.

I would also like to emphasize that the initiative has a broader impact and purpose than just improving student numbers and climate. There are other important components that are aimed at increasing faculty diversity; this not only makes Berkeley more attractive to students but to a broader cross-section of faculty, and improves the climate for the faculty here. It will increase the impact that Berkeley has in service to the state and nation to the extent that new research is done on topics that address societal tensions or disparities.

Finally, there are staff development pieces that are aimed at providing more leadership opportunities for staff of color. While these efforts are embedded in this initiative, they will have a broader positive impact for the rest of the campus.

Nasir: And with kind of a public intentionality, too. And part of why that’s important is that this lack of representation isn’t just a Berkeley problem. This is a national problem in higher education, and in all segments of American life. So in that way I think it positions us to say that we see college campuses as a really important place to intentionally practice fostering the kind of diversity and equity that we should see in our society, but that we do not.

No small task, given the financial constraints we’re operating under.

Steele: As Na’ilah points out, we’re not the only university with these challenges. In a large public university, you really have to put your hope in innovation, that you’re going to be able to come up with some things that are effective.

Nasir: But I think this is the right place to do that work. With the faculty that we have, and the amazing activist students that we have, we’re in a good place to create that innovation.