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Femi Ogundele: A diverse student body fosters excellence

By Public Affairs

Portrait of Femi Ogundele smiling

UC Berkeley Assistant Vice Chancellor and Director of Undergraduate Admissions Olufemi “Femi” Ogundele played a key role in bringing more diversity to Berkeley’s 2020 freshman class. (UC Berkeley photo by Stephen McNally)

UC Berkeley released its 2020-21 freshman admission numbers today, which show the most ethnically diverse admitted class in more than 30 years, in terms of offers of admission to African American and Latinx and Chicanx students. Those numbers increased by about 40% over the previous year. The campus also saw gains in various measures of greater socio-economic diversity among students offered admission.

Olufemi “Femi” Ogundele, who began his work in January 2019 as assistant vice chancellor and director of undergraduate admissions, revamped the admissions office’s approach to key aspects of its work as the campus sought greater diversity by many measures.

Berkeley News spoke recently with Ogundele about his rich experience working in admissions at various institutions, why Berkeley isn’t “just another highly selective institution,” what steps he took to make the changes now yielding positive results and the important tasks that remain.

Berkeley News : When you started work here as head of undergraduate admissions in January 2019, you took on key campus initiatives to bring more ethnic and socio-economic diversity to our admissions process. What was your mindset, approaching them?

Femi Ogundele : The reason why the position was so attractive, why those initiatives were so attractive, is because I have been doing diversity recruitment my entire career, and I have always believed that diversity should be at the center of an institution’s mission, not something that is additive or adjunct. When times get tough, when the budget gets small or personnel gets low, if diversity is additive, it is always compromised.

To hear from the chancellor that diversity was at the center of our mission, I knew that was going to be a North Star to our work. I was very excited and encouraged. It was a challenge that I thought I was uniquely fit to address.

The Ivies pride themselves on diversity. Berkeley is highly selective, but public, so how can we mimic the diversity of some of these highly selective (private) institutions, while taking advantage of our accessibility? There is amazing talent out there that I’ve not been able to reach, given the ultra-selective nature of the schools I’ve worked at, and so, to come to a larger school like this that is academically excellent, I was absolutely committed to reaching every single one of those populations that I’d always wanted to, but I couldn’t because of the smaller size of the institutions where I had previously worked.

How long have you worked in admissions?

I have been doing admissions work since 2007. I worked at very different types of institutions — Ivy-Plus, public flagships, smaller regional privates. Through that lens, doing diversity work in those different spaces, I have had a chance to really take a look at students of color and the entire changing demographics that we see across the United States. Those changing demographics should be seen as opportunity, not as a challenge. These populations have always been there, but we (as an industry) have not always served them. It is part of our mission as a public institution that is here for the people of this state to be mission-driven to do our best to have that same representation in our student body.

What changes did you decide were needed to attract a more diverse set of applicants, admit them and get their commitments to enroll here?

I saw that Berkeley’s dedication to diverse students is greater than the population reflected in its undergraduate student body. And I thought that this is a narrative absolutely worth telling. From the outside looking in, Berkeley, to me, was just another highly selective institution, a Research 1 institution with really strong academics.

But it’s also the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, and activism still takes place, in many forms, on our campus. It’s definitely an institution built for students, by students. And the administration listens to students in a way I have not seen in many other institutions. Programs like the Underground Scholars, like the Hope Scholars, like the African American Initiative, are part of an effort to see students in a way that most institutions do not. I have been at plenty of institutions where some of the initiatives that we have (at Berkeley) would be one-offs, not full-blown programs. There is a spirit here at Berkeley that really is for the good of the people. We’re not educating for the sake of education, but for the sake of changing society.

UC Berkeley’s director of undergraduate admissions, Olufemi “Femi” Ogundele, spoke about the attributes admissions officers are looking for when they review applications and efforts to improve diversity. (UC Berkeley video by Stephen McNally)

What major changes have been made, so far?

First, we changed our application reading process, without changing our reading policy. We simply changed the way in which files flow and are allocated to readers to have a better contextualized and localized knowledge of the students who apply, of their high schools and the neighborhoods where they live. Some contend that, in order to be diverse, you must compromise your academic standards. I never believed that. We are looking for excellence, not perfection. Excellence gives way to nuance; it allows you to look at students in a way that takes their backgrounds into consideration. Perfection is simply seeing how a student scores and judging their academics or their intellect based upon that. We are not looking for that.

That was the first major shift, getting people to really use their localized knowledge (of the applicant’s school), do research on their territories and figure that stuff out.

The second thing: We changed all of our messaging and publications and marketing to engage populations we have not engaged before. Our language needs to be welcoming — to rural students, low socioeconomic status students, Pell Grant recipients or what have you. It is important for them to know it is not they who are lucky to be at Berkeley; we are lucky that they have chosen Berkeley.

Third, we are prioritizing our relationships with our key stakeholders — high school counselors. In some communities, counselors don’t push top students to apply to the best schools, typically because colleges haven’t engaged them and, therefore, there are misunderstandings about our institutions that keep students from our applicant pools. I am always trying to solve the undermatching phenomena. This refers to the applicant behavior of highly qualified, low socioeconomic status students who often choose to undermatch less selective schools when compared to well-resourced students of the same academic ability — they don’t shoot for the stars, for the most selective institutions. A lot of times, that has to do with a lack of exposure to those schools. Institutions like ours typically do not visit these students’ high schools, because a majority of those students do not have perfect SATs and straight A’s.

Some contend that, in order to be diverse, you must compromise your academic standards. I never believed that. We are looking for excellence, not perfection.”

