Berkeley Talks transcript: Admissions director Femi Ogundele on what makes a Berkeley student

Dan Mogulof: Welcome to this year’s first campus conversation. My name’s Dan Mogulof from the Campus Office of Communication and Public Affairs, and I am really thrilled, particularly after our rockin’ pre-interview, really thrilled to welcome our new Associate Vice Chancellor and Director of Admissions, Femi Ogundele. He came to us directly from that little community college down in the …

Femi Ogundele: Small school, small school, small school.

Dan Mogulof: Anyways, just a little bit of background. Femi earned his B.S. in mass communications with an emphasis in journalism and public relations, yes, from Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, and his M.S. in strategic communications from Ithaca College. Before coming to Berkeley, as I mentioned, he served as the assistant dean of diversity outreach at Stanford, where he worked to increase access and diversity, and mentored hundreds of students of color during his tenure there. Femi began his career in education at Ithaca College as an admissions counselor. In fact, that was his first job after finishing his undergraduate work, which will probably lead to one of my first questions.

Femi continued his work in diversity recruitment at the University of Delaware, where he advocated for the most diverse class in the university’s history, he coordinated the College Readiness Scholar’s Institute, a partnership and summer program between the University of Delaware and a local school district to promote a continued culture of college attendance and graduation for low income and underrepresented students. Immediately prior to his tenure at Stanford, Femi also worked in Cornell University’s College of Engineering, where he developed programs and recruitment strategies for students of color interested in STEM. So without further ado, fill in a little bit more about your career. I’m just fascinated that you went right from undergraduate into admissions work.

What drew you there? What about your sort of upbringing and background led you down that path?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, so I remember graduating from Mansfield thinking to myself whether or not I wanted to pursue a master’s degree or go and work. At the time, I definitely did not want to go and work, so I actually sat with a professor of mine who let me know that many times institutions of higher education are able to provide masters degrees as a benefit. And so at the time, as you mentioned, I was a journalism and public relations major, so I was looking at both marketing departments as well as admissions, as I understood the skill set that was necessary to do admissions, and admissions just happened to call first. And so I think, like many of my colleagues who are in the field, it’s something that I did not know that I was going to pursue post undergrad, but then once I got into it, there’s a love for the work that I think keeps us there, and that’s definitely what has kind of fueled me and kept me in the field ever since.

Dan Mogulof: So talk to us a little bit about how you see your role, how you see the role of a Director of Admissions in general, and also here at Berkeley. Talk a little bit about where you office is at, what your priorities and plans are for the future, and where things stand today, sort of.

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, so I think to answer the first part of your question in regards to what I think the role of a director is. I think that the role of a director is to kinda set some of the priorities for the rest of the office in regards to how we go about our work, and who we are targeting our work towards. I also think that the role is really to build and mentor staff, because they are going to be the people that are really having those interactions with the students. And so it’s a little different, because as you’ve mentioned, I’ve kind of been one of those people that have been out in the field, on the road, on the ground, and I greatly appreciate that work. But I recognize that in order to truly be successful in this, it requires more than just the effort of a single individual. And so, ascending into leadership roles has really showed me the importance of mentoring staff and working with staff to not just find the passion that I have for the work, but really for them to find the passion themselves in this work, as well. And I think when staff are passionate about the work that they do, they are willing to really, I think, run through a wall for you. And that’s what I’m trying to build.

Dan Mogulof: Step back for one second, and on a broader level, I think some people think that admissions is sort of, we get 100,000 applications, you look at the numbers, you throw it all out, you’re in, you’re out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah.

Dan Mogulof: Expand our minds a little bit in terms of that broad, holistic, comprehensive picture of what an admission’s office at a university like this is all about.

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, I think the first part to understand is that admissions is much more of an art than it is a science. And so what I mean by that is I think that a lot of folks believe that doing the evaluation pieces or choosing the class is so rubric and formulaic, and in fact that’s not true. Especially at highly selective institutions like this one. I mean, the fact of the matter is, is that the applicant pool that we see here is incredibly strong every single year. It does not create a natural bell curve of students who are incredibly high achievers and students who are not. Most of the students who apply to an institution like this are academically strong. So, I think then where the real work comes in, is really understanding the nuance, and also understanding the university’s identity when it comes to building a class of students that are supposed to continue the excellence that the university has been producing.

So for us, that means being incredibly thoughtful in how we outreach. Not just where we go, but what we’re saying. I think admissions makes a lot of decisions when describing an institution. And so it’s our job to really create a narrative that we think is reflective of not just who we are, but who we want to be. And that’s critically important. In the evaluation phase of that, I think that also requires us to have deep and strong understandings of what’s happening, not just here at Berkeley, not just here in California, but what’s happening nationally in regards to students who are entering the college-going pipeline. And so what are those barriers, what are those opportunities that students have to show, and how that’s going to interact with our applicant pool?

And then I think on the back end of that, the third part of our cycle, which is the yield cycle, understanding that right now, students are applying to more institutions than they’ve ever applied to before. And the students that get into our institutions are students that are likely getting into a majority of the institutions that they apply to. And so we have to take an active, and I think, intentional steps to making sure that we are yielding our students, rather than just believing that students are lucky to be here, really kind of shifting that and saying that we are incredibly lucky if they choose us.

