Five new faculty members at UC Berkeley this fall hail from disparate U.S. states, academic disciplines and personal backgrounds. But they’re already forming a team partnered around one critical global issue — climate equity and environmental justice — as part of six interdisciplinary faculty “cluster hires” underway on campus.
“Even before we signed on the dotted line, we had a series of calls to hear about each other’s work,” said human environment geographer Meg Mills-Novoa, a new assistant professor in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG) and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM). “My collaborative work has been some of the most meaningful work I’ve done. As scholars, it breathes a lot of life into our research agendas, approaches and relationships.”
Added sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen, another member of the new Climate Equity and Environmental Justice Cluster and an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, “For a long time, I’ve wanted to be in a group of people focused on different issues involving the climate emergency, so this cluster is extremely exciting. We have big challenges in the 21st century, and we need to approach them from multiple perspectives.”
Cluster hiring, an emerging practice in higher education, involves the appointment of multiple scholars into one or more departments based on shared research interests to meet a university’s specific goals, such as advancing interdisciplinary research, enhancing undergraduate and graduate education, attracting and retaining students and faculty from underrepresented groups, and increasing faculty diversity and inclusive excellence.
The three other new assistant professors in the cluster are Zoé Hamstead, in the Department of City and Regional Planning; Danielle Zoe Rivera, in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning; and Maya Carrasquillo, in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.
In addition to the five-member Climate Equity and Environmental Justice cluster, the first of the six clusters with all its positions filled, proposals for the following five others have been approved and are progressing in various stages:
- Native American and Indigenous Peoples
- Anti-Black Racism and Social Inclusion
- Latinx and Democracy
- Artificial Intelligence and Inequality
- Understanding (Non) Citizenship
At Berkeley, these “intellectual clusters,” as Raka Ray, dean of Berkeley’s Division of Social Sciences, aptly calls them, all share the goal of advancing knowledge about how to address acute threats to the world — in particular, to its vulnerable and marginalized groups and/or to the natural world — and doing so in a new multi-disciplinary, small working group approach.
“Berkeley has always had an interest in and a belief in cross-disciplinary initiatives, and they’ve usually been done through centers and institutes,” said Ray, a sociologist, who is overseeing four of the six cluster hires. “Clusters are a different way of doing the same thing.”
Hiring five people as a cluster “is different from hiring five individuals,” she added. “We want the cluster to be able to work together intellectually on some of the most entrenched problems the country and world are facing, to be greater than the sum of the parts, to attract graduate students and to be a social support for each other.”
The six clusters’ overarching focus “also is completely consistent with Berkeley’s orientation toward social justice,” said Ray.
The new faculty members will be hired in stages, with some hires occurring this school year and others over the course of up to three years. Some clusters will have five members, others six.
Wanted: Greater diversity of ideas, backgrounds
Ben Hermalin, vice provost for the faculty, said that concern about the diversity of Berkeley’s current faculty — in terms of their areas of research, as well as race, gender and ethnicity — was a “major factor” in choosing faculty cluster hires as one way to broaden the professoriate on campus.
“Higher education hasn’t been diverse in its topics of inquiry, its academic pursuits,” he explained. “It’s been too Eurocentric, too focused on the issues of people who are doing relatively well. Populations have gotten neglected.”
Agreed Ray, “We need to draw on a much wider range of intellectual sources than we traditionally have. Every topic can be looked at from multiple perspectives, and when this happens, it expands our understanding of the world.”
Rivera, for example, examines the issues of environmental pollution and flood risk in low-income Latinx communities across South Texas and Puerto Rico. Previously, she was an assistant professor of environmental design at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“Listening to community members and organizers, I’ve learned a lot about the ways in which they are disparately impacted by disasters and pollution,” said Rivera, a first-generation academic whose family is part of the Puerto Rican diaspora. “We are currently identifying ways to turn this community knowledge into new policies and programs.”
Clusters will lead to better research, said David Ackerly, dean of the Rausser College of Natural Resources, who led the formation of the Climate Equity and Environmental Justice cluster.
“Sometimes, a lot of scholarship gets narrow,” he said. “It’s time to take a step back and see the big picture, as that can lead to more discoveries and revelations. Clusters will bring various elements together to get new truth.”
Cluster hires also can lead to a faculty that is more racially and ethnically diverse. “We know that the people most interested in studying issues that involve neglected populations often come from those populations,” said Hermalin.
Cristina Mora, who led the proposal for the five-member Latinx and Democracy cluster, which will be filled within the 2021-22 school year, said that the area of Latinx studies “has long been ignored or sidelined, so people who do this work as a passion tend to be Latinx.”
The Latinx population is growing in the U.S., yet Latinx studies is “one of the smallest areas of study on this campus,” she continued, “and if we’re to meet our public mission, which coincides with becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution by 2027, attracting Latinx students and having them thrive depends on their ability to take classes and be mentored by professors who can provide classes about their community.”
Elizabeth Hoover, a relatively new Native American faculty member in ESPM and one of 11 self-identified Native American/Alaska Native ladder-rank faculty members at Berkeley, said cluster hires “are going to be the only way universities can build up some of these areas.”