– Femi Ogundele

But at Berkeley, we have flipped the entire model of what a feeder school is on its head. We said, ‘Let’s not just go to the school that sends us more than 100 applications each year. Let’s spend our dollars to go to places where students don’t know who we are. Let’s see if we can change some minds and change some hearts about who we are, what we are looking for and who we are here to serve.’ And the students responded. We saw that in this year’s applicant pool, and we saw that in the yield pool.

Everything that we do should be geared toward these institutional priorities — more student representation from across the state, more diversity in the international pool. Even if the international pool this year is 11%, we need more countries represented.

I am a big believer that, when it comes to diversity and excellence, you can’t have one without the other . You can’t have an excellent student body without it being diverse. Research suggests that diverse populations spark innovation. As a leading institution for the public good, we need to honor that fact. Diversity leads to informed conversations and diverse perspectives about policies, laws, science, products and businesses that affect society.

The increase in African American and Chicanx and Latinx numbers is dramatic — the highest in 30 years. What do you say to those who thought it couldn’t be done?

I knew that, peeling back the demographics of California and the popularity of Berkeley, that it would be possible, and we made changes in our application review process to allow these students to emerge. A lot of that was division of labor. Before I got here, admissions officers were assigned much larger geographical regions that spanned multiple states, and the regions they traveled to for outreach work were not necessarily those of the student applicants whose applications they would later read. Now, with smaller territories and their review of applications from those areas, these admissions officers are in a better position to understand what the student applicants have accomplished in life, and in what context.

Does an average student at a really strong and incredible high school deserve a better chance than an absolute standout valedictorian in an under-resourced high school in the middle of rural Tulare? I don’t think so. To me, the standout from rural Tulare deserves the same consideration. And the only way to suss that out is to understand that student’s local context. But it’s important that admissions does not punish a student for being born into privilege, and that we do not fetishize trauma. That is not what we are looking for. We must approach our evaluation with balance. You can be excellent or average in both of those environments. It is not the environment, but the student and how they interact in that environment.

There are stars everywhere. It is just a matter of finding those stars and recognizing those stars. That has been the biggest difference between this year (in admissions) and any other year.

What would you say to Asian American and white students and parents who may have concerns that the diversity effort may leave them behind?

I understand that perspective and where that comes from. I understand that some of these changes might be difficult. But as an institution, we are doing our best to serve all the populations of students that apply to us, to take a look at the populations we have been inadvertently ignoring for decades, and to do our best to right the ship within the law and the parameters that we have. The Asian and Asian American population also must be seen as an incredibly diverse tapestry of ethnicities that are too often lumped together in the higher education conversation and in ways that really do some of those micropopulations a disservice.

There is a spirit here at Berkeley that really is for the good of the people. We’re not educating for the sake of education, but for the sake of changing society.”

– Femi Ogundele

My hope for students from majority groups who get into Berkeley is that they will see the diversity in the classroom and understand, then, that that is how they will have some of their most prolific educational experiences. They will be sitting there in a room filled with people who are not like them, but similar to them in their passions to change the world.

Beyond that, people must recognize that we are selective. We have always been, and we will continue to be. But we are trying to represent the population we have a mission to serve. Now, the time is more important than ever to double down on that mission. I am really proud to be at an institution heading in that direction, including through the drive to become a Hispanic Serving Institution and in making new strides with our Disabled Students Program and the African American Initiative.

Despite higher admission numbers for many underrepresented minority groups, there are fewer Native Americans admitted for 2020-2021 than in previous years. Why?

We did not reach all of our goals. The Native American number is one we absolutely need to continue to work on. Last year, we admitted 80 Native Americans and enrolled 26. The year before, we admitted about 50 and enrolled 25. There are minds that need to be changed in that community about what Berkeley has to offer. We had a part-time (25% percent time) Native American recruiter. We recently hired a 100% full-time admissions officer, a Native American woman who recently graduated from Dartmouth College and is from a Northern California Native community. We are excited about our potential efforts moving forward.

What role did social media, publications and other forms of communications play in reaching out and connecting with a diverse group of prospective students?

Social media was critically important for us to get right. We needed to showcase who we are as a community, not just as a prestigious institution. Our social media became much more personal and personable, and it represented students and staff and faculty of color. It showcased the Free Speech Movement, but also all the activism that is a common thread at Berkeley, that binds class after class together. Our media engagement is a little bit more dynamic now — we are taking more risks and showing people the humanity behind the work that we do in admissions, that admissions is people-centered work, not just a rubric of SATs and GPAs.

We highlighted more student voices, such as those of transfer students and international students, to tell their Berkeley experiences. We also made sure people saw social culture at Berkeley, like Black Wednesdays, where students gather and socialize on Sproul Plaza, to show we are more than books, classrooms and lab spaces.

You have been at Berkeley about 18 months now. What are you most proud of?

I am proud of the fact that I had an admissions office and staff that believed in my vision, and that we are showing that you can admit a diverse class that is academically excellent. On every academic metric, this class stands with every other Berkeley class before it. I am going to try to replicate this year after year after year.

As we continue to diversify, I am hoping that my colleagues across campus will recognize the need to serve these students, not just enroll them. We might need to have more advisers who are culturally centered and representative of the student body population. We might need to unpack how these diverse student communities interact with the police and what it means to create safe spaces for all students. There are things we still need to get better at, but challenges will not change our direction. There may be wind in our face and not at our backs, but we will remain steadfast in our commitment to diversifying and making Berkeley truly a beacon and an example for all public schools across the nation.