Dan Mogulof: Just gonna break the flow for a second to remind everyone, particularly those people just coming in, if questions occur to you in the course of the conversation, fine to fill out the cards in the middle and hold ’em on up and they will be collected.

So back to the office. What’s front burner right now? What are the priorities? You’ve been here long enough sort of get a feel for the state of play, what needs some TLC, where we’re doing, what’s job one, and two, and three for you right now?

Femi Ogundele: So I started in January, which is a quiet time, I think for the university, but definitely an active time for us in admissions as we’re right in the thick of our evaluation process. And really, my number one priority was to really take some active steps in the yield phase of our work, ’cause that’s kinda the season in which we came in. And so, this spring we did some really robust things around Cal Day, making some experiences that were specific to our admitted student population, creating a micro site, for students to see as a landing page to get a stronger introduction to Berkeley. And so that was my number one priority at the time.

I also came in at a time in which we were deeply immersed in a lot of the work around the Chancellor’s diversity initiatives, and so that was clearly at the top of my mind as I got an opportunity to really talk with a lot of different campus partners around the state of this institution. And one of the things that I thought was really important was that I knew that the Chancellor had this initiative that was kind of coming from on top. I really wanted to get an understanding of what was the buy in across campus around that initiative? Otherwise, it’s just words on paper.

And I think that having an opportunity to sit in some of those working groups I really got a chance to meet faculty and staff from across the campus, and there’s a lot of people passionate around this work which is great, because I’ll tell you that I think admission’s role, when it comes to diversity and inclusion on an institution, admissions can bring you diversity, but we can do nothing around inclusion, ’cause our job is to continue to bring in the next class. And so knowing that we have the campus partners here that are also dedicated to creating inclusive spaces is something that I’m incredibly excited to stand behind as we’re going out into the field this fall.

Dan Mogulof: So let’s go back to the diversity initiative the Chancellor announced. And, obviously, a large part of that has to do with you, but I get a lot of questions from reporters, and I’m sure many of us who work here get questions from others who basically challenge us and say, “How do you do that and remain compliant” with Prop 209 that precludes any accounting “for a student’s race, ethnicity, “anything along those lines?” How are you able to do that without sort of fudging around those rules?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, so I’ll tell you that Prop 209 was, as somebody who’s done multicultural recruitment my entire career, deciding to come to an institution where Prop 209 was instituted was something that some of my friends were like, “What are you doing?” But I saw it as a true opportunity. Because I believe that when you are evaluating students and looking at students, when you don’t have race or gender as a marker in the application, it actually requires you to have a deeper understanding of what you’re reading. And so I think that having to go in and learn the other parts of a student and the things that make them compelling is important. Now, when it comes to diversifying a class in this climate, I think it’s also important to understand that from my understanding of the law, and David Robinson will correct me if I’m wrong, when it comes to Prop 209 in particular, we will continue to not consider race or gender in the evaluation of an applicant. And that, I think, is incredibly important.

However, I’m less interested in what we can’t do, and more interested in what we can do. And we can do a lot of really, really strong messaging and outreach and targeted outreach to different communities in which we have not necessarily engaged in in the past. And that’s not just race or ethnicity. That’s also rural students and third-culture kids that are out there that we know are a part of the California demographic, that we have just missed an opportunity. And I think that now is the time, both the political climate that we’re in, the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, and just all of this energy, now is a great opportunity for us to reimagine and reengage those students. I’ve been a strong believer that the changing demographics in higher education are not a challenge. They is an opportunity to engage folks that have not traditionally been engaged.

Dan Mogulof: But isn’t there a little bit of a chicken and egg situation here, meaning, what do you say from a student from an underrepresented community who has heard that this can be a tough campus to be? That there is a critical mass across many populations. At the same time, if we don’t become more diverse in our student body … how do you break that cycle?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, well, I think that there’s two pieces to that. The first is I would challenge the notion that students will not want to attend an institution right now because that institution is not necessarily reflective of who they are. I think that students right now are way more emboldened and more outwardly facing, and taking up more space in classrooms than they’ve ever done before. And so I think that there’s a lot of students who would absolutely see the challenge of being in these spaces, and being a part of that growing critical mass as something to relish in and be a part of.

And then I also think it’s important for us to really uplift the work that has been done around building equitable spaces on this campus for years. I think one of the things that I’ve noticed when I was applying for the institution versus what I know now, the free speech movement is obviously something that Berkeley’s incredibly proud of, but student activism has been a threat ever since. And when we take a look at all of the other things that the student activism has created here, I think that it’s a very easy and compelling argument to go out and talk to a teenager and tell them, if you’re looking for an institution that will respond to the student voice, Berkeley is the place to be.

Dan Mogulof: Do you find it somewhat ironic that, or maybe the supposition embedded in the question I’m about to ask may be wrong, but was it some ways easier at Stanford, given that Stanford isn’t subject to Prop 209, has ample financial resources necessary to attract a diverse student body? They can simply write a lot of checks to build that student body. Was it easier there in some way?

Femi Ogundele: Sure. However, I would say from the lens of your question, yes, but I think that the issue, and to be honest with you, the issue with Stanford, and to be honest with you, all of the Ivy Leagues is that they all only really contribute to 1% of the college-going population.

Dan Mogulof: Right.

