Ambitious New African American Initiative Aims to Improve Climate

Berkeley News, September 3, 2015

“For too long, African Americans on our campus have faced obstacles to feeling fully included in the life of our university,” says Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, explaining the impetus behind the just-announced UC Berkeley African American Initiative. The initiative–a comprehensive effort to address the underrepresentation and campus climate for African American students, faculty and staff–includes plans for a $20 million endowed scholarship fund, as well as a number of steps aimed at boosting recruitment and yield for black undergrads, and at improving the campus’s social, personal and academic support to current and future African American students.

While the initiative is “predicated on our collective determination to engage and improve the campus climate for African Americans across every sector of our community,” progress “cannot and will not happen solely as the result of administrative dictate,” notes Dirks. “The success of this initiative will depend on effective and ongoing collaboration among all of us here on the campus and, crucially, our alumni and friends, whose support will be essential if we are to make good on our aspirations.”

For a closer look at the initiative, Berkeley News met recently with three of the campus officials responsible for its creation and future success: Claude Steele, executive vice chancellor and provost; Gibor Basri, outgoing vice chancellor for equity and inclusion; and African American studies chair Na’ilah Nasir, who takes over from Basri on Nov. 1.

Berkeley News: This is an ambitious initiative, aimed at tackling a problem that’s existed at UC Berkeley for some time. How did this come about, and why now?

Claude Steele: Both Nick [Dirks] and I approach this issue with a great amount of concern and empathy. The numbers of African American students have gotten so small on this campus as to affect the experience of being a black student here. If you’re such a small minority, you can feel a kind of spotlight pressure that starts to be a factor in how you are able to engage the institution, and to engage the opportunities here, and the resources here.  It’s something you’ve got to deal with.

The low percentage of African American students may also play a role in a kind of negative cycle: There’s not a large number here, and therefore it’s harder to recruit people to come here. And so I think we worry about that for the educational implications of that kind of situation for a group of students.

Gibor Basri: We’re very excited about this new initiative. We see it as the next step in what have been a long set of various sorts of actions to support campus climate and increase diversity. But the start for this particular initiative was almost three years ago, when we did an analysis of UCUES [University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey] data, the undergraduate survey that takes place systemwide.

We identified very clear results: one, that Berkeley’s African American students assess the campus climate as quite poor, and two, that at other campuses where there are more black students, they’re less unhappy. There’s actually a relationship between the fraction of black students present and the dissatisfaction. Our efforts intensified this past year in response to listening to our students express their needs, and in response to a renewed national attention on issues of race.

There was a widely reported set of demands made in February by the Black Student Union at Berkeley. Does this initiative reflect their concerns?

Basri: Yes, it does. Not yet aware of the initial draft we were working on, the students met independently at the systemwide black students conference and decided to take action on the same topic. So that generated the BSU demands. And then we spent the semester talking with them, listening to their needs and adapting the initiative accordingly. We very much appreciate the innovative thinking of our students, which enhanced the initiative.

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The initiative refers to a “critical mass” of African American students. Is it possible to quantify the point at which black students might feel less isolated and more welcome at Berkeley?

Basri: There’s UCUES data that shows level of respect perceived by different populations as a function of their percentage of the population on campus. And there’s this very nice curve–we’re on the steep low part of it–and it reaches high levels at around 20 percent representation. African Americans are around 3 percent on this campus.

It’s tricky, though. It also depends on your history, your place in society. Critical mass means that in the social context that you’re in, what level of representation do you need before you feel like there are enough of you around that you’re relatively comfortable with this place? For African Americans, I think it’s likely that the climate and sense of inclusion would be much more healthy at double our current representation, so that it was similar to the state’s. That’s what it was at Berkeley prior to Proposition 209.

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