UC Berkeley News


The struggle for Berkeley's 'soul as an institution'
At daylong forum, Chancellor Birgeneau acknowledges the centrality of diversity to the campus's mission, while Boalt's Edley lays out a broad research plan

| 10 March 2005

Boalt Dean Christopher Edley proposes to meet the challenges of diversity by academic means. (Steve McConnell photo)
Boalt Hall Dean Christopher Edley, Jr. last week put some flesh on the bones of a proposal he has been expected to make since his arrival on campus last summer: the creation of a Berkeley version of the Harvard Civil Rights Project (which he co-founded in 1996) that would be part of a larger, university-wide effort to address key issues of diversity and inclusion.

Edley limned his proposal during his keynote address at a daylong campuswide "Diversity in Action" forum, sponsored by the Diversity Project Coordinating Committee co-chaired by Professors Gibor Basri and Angelica Stacy. The address followed a morning panel discussion and midday breakout sessions in which most forum attendees participated - all geared toward furthering the goals of the California Diversity Project, an umbrella initiative that evolved out of 2003's comprehensive Strategic Academic Plan.

Referring to the as-yet-nonexistent academic entity as the Berkeley Civil Rights Institute (eschewing, he said, among other provisional titles, the Berkeley Center on Race and Public Policy and, more whimsically, Colored People and Their Friends), Edley identified a number of reasons that Berkeley is a good place to house such an effort . as well as a few that make it less than ideal.

In the campus's favor is the fact that it is already a diverse place (though not yet, Edley noted, diverse enough). Another plus is Berkeley's intellectual culture, which he characterized as not only excellent but supportive of excellence in its emphasis on inter- and multidisciplinary research. He contrasted this culture with that of Harvard, where the "silo-ing" of intellectual life imposes "enormous transaction costs" on any attempt to do interdisciplinary work.

'Trouble will rain down upon us'

But Berkeley's handicaps are not insignificant, Edley said. It's no longer a wealthy campus, but suffers from a decline in public support that afflicts K-12 as well as public higher education. It is vulnerable to state regulation and other forms of political oversight, continuing a trend, he said, that extends back half a century to the McCarthy and Loyalty Oath era, on up through the Free Speech Movement (and the Reagan reaction against it) right up to the present day. Efforts to stand against the current climate, Edley said, guarantee that "trouble will rain down upon us from political quarters."

He also pointed to two internal forces that will need to be confronted if any such ambitious project as a Berkeley Civil Rights Institute is to succeed: the campus bureaucracy ("There is no problem Berkeley faces that doesn't command two committees" to examine it, he said pointedly), and the "much-vaunted" tradition of shared governance, in which the faculty shares decision-making responsibility with the chancellor and other top administrators. "I haven't yet drunk the Kool-Aid on this subject," Edley remarked, asking rhetorically, "If [shared governance] is so great, why do we have the current situation with regard to diversity and inclusion?"

A full menu of research opportunities

The mission and objectives of a "multidisciplinary, multiracial, multisectoral" BCRI, said Edley, would include the production of "research and research-based prescriptions focusing on issues of ethnicity and race in law, policy, and private-sector practices" and the dual charges "to build bridges connecting the world of research with the world of civic action and policy debate, so that each informs the other; and to provide a forum for collaboration, agenda-setting, and consensus-building."

Among the research areas such a center might explore are:
. issues surrounding the 2007 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act;
. the adequacy of K-12 education in California (with respect to which, Edley predicted, a major lawsuit is "inevitable");
. the impacts of Prop. 209 (which in 1996 eliminated affirmative action as a factor in college admissions) and the "options and prospects" for action to address its shortcomings;
. unequal treatment of citizens within the health-care system;
. immigration-policy reform;
. the "measurement of discrimination," employing statistical, psychological, and econometric techniques, among others;
. environmental justice.

Acknowledging that in a time of tight resources it will be a challenge to develop such an enterprise, Edley said that it would be a "pillar" of Boalt's forthcoming capital campaign. "There are donors out there who get it," he said, "who will express an interest in funding research if it can make a difference."

Black students sense an 'actively hostile' environment here

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau delivered the day's closing remarks, styling himself as the campus's CEO: its Chief Equity Officer. "We must understand diversity in all its aspects," he told the audience. "Nothing is more important to our mission."

Birgeneau acknowledged that he was "shocked" to discover, upon his arrival at Berkeley, that the "diversity and camaraderie across cultural lines" he had seen during his tenure as president of the University of Toronto were not replicated here. "I have witnessed too many examples of alienation, mistrust, and division among distinct components of our student body," he said, noting that the situation is "most evident among the Chicano/Latino, African American, and Native American" students here. "I believe [it] is caused overwhelmingly by the dramatic drop in their numbers" - a phenomenon directly related to the passage of Prop. 209.

While the people of California, in voting for Prop. 209, made "what I believe was an honest attempt to create a non-discriminatory system," Birgeneau said, "they do not see every day what I see on campus: that an effort at non-discrimination has in fact resulted in the creation of an environment that many students of color view as explicitly discriminatory." Whereas 260 African American freshmen were enrolled at Berkeley in 1997, the number has dropped this year to just 108 - and that has meant "the loss of an essential, supportive community for black students and the resultant creation of an environment which many view, they tell me, as actively hostile." He hears much the same thing from Chicano/Latino students, he added.

The immediate prospects are not encouraging, Birgeneau implied. "We know that next year's freshman class will show that we've not yet turned the corner" on the thorny problem of declining underrepresented-minority numbers at Berkeley, he said, emphasizing that the problem is not limited to undergraduates; if unsolved, he said, it will "propagate" across the campus, with serious implications for any effort to improve faculty diversity as well.

While forum participants met in the nearby Student Union, a group of activist students, under the banner of By Any Means Necessary, addressed diversity issues at a Sproul Plaza rally. (Jonathan King photo)
While engaged in several initiatives to address this problem, the campus "needs to do much more," Birgeneau said. "The world's premier public teaching and research university must lead the discussion about the unintended consequences of Proposition 209. We must be the intellectual home for research and education in intercultural competence." Berkeley must also, he said, "test the legal limits" to see "what's possible" under Prop. 209. "We can be more aggressive than we have been" in that arena, he insisted, so long as we "respect the law." Referring indirectly to a Sproul Plaza rally earlier in the day coordinated by the members of BAMN (By Any Means Necessary), a student activist group focusing on similar issues of inclusion and diversity, Birgeneau said he would endorse an organization called BAML: "By Any Means Legal."

With regard to Edley's presentation, Birgeneau promised that "we will proceed" on his research initiative - "working with him and others to define the research agenda . with the Academic Senate in 'the Berkeley way.'" (The implied rejoinder to Edley's criticism of shared governance was clarified with a humorous aside: "You can see I drank the Kool-Aid," Birgeneau grinned.) Applause and murmurs of support greeted his statement that "there will be faculty positions that we will talk through with the Academic Senate."

"This call to action supports and extends the efforts of previous chancellors and other members of the Berkeley community," Birgeneau concluded. "As the current leader of this campus, I feel a moral obligation to address the issue of inclusion head-on, because ultimately it is a fight for our soul as an institution."

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