Femi Ogundele: So when you really talk about making a broader impact, when you have a 4.6% acceptance rate, and when your entire student body is the size of our freshman class, like, how much actual change when you talk about society are you making? And so I think if you’re looking, again, my greatest pitch to even a lot of my colleagues is that if you’re looking for an opportunity to make a real change in this society, you need to go and work at a public school. And if you’re looking for an opportunity to be at a place that is still as groundbreaking and as innovative as some of those Ivys, then you should go to the prestigious public schools, but this job’s taken.

Dan Mogulof: Well, at least for the next 45 minutes.

Femi Ogundele: At least, yeah, at least for the next 45 minutes, yeah.

Dan Mogulof: We’ll see how you do.

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, yeah.

Dan Mogulof: And so I’m interested, you went from really different institutions but have a lot in common. We’re sort of here in the same kind of ecosystem, northern California. What are the differences? What surprised you sort of coming across, and lie and just tell us how amazing we are, OK?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So really what I think surprised me, so the openness of public institutions has been very interesting. And we …

Dan Mogulof: What do you mean by that?

Femi Ogundele: Interesting in the sense of …

Dan Mogulof: No, about the openness, what do you mean by that?

Femi Ogundele: The openness. And so there’s a, I have seen a … People expect more in regards to the communication that comes out of public schools, they expect more in regards to access to information when it comes to public schools, and that is something that I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to see it from the public, I also didn’t expect the openness from the institution, to be perfectly honest with you. I think it’s great, it’s just not something that I expected.

I also think that even here at Berkeley, what I’ll tell you is I recently moved to Oakland, and prior to that I was living on the other side of the bay over in San Mateo, and in my first two weeks here, I distinctly remember having very strong and sobering conversations around the budget, as well as driving by teacher strikes in Oakland. And so I think that when you talk about the funding of public education, that is something that, in the private sector, we talk about it in a very abstract way, versus here, we really see it. And we don’t just see it in our programs, when we see it in like some of the really tough cuts that some of my colleagues have had to make, and even the office that I’m in had to make prior to me getting there, around personnel and all of these other things. And that’s not something that I was used to, or that I think I could have really prepared for.

Dan Mogulof: And do you think there are substantive or interesting differences between the student bodies at the two institutions beyond their size?

Femi Ogundele: I think for me, it’s too soon to tell, to be honest with you. I think that as I’m continuing to learn more about what makes Berkeley Berkeley, that is something that, for me, I don’t think the verdict is necessarily out yet. I will tell you that, again, that emboldened student activism mindset is something that I truly, truly appreciate. And to be honest with you, it’s not just because I was a rabble rouser myself. It’s really because I love the fact that the institution responds. Like, I’ve sat in meetings with Bridges and Vice Chancellors, and Deans, and all of these other things, and that is not something that I would have necessarily seen in some of my private institutions. And so the fact that as I’m joining a group of professionals that understand, and that really do make the student experience center to their work is something that is inspiring daily.

Dan Mogulof: So a couple more questions before I dive into the questions that have come up from the audience.

Femi Ogundele: Sure.

Dan Mogulof: I often talk to alumni, I think anybody who often talks to alumni and prospective parents on behalf of the campus gets these questions that always start, I don’t understand why my kid didn’t get in. They got a 4.5 and seven million on this SAT. How could they possibly?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Dan Mogulof: Right? And this idea that it’s just a numbers game. And then we say, “Oh, no, we have holistic review.” And every time I say that, I have no idea what I’m talking about.

Femi Ogundele: Right, right.

Dan Mogulof: So what does it actually take to get in here? How does that process work?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, so to begin, obviously academics are important, right? And so for every student and family that’s out there considering Berkeley, being a strong academic is definitely going to be a part of that. But we are not just interested in what you’ve done, we’re very interested in who you are. And so I think the other parts of the application matter. And that’s what holistic review truly is. It’s understanding that a student is more than just two numbers, more than just a GPA and an SAT score, and even making sure that when we’re looking at the GPA and that SAT score, we’re taking in all of the context that is required to understand what that score actually means. And so what I mean by that is, there’s tons of research out there that talk around the SAT and its bias towards or not certain groups and certain segments of the …

Dan Mogulof: Well, the Chancellor said that she believes that the SAT has an inherent bias against underrepresented minorities. Do you agree with that?

Femi Ogundele: I do agree with that. I do agree with that. And the data shows and lets us know that. Also as we’re reading transcripts from all across the country, a 4.0 at one school can look very different than a 4.0 at another school, and it’s important that we are making sure that we are evaluating students in the context in which they are coming from. Now, when I say that, that doesn’t mean that if a student is coming from a privileged background that that somehow becomes a slight on that student. I would never give a bias towards a student that comes from a privileged background, or a bias that comes from a student, or for a student that comes from a low income background. That’s too simplistic in that evaluation. So it’s important that we are understanding that we’re looking for excellence and not perfection. So when we have those parents who come up to us that have the 4.5 and the 30 million SAT, that’s nice, but that’s not necessarily to me the end all be all of why a student belongs here. And so when we’re talking about excellence rather than perfection, excellence gives way to some of those nuances that I mentioned. And we are looking for students who, when I take a look at a school, or a city, or a state, the questions is, how many standard deviations away from the mean is this student that’s applying to our institution? And so what is standard in that sense, and how exceptional is that student within those standards? And when you’ll give yourself that type of leeway to evaluate students like that, then I think that you’re able to find some really, really strong gems that might not have perfect SATs, or might not have 45 AP courses on their high school transcripts.