Currently, the Berkeley faculty is 69% white, down from 78% a decade ago and from 84% in 2000, said Hermalin. It is 35% female today, up from 29% a decade ago. This past hiring year, he added, Berkeley had the highest percentage in its history of new hires from underrepresented groups — 24%, an increase of two percentage points over the previous year, when 22% had been the record.
Building a critical mass around social justice issues
As a geographer, Mills-Novoa said she was trained to be creative and interdisciplinary in her scholarship. So, when 10 people told her about the cluster hire at Berkeley, she jumped at the chance — as did about 1,000 other applicants — to work on equitable climate change adaptation with other specialists and to help “build a critical mass on campus around climate justice.”
She added that another big draw to working at Berkeley was its “amazing undergraduate and graduate students, and being jointly appointed, I’ll get to advise and work with students in ESPM and ERG, students who have different profiles.”
Having just received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, where she researched the enduring effects of climate change adaption projects on landscapes and livelihoods in the South American Andes, joining Berkeley’s faculty also allows her to carry forward her family’s commitment to educational access. Her father, Avelino Mills-Novoa, who came to the U.S. on a boat from Cuba when he was 10, became a professor, then a community college president.
“I really view myself as part of his legacy, in terms of creating opportunities for students who have not been given a seat at the table,” she said.
While Mills-Novoa won’t teach until spring 2022, this semester she’s planning her courses, which includes making sure the writings of women and people of color are in her syllabi, that her classroom will be “open and safe” for all students, she said, and that all angles will be considered in teaching climate change.
“What is climate equity? Who are the winners and losers? It’s complex,” she said.
Cohen was an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also directed the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative and co-directed the climate + community project — initiatives he’ll continue at Berkeley. He researches the politics of climate change, including how climate change intersects with housing, political economy, social movements and inequalities of races and class in the U.S. and Brazil.
“We all feel the cluster hire was a big motivator for us, and it’s interesting to find things in common,” he said. “We’re all working on some version of the built environment and change in space. A couple of us work on Latin America, as well.”
He said that students, especially graduate students, don’t have “a thirst to study in one discipline only, and they have an intuitive sense that, to understand the world, you need diversity. Likewise, those of us working on climate change problems feel we can’t work on them sufficiently alone. A cluster is a way of conglomerating resources.”
The other five clusters also will include scholars from a varying mix of units. One hire each for the five scholars in the Native American and Indigenous Peoples cluster, for example, will be made between this academic year and 2022-2023 by Berkeley Law, the Department of History, the School of Social Welfare and the Division of Arts and Humanities. The cluster will be anchored in the Native American Studies Program in the Department of Ethnic Studies.
The proposal to create the cluster states that this hiring strategy, combined with the campus’s existing undergraduate and graduate programs in Native American studies; strong Native American language, literature, Indigenous archaeology and cultural anthropology programs; and museum and library collections will help lead to Berkeley’s establishment as “the preeminent institution of higher education in this field” of Native American and Indigenous studies.
Another cluster gets its first hire
“Just five years ago, there were only two Native American professors on campus, and both were in ethnic studies,” said Peter Nelson, the first faculty member hired for the Native American and Indigenous Peoples cluster and a new assistant professor in both environmental policy, science and management and ethnic studies.
“I think it would be great to have Native American faculty in many different departments,” he added, “and I think that’s starting to happen.”
He said he’s encouraged that, today, Berkeley “has a much more positive climate for Native American students. An example is the new Native American student center, and the cluster will be involved in that. It’s a space for students, but also for all Native people. It will be about community and collaboration. … And that’s what the cluster is about, as well.”
Applicants to the cluster “don’t need to be Native American, but the cluster will attract more Native American applicants,” said Nelson, a California Indian who is a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a federally-recognized American Indian tribe of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo peoples. “And it will address very core issues for Native Americans — social welfare, public health, law, environment, culture, history, the land.”
Among the benefits of being hired into a cluster, said Hoover, is that “you won’t be an island, because of the topic you teach and/or the demographic you represent.”
Said Ackerly, “Faculty of color are often called on for service to campus or their professional communities, and this can become an unfair burden, especially for young faculty working to advance their careers.”
Nelson is appreciative that Berkeley values his relationship with his tribe. He attends community meetings and a language group, works on heritage protection, does ecological surveys and works with agencies to enhance native plant species, and assesses the impacts of climate change on California Indian resources along the coastline.
He also is a certified wildland firefighter becoming skilled at prescribed burning and other Indigenous traditions related to fire in order to be a resource for his community.
“The distance between your workplace and your tribal territory is a huge consideration, for Native faculty, to be able to maintain these connections to family, ceremonial cycles, religious ties, food systems and participation in traditional culture,” Nelson said. “Berkeley is only a bridge away from my tribal territory and 40 minutes from my tribe’s office in Rohnert Park.”
Sharing those traditions at Berkeley with Native American and non-Native American students and faculty might spark their interest in learning from and sharing their expertise with off-campus Native American and Indigenous groups, too, he added.
Ultimately, said Nelson, the hope is that the collaborations fostered by the clusters — among cluster scholars, across disciplines on campus and with off-campus communities — “will continue to snowball and grow.”