Q&A with Claude Steele

Claude Steele, UC Berkeley’s new executive vice chancellor and provost-designate, has served in a variety of roles over the course of a long, celebrated career in higher education. A social psychologist and longtime faculty member at Stanford University, his research on stereotypes and underperformance of minority students in higher ed is familiar to academics and general readers alike. An experienced administrator as well as a teacher and scholar, Steele was provost at Columbia University from 2009 to 2011, when he returned to Stanford to become dean of its Graduate School of Education.

Steele met recently with the NewsCenter to discuss his work, his life and his future at UC Berkeley.

Q. You’ve spent the past 20 years at two elite private universities, going from psychology professor at Stanford to provost at Columbia and then back to Stanford as dean of the Graduate School of Education. What about Berkeley appeals to you?

Claude Steele

Claude Steele (Photo by Linda Cicero, Stanford University)

A. Berkeley is a great university. And it’s achieved that eminence while maintaining a public mission and a deep commitment to broad access and to being an instrument of upward mobility in society. So it is, when you think about it, an incredibly important cultural and societal achievement. Berkeley is a jewel in the crown of one of the greatest systems of higher education ever created.

Coming here, I think, is a bit like joining a grand parade that’s marching along and has a new leader, and wanting to contribute to it in some way — that is, wanting to join the mission of UC Berkeley and contributing to its general welfare, as well as helping it deal with its challenges as creatively and innovatively as possible, to help sustain its greatness.

That’s really at the core of my wanting to take this position.

And before joining the Stanford faculty in 1991, you weren’t exactly a stranger to public institutions.

I have been a beneficiary of great public universities. It’s a mission I understand and care a great deal about.

I grew up academically in public institutions — University of Utah, University of Washington, University of Michigan. My Ph.D. is from Ohio State University. So I’ve had a lot of experience with public institutions, and if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things I’m proudest of.

Just the same, do you anticipate any culture clash in moving from Stanford to Berkeley?

Well, at this point, in contrasting Berkeley and Stanford, I’d have to rely on pretty much the stereotypes that everybody has. (Laughs.) I haven’t been a citizen of Berkeley before, so I don’t know that world well. I suspect that many of these alleged campus differences can be greatly exaggerated. I think both these institutions wouldn’t be as strong as they are if they didn’t share a profound commitment to excellence, and to the best of academic life. So I expect that the similarities between these institutions are going to be far greater than what the stereotypes would lead people to expect.

Stereotypes have been a major research area for you.

My book [Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do] begins with my moving to the University of Michigan, and noticing early on an underperformance on the part of certain groups, groups whose abilities are negatively stereotyped in the larger society, African American students, Latino students. Students from these groups were getting lower grades there than their scores and credentials would predict. And the same was true with regard to women in the natural sciences and quantitatively based fields. Why? Trying to answer that “why” launched a 25-year-long research program that led to a deeper appreciation of the role that group stereotypes can play in the development and expression of intellectual abilities.

Are some of your research findings applicable to higher education, and more specifically, to your new role as provost at UC Berkeley?

I think we learned things that are very important and useful in institutions of higher education. And the reason I describe that story early in the book is to show how this research started as an effort to understand phenomena that are typical in institutions very similar to Berkeley. These are issues that these institutions still face. And so it’s a career-long commitment to both understand the nature of these challenges — I think they’re central to understanding what’s involved in a truly integrated society — and to help institutions of higher education understand how to cope effectively with them. That is, how to expand access, but also how to enable all students to be successful when they get to these campuses.

So those are the kinds of career-long concerns that I enter this position with. And I’m excited to work with what I know to be a strong set of colleagues to try to make progress in these areas.

You’re a scholar, of course, but in Whistling Vivaldi you’re clearly speaking to a readership beyond the academy.

I have great curiosity about basic processes — enough to spend my life as a scientist. The work on stereotypes is, I would say, just a third of my scientific career. But that said, I’ve always had an interest in learning from, and contributing to, society at large. I think one source of great, even basic scientific ideas is engagement with problems as they exist in real life, in society outside of the scientific laboratory. That’s where you often learn things that lead to basic insights. So I’ve long pursued that strategy, and it has had good scientific yield, and I hope it also has good yield for society.

I’ve tried to use my interest in being connected to society as both a source of remedies and innovations about how to improve things, and as a source of basic understandings that qualify as basic scientific — in my case, psychological — theories.

That sort of orientation is a hallmark of UC Berkeley, and something Nick Dirks, a colleague of yours at Columbia, has cited often in his brief time as chancellor. How did knowing each other affect your perspective on coming here?

The importance of Berkeley’s public mission is certainly something Nick and I have discussed. It’s just a rare thing to have such broad access to such an excellent education. The combination of those two things is a distinctive commitment of a strong public institution like the University of California. And it’s the commitment to maximize on both of those dimensions, access and excellence, that I think is the special cultural achievement of an institution like Berkeley. Nick and I have talked a great deal about that. And it’s something that stirs me to be a part of this institution.

You’re a social scientist. The chancellor is a historian and anthropologist. What would you say to those who might be concerned about a shift from the so-called hard sciences at a research institution like Berkeley?