Dan Mogulof: So what’s your forecast for the future of the SAT? I mean, they’ve added this adversity score and said, “What do you think about that?” I just read this week, I can’t remember what some colleges dropped it completely. Is it something that’s outlived its usefulness for folks like you? Or is the addition of this adversity score a welcome sort of evolutionary step for this test?

Femi Ogundele: So I think the landscape, or the adversity score, or the environmental context dashboard is definitely College Board’s attempt to continue to stay relevant in the field of higher education, and that’s gonna be necessary. So I have very different opinions on the landscape than I do on standardized testing. For the landscape, I think that–

Dan Mogulof: What do you mean by that, landscape?

Femi Ogundele: So landscape is what they’re now calling the Environmental Context Dashboard, which is what hosts the adversity score.

Dan Mogulof: You mean that’s the context within which the student …

Femi Ogundele: Correct. And so the landscape right now, the reason why I like, why I personally like the Environmental Context Dashboard is again, more information on a student’s context is welcome, right? It will never be the deciding factor for why are making a decision on a student based off of any score that we get from College Board. Any score that we get from College Board will never be the reason why we make a determinant decision on a student. But more information that we can get to understand a student’s context, I think, the better.

In regards to the SAT scores, however, and the relevance of SATs as higher education, I think, continues to come out with research around the validity of the SAT, I personally think that the SATs days are numbered. As we’re starting to see more institutions become SAT optional, as we’re starting to see institutions like University of Chicago and other elite institutions go SAT optional, I think that higher education, particularly admissions, there’s definitely a best practices type of atmosphere, and I think that more institutions that perhaps are not necessarily as selective, are gonna start questioning, why are they using the SAT if the most selective institutions are not?

Dan Mogulof: Got it. So I’m gonna go for some of the questions that have come up. And again if people have more as we go along, just fill ’em out and hold ’em on up. This question is, with Berkeley not being ranked this year in the US News and World Report, do you see this affecting our applicant pool? Just a little bit of background for people just to make it easy to sort of summarize. So we have been removed from the US News and World Report rankings after we discovered and reported to the US News and World Report that we were not correctly reporting donations. They changed the methodology, and we had not kept pace with that change. As a response, US News and World Report has removed us from our ranking, however I should just note that we’re gonna be back. We’re gonna be back this fall after we’ve made the necessary corrections. But I think it remains an interesting and important question all the same about, are you seeing any impacts of that, phone calls, are you concerned about that? Where are we?

Femi Ogundele: I’m personally not concerned at all. I think that Berkeley has the brand that will outlast this hiccup, to be perfectly honest with you. People who know about Berkeley know the strength of the institution. Perhaps the only place that I can see that really paying any effect might be international students who would use “US News and World Report” and look at those college rankings more so than domestic students do. But it’s not something that I’m necessarily concerned about.

Dan Mogulof: Let’s go a step further. What do you think about the very idea of the “US News and World Report” rankings, and alumni giving, is that an important criteria for an undergraduate? I’ll tell you to give you some space to run around, Chancellor Christ just did a back-to-school interview and she heaps scoring on the “US News and World Report”, you’re good to go.

Femi Ogundele: Good, good, good. Okay, now that I know that, yeah, I’ve never been, I can’t stand it, to be perfectly honest with you. The “US News and World Report”, I had a chance to go to a couple of conferences and get a sense of what goes into those rankings. Peer reviews are a part of those rankings, and so people in my role literally having to describe institutions that I’ve never been to, never heard of. And so I’ve never been a fan of “US News and World Report”. I also think that I know that “US News and World Report” places a big chunk of that on selectivity of those rankings, and I’ve never been one to believe that the more selective you are, the better an institution you are.

Dan Mogulof: I mean, it’s really a matter of individual fit, right?

Femi Ogundele: It is.

Dan Mogulof: It’s impossible that one-size-fits-all, right?

Femi Ogundele: Correct, correct.

Dan Mogulof: And so let’s connect that to the sort of the Berkeley experience. Is there a Berkeley type? Is there sort of somebody for, parent comes to you and you say, “Well, if you kid is x, y, and z, “they are gonna do excellent here.” Is there?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, and again I think this is something that I’m continuing to develop. And actually, I’m really grateful for the fact that in my, in the admissions office there is a lot of alums in there as well that I’m constantly kind of trying to balance this off of. And I think that when I think of what the Berkeley type is, the Berkeley type is someone who understands that your life is not a spectator’s sport. You have to be out here if you want to make a difference, regardless of what your craft is. Whether that’s a philosopher, whether that’s a poet, whether that’s an engineer or a mathematician, they understand that in order to truly change the world, one, you cannot do that in a silo, and so that requires some true collaboration. So it’s gonna be students who understand and feel that.

And then two, to say that you can’t wait for change, you need to be a part of that change today. And so I’m kind of looking, if I were to talk to a student and they were to say, what are you looking for? I’m looking for an impatient trailblazer.

Dan Mogulof: An impatient trailblazer.

Femi Ogundele: That’s right.

Dan Mogulof: Yeah, that’s a good T-shirt.

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, right? Cal Day, it’ll be there, it’ll be there.

Dan Mogulof: Here’s a really interesting question. Are there ways that tech changes or advances are harming the applicant process? What has the loss of quote “paperwork” done for sort of expression and commendations, I think it says here. Okay, they don’t wanna, I think you get the basic idea that just things are online, and they’re digital.

