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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Berkeley's Chancellor on Prop 209: Minority Inclusion is a Public Good, Not a Private Benefit

For those of you who are interested in diversity issues, this is worth reading. The links to the original documents used to compile the report are in the text in italics just below the picture:

Anti-bias law has backfired at Berkeley

By Robert J. Birgeneau, UC Berkeley Chancellor 29 March 2005

Chancellor Birgeneau has said that, upon his appointment as Berkeley's ninth chancellor last September, he expected to find some surprises waiting, both positive and negative. One "surprising and, indeed, shocking negative discovery," he says, has been the absence of "good relationships across cultural lines within the student body." This situation is most evident among the Latino, African American, and Native American students on campus, he says, and is "caused in large part, I believe, by the dramatic drop in their numbers."

His growing concern about this problem inspired him to write an opinion piece, which was published Sunday, March 27, by the
Los Angeles Times. That text is reprinted here, accompanied by excerpts from an interview with Birgeneau recently conducted by Marie Felde of the campus Public Affairs office.

BERKELEY Nine years ago the people of California passed Proposition 209 in what I believe was a sincere effort to foster nondiscrimination in the state. However, 209's supporters do not see what I see every day as the new chancellor at UC Berkeley.

Instead of ensuring nondiscrimination, Proposition 209 has created an environment that many students of color view as discriminatory. That's because minority representation has dropped appallingly, and where there should be camaraderie across cultural lines, I have seen too much alienation, mistrust and division.

Proposition 209 has had its biggest impact on the enrollment of Latinos, Native Americans and African Americans. The situation for African American students is truly at a crisis point. Freshmen enrollment at UC Berkeley, for instance, has gone from 260 black students in 1997 to just 108 students this year. That's too small a number to form a supportive student community, and many of Berkeley's black freshmen view themselves as struggling against a hostile environment.

They tell me how difficult it is to be the only African American in a class when an issue involving multiculturalism comes up and all eyes turn to you; how much pressure it puts on an 18-year-old to be regarded as the sole representative of her race; and why it is a tragedy for California when there are only dozens of African American men in a freshman class of 3600.

Proposition 209 assumed that considering race or ethnicity in the admissions process would allow undeserving students into Berkeley. But it is significant that the graduation rates of African Americans before and after the proposition's passage have stayed virtually the same. Far from weeding out students who could not succeed, the elimination of race as a consideration in admissions has actually prevented many of California's most able students from the opportunity of a Berkeley education.

In my view, it is unrealistic to think that one can judge a person's likelihood of success at Berkeley without taking into account his race and gender. I spent many years on the faculty at MIT. For decades, women were significantly underrepresented in the undergraduate student body there. So MIT aggressively recruited young women and in the admissions process explicitly took into account negative environmental effects on their SAT scores. We found that it took at most two semesters for these women to catch up to their male peers. Most important, by the time of graduation the failure or withdrawal rate of these women was significantly less than that of their male classmates.

Although the situation is not directly parallel, I believe that at Berkeley we are similarly missing out on exceptional African American, Latino and Native American students who can not only succeed here, but whose participation can improve the education the university offers all its students.

Minority inclusion is a public good, not a private benefit. Indeed, the president of the University of Mexico once said to me that the single most important skill that a 21st century student must master is "intercultural competence" the ability, best learned via experience with and appreciation of other cultures, to navigate successfully in today's globalized society.

California's business community understands this. That is why several leaders from private industry have anonymously funded private academic preparation programs to identify and deepen the pool of eligible minority candidates for UC and UC Berkeley. We applaud this effort. Many Berkeley students are engaged in private efforts to recruit more students of color. This month we are opening a multicultural center on campus to bring students together to help overcome mistrust among races and ethnic groups at Berkeley.

We need, however, to do much more. As the premier public teaching and research university, we know we must lead the discussion on the unintended consequences of Proposition 209. I am initiating a broad-based diversity research agenda at Berkeley to study this and a myriad of related issues. Our goal is to find innovative ways to make this campus the inclusive and welcoming environment to which it aspires.