I am a scientist. I think of myself that way. In my leadership roles — I suppose the most relevant of which would be my experience at Columbia — I think I was a champion for the natural and physical sciences. They really did face some distinctive resource challenges there, and I’d like to think of myself as having been somebody whose leadership and commitment they appreciated. I would be the same person at Berkeley — and I would likely also set up formal mechanisms for being advised and staying in touch .

But of course, as one says that, one has to also stress that other academic foci in the university — the humanities, the social sciences, the professional schools — are equally important. I suppose I’m most accurately categorized as a behavioral and social scientist, that’s part of my DNA. These are commitments that would equally drive my engagement with the university.

Another part of life at Berkeley — as you probably know from your time at that other school — is intercollegiate athletics. Big Game rivalries aside, are you a sports fan? How do you see the role of sports at institutions of higher learning?

I have a long, abiding love for athletics. It’s not a preoccupation of my adult life, but it is an abiding love. I was a college athlete. I was a competitive swimmer from the age of 9 to 19. I was an elite swimmer at Hiram College, but that didn’t mean a lot, because it was a tiny athletic program at a tiny liberal arts school in Ohio, nothing like what Berkeley has.

I think, in principle, there can be a very constructive relationship between athletic participation and performance in the larger society. A lot of what I was able to bring to the academic side of my life I had learned in the athletic side of my life. Discipline and focus, dealing with failures and setbacks, high-pressure situations, the notion that you can get better at things — an awful lot of preparation for what you’re going to encounter in a career, I learned as a swimmer.

So you were an African American kid competing as a swimmer in the 1950s and ‘60s.

I got into swimming at a YMCA that was in a fairly integrated area outside Chicago. So I didn’t think much about it. But as I got older I did recognize things. In those days we endured a variety of segregations — you couldn’t swim in certain pools, or you could swim in them only on certain days of the week. I begin Whistling Vivaldi with a story of that experience. So yes, it was one of the areas in life where I first encountered the color line, stereotypes and the like.

But I went to a big, integrated high school in the industrial part of South Chicago. This was a working-class high school — blacks, Polish, whites from the South, a big mix. And again, in that context I didn’t feel too unusual. But it became clear that elite swimming was something that required a level of resources that wealthier neighborhoods had more of. They had pool time, quality of coaching, all kinds of things that we didn’t have. So it began to expose me to resource differences in society. I began to see those things as a kid swimming.

You’ve noted Berkeley’s public mission. Is there something you regard as a particular focus of your own life and work?

I do have this career-long, lifelong interest in making diversity work in society in general, and certainly in higher education.

And when you say diversity…

I don’t mean just any kind of diversity. I mean the kinds of diversity that are probably most critical to redressing social and economic equality concerns in society. That certainly would include racial diversity, but it also would include class and income diversity. I also sometimes mean it with a slight edge toward intellectual diversity, because I’m a strong believer that that’s a central element of excellence. Who we are, the experiences we have, the interests we have, the skill sets we have — problems get solved, frontiers get broken through, when you’re able to bring diverse perspectives to bear on them.

Your wife, Dorothy Munson Steele, has also been a professional collaborator. What else can you tell us about your family?

We’re a close couple. We’ve been married for 46 years now. We met at undergraduate school, and our interests have evolved together for a long, long time. We have two adult children. Our son is a music producer working at Atlantic Records in Southern California, and his wife is both a musician (and a singer and producer as well) and early-childhood educator. Our daughter is the managing attorney for the ACLU in San Francisco, and her husband is an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice in San Francisco. Each couple has a young son.

My wife — the other Dr. Steele in our family — is an educator who has been such an important partner in every aspect of my life, it’s hard to separate what’s hers, what’s mine. I’m a psychologist, so that’s where my focus has been, for the most part, as a researcher and an academic. She’s always been interested in classrooms and schools and how to make diverse classrooms effective and so on. But there’s a huge overlap in those interests and topics. Intellectually we’ve evolved together, and we’re great resources for each other.

You begin your new role here in March, which gives you about 10 weeks to learn everything there is to know about Berkeley. Where do you think you’ll start?

Exercising this role in an effective way is going to take a great deal of immersion on my part. And I will try with all the energy I can summon to get as much exposure to the institution, its history, its culture and its mechanics, how it works, as I possibly can. And I want people to know that I welcome that kind of input at this point, openness about their experience at UC Berkeley.

Do you have a philosophy — or perhaps a psychology — of leadership?

I value relationships in a big way. And I think academic leadership is built on them, in the sense that I think they need to be tended to, and developed, outside of more transactional issues. There needs to be a great deal of attention to the quality of those relationships in an ongoing way, not just at the moment when decisions have to be made, or policies have to be developed, or problems have to be solved.  So when decisions are made — even when people don’t like them — you’ve got a chance of them being trusted more when you have those relationships in place.

In a big university like UC Berkeley, that can be a real challenge. But looking over the bay — I haven’t had a close exposure yet, but I think Nick has done a great job of doing that. And that’s another thing I’m so enthusiastic about joining in on.

See also:

Berkeley taps Stanford dean for top academic post

What campus leaders are saying

CalMessage from Chancellor Dirks