Femi Ogundele: Yeah. Yeah, so there’s a couple things there. So I think that tech can skew the impact of the interpersonal experience. And so what I mean by that is, to begin with, when it comes to technology, understanding that things like the common application, or these other kind of just common spaces where students can apply, we’ve seen that students are now applying to more institutions than they’ve ever had in the past. And so, in 20 years ago, I think students applied to somewhere between five to seven schools. Now the average student is applying between 10 to 15 schools. What that means for institutions on the back end is that your yield modeling needs to change, right?

So, where you thought that if a student comes from this area and they apply, those students typically yield. Your modeling now needs to change because more students are simply pressing buttons to apply to your school. So, there’s less of like the intentional effort around applying to an institution that there was before.

The second part of that is, I think, making sure that we understand that when it comes to rising above the noise, the students that are coming up in the pipeline now are students who grew up on email, they are students who likely have multiple emails, and they are way more tech savvy than we’ll ever be, right? And so understanding that sometimes it’s important to simply send some things in the mail. I don’t think you can have all of your communication strategies be digital, because how are you going to get to those students’ parents? Because the college conversation is still a family conversation. And if we know that and we understand that, we can’t rely too much on tech.

But I do think that technology has also allowed us to become way more efficient with our work. It allows us to have way more data analytics around the work that we’re doing in regards to who’s coming to our campus, and how are they feeling, and then you can segment that. And so, I think that technology is a double-edge sword just like any other tool. It can be used to really advance your mission and your purpose, but it can also create other blind spots that perhaps did not exist before.

Dan Mogulof: What do you think is driving that whole phenomena — the plethora of applications from every student? Is it because it’s easy to do? Or is it part of this sort of growing mania that found expression and the whole varsity blues scandal of, “I’ve gotta get in, I mean, just like, my life is ruined if I don’t.” How do you see that?

Femi Ogundele: I think it’s a combination of the things that we talked about before, actually. I think it’s a combination of what you just mentioned. It’s easier to do. I also think that institutions wanna make themselves more accessible, because even though you’re not increasing your freshman class, if you drive up apps and your acceptance rate goes down, which means U.S. News and World Report makes you up. So, it’s all of those factors that I think really contribute to that, to be perfectly honest with you.

Dan Mogulof: Yeah, got it. Next question from the audience. Can you explain how you review and view international applicants? Do you include these students as part of your diversity initiative?

Femi Ogundele: I do. So when it comes to the international applicant space, I think what’s really important there is that we’re making sure that that space is also diversified. And so where it’s one thing for, and many institutions do this. They’ll just simply say we have 11% or 10% international students. But if 95% of your international students are coming from four countries, that’s not a diverse co-hort, right? There’s plenty of students all across the world.

Two things: There’s plenty of students all across the world who can afford to come here. So the notion that only students from certain regions of the world can afford to be here is not true. The second is that making sure that when we are working with and selecting international students in our process, that we are also making sure that that is representative of the diversity in their academic experiences and their wants as well. And so making sure that the same way that we are looking at and making sure we’re seeing strong international populations in some of our STEM field, I know that there are international students who are interested in philosophy, and I know that there are international students who are interested in music, and we need to make sure that we are doing our best to attract those students to us as well.

Dan Mogulof: Great. The next question, I may get this wrong, because it’s a little hard to read. Are there different yield rates across the applicant pool? How are yield rates sort of differentiated, and what’s the trend? And how do you improve a yield rate for a given population? So, if you could, just talk about that whole yield magic.

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, so there are definitely different yield rates across different populations, and you can segment that out in a variety of ways. You can take a look at the yield rate for Californians versus domestic students. You can take a look at the yield rate for affluent students versus Pell grant recipients. All of those things, there’s a variety of factors that contribute to why a student chooses us as an institution after they’ve been admitted.

And I think for us, what’s critically important is to make sure that when we have really great efforts like a Cal Day or a transfer day, and we take a look and we say, “What percentage of the students who attended this program decided to come here?” We should absolutely segment that out as well, right? So what percentage of the African American students that came to Cal Day decided to come? Because if we’re noticing that that difference is great from the average, then that says that perhaps for next year’s Cal Day, we need to infuse more resources or more experiences for that group. Because that’s what data analytics provides us. And so I think it’s critically important that when we are looking at any of these subgroups and subpopulations, that we’re constantly just aggregating the data to make sure we have the most accurate understanding of what’s going on.

Dan Mogulof: So here’s a question that probably came from an anxious parent in the audience, or one you get a lot. What advice do you have for kids beginning high school in regards to standing out as a potential UC Berkeley student?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, so I think, that’s a good question. I think the thing is, a couple things. So, the first is that the student should pursue whatever their passions are. And if those are multiple passions or they don’t know right now, that’s totally fine, just try things. I’ve always told students that there’s a big difference between being undecided and uninterested. If you’re undecided, that means that you have some things that you’re passionate about, you just don’t know which one you want to choose. If you’re uninterested, that means that you’re just uninterested.

And so, what I would say for that students is simply to try the things that they are currently interested in, and as something kind of catches or piques your interest, explore that not just in the classroom, but also outside of the classroom.

Right now, what I’ll tell you is that a lot of institutions are taking a look at, “What are students doing in the summer?” When you’re not in a curriculum, how are you choosing to spend your time? That, again, shows us a little bit about who those students are, not just what they can accomplish.

