Dubón aims to innovate as new vice chancellor of equity and inclusion

Oscar Dubón, a materials science and engineering professor and associate dean of equity and inclusion in the College of Engineering, has been selected as UC Berkeley’s next vice chancellor of equity and inclusion. Dubón entered the UC system as a 17-year-old freshman at UCLA. He arrived at Berkeley in 1989 as a first-year graduate student in engineering and earned his Ph.D. here in materials science and mineral engineering in 1996. Dubón has been a professor in the College of Engineering since 2000.

His appointment was announced today in a message to the campus community. Shortly before, he spoke with Berkeley News about his new role on campus.

Incoming Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Oscar Dubón

Berkeley News: How do you think having a background in engineering will shape the way you approach your new role?

Oscar Dubón: I think it means that I’m going to be seeing the challenges of equity and inclusion from a slightly different vantage point. My scholarship isn’t in the fields of racial justice or other societal inequities, so I’m bringing a point of view where I’m looking at the challenges, problems and opportunities here and thinking about how we can be innovative in that space. That’s my engineer’s vantage point.

Part of that point of view, however, also takes into account that I personally have been in the UC system as a minority student since I was 17 years old. As an undergraduate, I was exploring questions about voice and community. I remember having conversations about Central Americans being a part of the Latino community and how the Mexican American community has some shared interests, but also differing identities. Having those types of interactions really informed me.

Obviously, I’m an engineer, but I’m an engineer with certain identities and these intersections really do matter. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the last few decades when I’ve seen equity and inclusion issues come up over and over again.

Engineers sometimes give themselves too much credit for solving the problems of society, but oftentimes what we don’t do is really listen to all the voices that need to be at the table in order for those solutions to truly matter. That’s something that’s resonated with me for a long time — having this mindset of solving problems and innovating, but also taking into account who we’re solving problems for and what is their role in articulating the problem and the solution.

What do you think are the biggest campus-climate issues, and how do you intend to solve them? Are there any particular initiatives you plan on implementing/furthering?

Groups on campus experience climate differently. But one can find some shared issues: meeting certain important basic needs, such as housing and food security and personal wellness; making Berkeley accessible to students, staff and faculty; and having in place structures that help all groups thrive on campus. All members of our community should feel that they have reasonable opportunities for growth and are treated fairly. In my experience, issues around climate are not solved; rather they must be constantly evaluated and addressed with interventions that are sufficiently general to be scalable yet sufficiently specific to be meaningful to the individual.

Before embarking on a specific initiative, I will study the significant work that has been taking place under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Nasir. In the long term, I wish to work with academic departments and other units on initiatives that will help address climate issues that arise from our biases, interpersonal engagements that are soured by power inequity and our inability to truly listen to each other.

Marginalized communities in the past have lobbied for spaces on campus (i.e. the Black Student Union and the Fannie Lou Hamer Resource Center), and continue to lobby for spaces. How do you balance these needs with the lack of space on campus?

Space on campus is always at a premium. However, the scarcity of this valuable resource should not preclude us from having the important conversations about how to meet the needs of our communities and to think “outside the box” and implement solutions.

California is an incredibly diverse place. How important it is to you that Berkeley accurately capture that diversity?

For someone who has been involved with the UC system for over 30 years, I certainly value the importance of diversity and how it has shaped the identity of California. I think that that’s something we truly need to honor, both to the citizens of California and to ourselves as an institution that can be an engine of socio-economic mobility. I think right now, Berkeley is challenged by this perpetual aspiration. As the demographics of the state evolve, so must the university. It’s a continuous process, and I think we’re challenged with that.

To be frank with you, part of that challenge is resourcing. Part of the challenge is not being able to accommodate all of the amazing talent that wants to be at Berkeley. That’s something that I saw every day in the College of Engineering. We’re one of the most challenging and competitive places in that field of study, and we truly are not representative of the state of California.

Is it reasonable to think that Berkeley itself can solve all of the underlying challenges that have led these disparities? I don’t think that’s the case. But it’s in the best interest of the state of California — frankly it’s our obligation to the state of California — to find effective partnerships with other institutions, be that K-12, industries, non-governmental organizations, as well as the government of California, that will help us find solutions.

We want to be an accessible campus to our highly qualified students. I don’t exactly know how that’s going to look, particularly when it comes to specific fields, but those are some of the challenges we’re facing today. I do know that we need to make sure we’re bringing in outstanding, diverse talent to meet the challenges of the future, which will require a diversity of viewpoints. I’m not talking about technological problems specifically here either. I’m talking about all the different types of societal problems that we’re seeing globally that are related to how we can bring all voices to the table. We’re continuously trying to address these challenges.

How do you see Berkeley’s position with regards to equity and inclusion compared to the national landscape?

Berkeley provides a lot of thought leadership in this space. It’s part of our DNA and who we are. There are some practical challenges, however, and those range from fiscal challenges to legal challenges. But we have the opportunity to uphold our tradition of excellence and leadership in these positions while making practical adjustments to how the university is carrying out its educational mission.

I’m talking about things from how we handle admissions, to how we’re teaching in the classroom, to how we’re performing research and how we’re training graduate students who will become leaders in their fields in the future. I think there is a tension there and it’s important for leadership to work with the community to see these challenges as opportunities.

We’ve been talking a lot about the challenges of this new role, but is there anything that you’re particularly excited about?

For the past five and a half years, as the associate dean of equity and inclusion for engineering, I’ve kind of been a mini-me of this role. During that time, I gained a deep appreciation that as an educator and a member of the Berkeley community, I have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of individuals in our community.

Every time I’m able to work with a student to address an issue and know that they’ll be able to move forward in their career or educational aspirations, to me that’s immensely gratifying. When I see that they’re moving forward to a better place or they know that there are other people on this campus that care about them — that is extremely rewarding. To be able to do that on a larger scale is immensely inspirational and immensely humbling.

I’m looking forward to being able to roll up my sleeves and serving, because to me, leading means serving.