So, I would say continuing to do that and continuing to do research. And then, as someone says that they’re interested in Berkeley, I would really ask them why. Is it because we’re a public school? There’s plenty of public schools. Is it because we’re in the PAC 12? There’s other schools in the PAC 12. Is it because we’re in northern California? There are other schools in northern California. The same way that we are de-segregating data to understand the best applicants, I think that students need to just aggregate the data to understand the best college fit for them.

Dan Mogulof: So let’s talk a little bit about a story that was big news not that long ago, about sort of the dark side of admissions at certain institutions. It was called varsity blues, and this was the discovery that there were people gaining the system in all sorts of ways, spending big, big money to get their kids into certain institutions. What do you think that was all about? Is it part of some exploding mania about, again, my life is ruined if I don’t go to a certain institution, or something else? How do you see it from your perspectives in the admissions office?

Femi Ogundele: So I think varsity blues is interesting to everyone who does not work in admissions. That’s what I think about varsity blues.

Dan Mogulof: I hate, sorry I bored you.

Femi Ogundele: No, no, no. What I mean by that is the notion that there’s legacy practices at institutions is not new. The notion that there are development practices at institutions, that’s not new. And that’s …

Dan Mogulof: Development practices mean you’re a donor, your kid’s gettin’ in.

Femi Ogundele: Not necessarily like that, but something to that effect, right? There’s some sort of weight that might be placed on a student based off of their parents’ relationship with the institution. Whether that’s giving, whether they attended, what have you. So, pretty much giving attributes to a student that they personally did not necessarily earn. That’s what I’m talking about. And that’s what I think varsity blues is kind of highlighting.

I think that it’s interesting because one of the things that I was incredibly excited to be a part of when I got here was understanding that Berkeley did not have a legacy policy. And then understanding that Berkeley does not have a relationship with development that interacts with the admissions process. That’s not where I’m coming from, right? And so to have admissions, what I like to think, in its purest form, which is individuals who have gone out to these high schools, who have gotten to know the context in which these students are coming from, who are doing their best to make sure that the students we are admitting align with the students that we believe are going to be successful here without any type of outside influence. As an admissions practitioner, that is the purest form of admissions. And we do that here at Berkeley, which has been incredibly, for me, just reassuring, especially in this turbulent time.

Varsity blues also kind of kicked off this systemwide audit in the UC system, in which we had to take a sharp look at our practices. And again, it was great to see that there was nothing wildly nefarious that had to be corrected or fixed through that audit. Instead, it was really just for us was more around documentation, and making sure that we are documenting all of our procedures in a way that is palatable for those who might come in and do an external audit.

But I think that for varsity blues, it’s important for people to know that it’s, in my opinion, varsity blues is not an admissions scandal. Varsity blues is a scandal that is adjacent to admissions. And so, what I mean by that is when you take a look at the actual facts of varsity blues, they’re taking where nefarious behavior existed with the recruitment of student athletes and the validation of whether or not they are athletic. All of that happens prior to admissions getting that information. Same thing with the test scores, right? So when the College Board sends us test scores, we believe College Board that these test scores are true, and accurate, and they reflect the student in which College Board is telling us that these scores represent. In both of those places is where the scandal truly took place, right? Both of those are inputs into the admissions process and the admissions evaluation, but none of the nefarious things happened in the actual evaluation. And I think the media got it wrong when they dubbed varsity blues an admissions scandal. It’s a higher ed scandal, without a doubt, but I don’t think it’s an admissions scandal, and I’m finding a lot of my colleagues trying to answer questions for parts of the process they don’t necessarily oversee.

Dan Mogulof: All right, so this may not be anything that really engages you professionally, but just in case, I’ve read and I’ve heard people who have talked about the varsity blues thing as having a connection to one of the really serious crises and growing crisis we’re facing at this campus and campuses across the country, and that’s the percentage of students with mental health problems. And suddenly seeing a connection in that some of that is a result of anxiety. This belief like, if I don’t get into x, fill in the blank, my life is worthless and null, and the pressure that creates. What do you think from your perspective in the admissions office, do you think there’s some validity? And is there something we can do about that?

Femi Ogundele: I do think that the students are under enormous amounts of pressure. And I think that colleges across the country might have contributed to some of that, I do. I think that, and you’re not just seeing it in the schools that they apply to, but like, the proliferation of AP classes that students are taking now. They’re taking 10, 12 AP courses before graduating from high school. Students feel the pressure to need to take AP courses as a freshman in high school, and I don’t think that is necessary at all. And so that anxiety is real.

However, I think that one of the things that institutions like ours can do, when we go out and we do recruitment, and do our, really when we go out on the road and fall travel, really changing our narrative from an outreach, from a recruitment narrative to an outreach narrative. And what I mean by that is when you are willing to do outreach, you’re willing to out as am ambassador for higher education. And I will use Berkeley as the template for why you should be considering colleges, right? And so I will tell you all about the types of services that we have, the types of financial aid that we have. But I’ll also be honest to tell you that there’s other institutions that have other financial aid packages, there are other institutions that have other majors and programs that might be more fitted to you, the student. As a highly selective institution, we can do that, right? We know that there are way more students in our applicant pool than we’ll ever admit. And so there’s no need, and I know that when we send our folks on the road, there’s not a single group that they’ll ever stand in front of where a majority of those people will be admitted. And so there’s some luxury there in your ability to have a nuanced conversation with a student.

At some of my former institutions, particularly Ithaca College while I was there, we did not have an outreach mindset. It was very much a hard recruitment mindset. It was my job in this next 45 minutes to tell you all about why my institution is where you need to be. The issue that I’ve seen is that, as I’ve kind of moved through these different types of institutions, is that institutions that do not need to have a recruitment mindset, they are still trying to have that recruitment mindset, again, to become more selective. I think that’s a big piece of what’s happening in higher education admissions as a whole.

So, if we can get more institutions I think to buy into a more outreach type of narrative, then I think it allows some of that anxiety to subside a little but. But again, that’s also working with parents to also burst the parents’ bubble. Because a lot of the parents are the ones who are saying, “If my kid does not get into these three schools, then they’re somehow not worthy of my last name or what have you.” And I think that’s a lot. And the students feel that pressure, they feel that pressure without a doubt. I mean, the moment that you decide that you’re going to put Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley as your college choices, and Berkeley’s supposed to be your safety school, your mindset is off, right? Like, if your safety school has a 15% acceptance rate, that doesn’t make any sense, right?

And so, really understanding that those colleges that might not be as selective, might actually be perfect for you. And I tell students all the time in the position that I’m in, I personally would not have attended UC Berkeley. It’s too big for me. I came from a really small town — Corning, upstate New York. Berkeley would have been too big, it would have been too far. And so, it’s important for people to understand that. That “fit” conversation is one that really does need to be fleshed out, not just to students, but also to their parents.

Dan Mogulof: So, I’m going to take a slightly different direction with our next question. Just to set it up, as I’m sure you’re aware that this campus, and campuses across the UC, generated a lot of controversy, and concern and conversation after we began to increase the number of out-of-state and international students, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession. And so the question is, “Are there goals or initiatives to increase the number of California, or to increase the rate of California residents’ acceptance?” There’s a perception that public schools in California admit out-of-state and international students to increase revenue. And I will also add, this was not in the question, I’ll also add, and there’s also a perception that the standards are lower for out-of-state students. So, a little bit about that issue.

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, so two things around that. The first is that it’s important to know that Berkeley, in particular, will always be dedicated to the state of California. And you can see that in the numbers of the students we admit from California versus the number of students that we take from out-of-state. I do think, however, that one of the observations that I have, and another one of these kind of pillars to our strategy this fall, is really not just doing more California outreach, but more Bay Area outreach in particular, yeah.

I think that we need to really double down on what’s happening in the shadows of our own ivory tower. We need to recognize the migration patterns that are existing when it comes to students of color, and that not all of the students of color are in Oakland, they are out there in Pittsburgh, Antioch and Vallejo and these other areas now, and we should be, our ground game there should be better than anyone’s. I’m a strong believer in that.

I think when it comes to the other piece about, to your question around whether or not the students are coming in with lesser academic credentials, is simply just untrue. And the fact of the matter is that students from out-of-state, for us to be even interested in them, they have to be strong academic performers. We know that that’s also critical in our ability to yield those students, and so that’s absolutely where we’re leaning in regards to that strategy.

Dan Mogulof: This next question is going to take us back to a subject we touched on in the beginning, but it’s going to sharpen it up a little bit in a slightly different direction. “What can you tell us about the experience or experiences of African American undergraduates and those of mixed heritage? The word on the street is Berkeley is awful for black students. What do you say to this? And what are some of the differences or similarities you see with your past work at Stanford?” Two very different questions, but let’s take the first one first. It takes us back to something, and we hear a lot of it.

Femi Ogundele: Yeah, yeah. And so in regards to the African American student experience on this campus, to be perfectly honest with you, from what I’m hearing it’s not the greatest, either. And I think that it’s a relationship that needs work — work when I think about the African American student experience and how they’re experiencing the rest of campus. I also believe that all of these things exist on a continuum, right?

And I think that it’s important to know — that there’s not going to be a single day where you just get here and all of a sudden it is paradise for everyone who is here. I think, what I’ve learned in doing diversity work is you have to have a willingness to engage in tough conversations on a continual basis. It’s not just going to be, “I’m gonna have this tough conversation, I’m gonna walk out and everything’s gonna be good from here.” So, I think that’s important.

I also think it’s important to recognize and to understand that African Americans are not a monolith, right? And so there’s variation within that diaspora, as well. As so, we should never be treating or believing that African American is somehow a proxy for low-income, or a proxy for urban, or a proxy for any of these other things. So, when we think about supporting that student, we really should be thinking about just how do we intentionally support all of our students? But that also includes these things that are particular to their identity. And so, that’s not just in programming or things like that, but it’s also in the staff and the cultural competencies of our faculty and everything else, that is important, I think, to making sure that that narrative is being addressed.

In regards to the second question about Stanford … similarities and differences. So, the difference is Stanford has an ability to throw a lot of money at problems, right? And make things look really, really great. But Stanford has their own racial issues as well. And that is something that we absolutely saw, that I absolutely saw when I was there. The African American students, not just in undergrad, at Stanford’s law school and their business school they also had their own issues with race and ethnicity on their campuses. I don’t think any school is going to be immune to that. I really don’t think that. And what I’ve learned at Stanford is that money can’t solve all of your problems. And so, I know for a fact that it requires, again, more intentional and in-depth conversations if you really want to create a better environment for those students. But the students will, and they should, continue to push for services that they want, or that they believe that they need. They are the people who are paying this institution, that make this place go, and I think it’s our job to respond to that.

Dan Mogulof: Got it. A question here from one of our fundraisers says, “As a fundraiser, I have alumni and donors who express great disappointment with the low numbers of underrepresented minorities on campus today. Please share language we can or should use to help our alumni understand the challenges we face in building a diverse student body.” So, it’s sort of the other side of what we talked about before. We talked about the need, and why, and that imperative, but also it’s this, there’s like, what’s the reality check?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah. Well, again, I think that the reality check is if you are paying attention then you will notice that Berkeley has been taking absolute strides in regards to creating a more equitable space. Again, I think that, when I got a chance to really start digging into some of the work that’s being done here, I think that when I understand how new the Fannie Lou Hamer Center is, when I understand programs like Berkeley’s Underground Scholars or the Hope Scholars — these programs that recognize parts of society that have definitely been forgotten in higher education as a whole. And we have full-blown programming and support behind that, I think it’s important for donors to know that.

I also think it’s important for donors to know that we are committed to the relationships that we have in communities. I’ve noticed that when it comes to working with some of my colleagues in the Center for Educational Partnerships and the work that they are doing in high schools all across the state of California, right? I would gladly put our efforts up against many other institutions and the fact that we don’t just have great brochures and things like that, but that we actually have people on the ground, is something that I think that we should absolutely lift to donors and let them know that, yes, while the data might suggest this, that is not reflective of our effort, and I think the continued momentum that we’re building towards creating a more equitable space.

Dan Mogulof: So one of the things the chancellor talked about when she rolled out the Undergraduate Diversity Initiative was this idea, this objective, this goal, this priority, to become an HSI, a Hispanic-serving institution, within 10 years. What does that actually mean, and what kind of changes is that engendering in your office?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah. So in order to become a Hispanic-serving institution you have to have 25% of your undergraduate enrollment study body represent students who self-identify as Latinx. And right now, I believe we’re somewhere around like 15%, so we need to raise that by some significant numbers. From my perspective, I think we talked a little bit about some of those targeted outreach, and some of those targeted yields, and these deeper understandings of these parts of the state in particular, where perhaps we have not been in the past, and our need to go there and establish a presence.

Dan Mogulof: When you say we have not been, we’re not literally sending people?

Femi Ogundele: Literally not going. Like, we literally have not been to certain high schools in 10, 20, 30 years. We literally haven’t been to certain high schools in seven or eight years. And when you’re talking about creating pipelines, students need to see you, right? Even if, and this goes back to that whole digital thing, right? We can go out there and we can email, bombard students all day. If we are not in their spaces, then they will not believe that they are seen. And so we have to make sure that we are going out there and seeing students for who they are, understanding where they’re coming from, and then using that as we are contextually considering who they are and their fit here.

What I will also say, though, around becoming an HSI, that I think is critically, critically important: If we, again, kind of doubling back on some of the things that we’ve talked about, if we know that right now we do still take the SAT, and we know that the SAT is a racially biased, or an ethnically biased program, or excuse me, test, then we need to make sure that when we’re working with our campus partners, understanding that you cannot change your race and ethnicity profile without other parts of your profile shifting. And so, what that means is that what the average SAT score looks like moving forward, there’s a likelihood that that could shift or change. The amount of AP scores that a student takes on average could likely shift or change. And so that also means that where students might need support, and where they don’t will also change once they come onto our campuses. And so, I think it’s gonna be incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we are doing our best to not just make sure that the students get here, but that they thrive here. Because I’m a big believer that access without support is not an opportunity.

Dan Mogulof: So, I’m gonna ask you last question. And it’s really gonna step back from all this, ’cause we’ve been talking a lot about diversity, no surprise given the extent to which the chancellor has put it front and center as a priority for the rest of her tenure. So when people ask you, “Why should we even care about diversity in the higher education space? Let the chips fall where they may.” Why are you, what’s the argument you make for a diverse student body at an institution like UC Berkeley?

Femi Ogundele: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, all of the data in every sector of our society shows that diverse environments, spaces drive innovation, and they are the places where genius can be found. And so, for me, you are really putting yourself at a disservice when you don’t have certain perspectives at the table. It’s critical. And I think that if we’re really talking about engaging in a landscape that is diversifying rapidly, we need to make sure that we’re having those people at our table when we’re deciding how we are going to change and shift the world. I am a big believer that the college space is the place for clashing. It’s the place for brave conversations and safe spaces. And I think that it’s important for people to be exposed to those who are not like them. It opens their minds, their perspectives, and that’s what I think is gonna kinda drive not just what we’re doing here in California, or in Silicon Valley, but really what’s gonna be driving the world as we think about innovation moving forward.

Dan Mogulof: Cool, so before we wrap up, I just wanna note that our next campus conversation is gonna be a little bit different than the past in terms of its format. It’ll be on Sept. 30. And we’re going to be joined by Oliver O’Reilly, the chair of the Academic Senate, and Amma Sarkodee-Adoo, who is the ASUC president, to get a different perspective about what’s happening on campus.

Otherwise, Femi, I just want to end this with one word I haven’t used before in these, and that’s, wow. Thanks.

Femi Ogundele: Thank you, thank you. I appreciate it.