This call to action extends the efforts of previous chancellors and others at Berkeley. As the current chancellor, I feel a moral obligation to address the issue of inclusion head-on. Ultimately it is a fight for the soul of this institution. Inclusion is about leadership and excellence, principles that California and its leading public university have long represented and might again.

More info

"'The system is broken': Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau discusses Proposition 209 and its consequences at UC Berkeley," an interview on diversity and inclusion that Birgeneau recently gave to Marie Felde of the campus Public Affairs office.

Q. Is it your opinion that Proposition 209 was a mistake?

Birgeneau: At the time that 209 was passed, it would have been impossible to determine whether or not it was a good thing or a bad thing. I think that people who supported it at the time 65 percent of the voters believed that it would lead to fairer treatment of the entire population. But in my view that has not turned out to be the case. I am an experimental scientist, and in my view the experiment with 209 has been done and my conclusion is that it has done serious damage.

Q. Are you suggesting that those who voted for 209 may not have known what they were getting into or what the consequences of its passage would be?

A. I think people voted for 209 idealistically and generally thought it would produce a fairer system. My conclusion, and the conclusion of many people around me, is that because it has resulted in a dramatic diminution in numbers of particular classes of California citizens, it has in fact created a system that is quite unfair.

Q. Proposition 209 said that college admissions, including admission to Berkeley, could not consider race, ethnicity or gender as a factor. What is the problem with that?

A. The practical consequence is that we have ended up eliminating many qualified African American students, so that in a typical classroom there may well just be one or even zero such students. That ends up creating a very difficult environment for those individual students.

Q. What do you suggest we do? Are you suggesting that we set aside Prop. 209? Can Berkeley on its own set aside the law?

Berkeley absolutely on its own cannot set aside 209. As long as 209 is the law we must obey the law and, of course, we are absolutely committed to obeying the law. I would like to understand more completely what the law allows us to do and what the law does not allow us to do. It may be that we could have more flexibility than we are taking advantage of at the current time.

Q. Ward Connerly and others would say Proposition 209 is very clear: You can't use race, ethnicity, or gender as a factor in making decisions, either about admissions or hiring. Why do you think this is not clear?

That is where we get into the intersection of a person's race and the circumstances under which they grew up. A person may grow up in circumstances that are strongly disadvantageous, and I think we need to understand those better.

Q. Berkeley's admissions policy, called comprehensive review, is supposed to take that into account. Are you suggesting there is a need for a change to the admissions policy?

This issue goes far beyond Berkeley. Take African Americans again as a specific group. The number of students that we find we are actually able to attract and admit here at Berkeley through our comprehensive review policy falls far short of the number of African American students that we know, through past experience, could do well here.

Let's look even more specifically at African American males. Our freshman class has fewer than 40 African American males in a student body of more than 30,000. Clearly, something is fundamentally wrong; the system is broken. An extreme example of this is that there is not a single African American in applied science and engineering in this year's freshman class. Now, Berkeley was recently ranked by the Times Higher Education Supplement in the U.K. as having the top engineering faculty in the world not just in California, not just in the United States, but in the world. Now we have a situation where not a single member of the African American community in California is able to profit from being taught by the world's best faculty in engineering. They deserve it and it's not happening.

Q. Asian American students are well-represented in the Berkeley student body, and many of them face disadvantages as well.

A. All the people of California take great pride in the achievements of our Asian American students; we are very happy that the Asian community is so well represented here. Unfortunately, the African American and Chicano/Latino and Native American communities are grossly underrepresented. My concern is not only the low numbers of underrepresented students relative to the population of California now, but with what we'll see if we project forward especially with regard to the Chicano/Latino community just 20 years. The students we are educating now, and who we hope will provide leadership in the future, are an even smaller percentage of what that population will be 20 years from now. My view is that as a public university we are not meeting our responsibilities in terms of the public good.

Q. What will Berkeley be doing on your watch to meet what you believe to be our public responsibility?

A. First of all, because we are a university and we do research, it is our intention to create new research programs to help us to understand the state of California in a post-209 environment, to understand the importance of multiculturalism, to understand the importance of diversity and its impact on our society as a whole.

Q. What do you expect to come out of that?

A. One of the fascinating aspects of living in a state like California is that we have brought so many different cultures together. This is a relatively new phenomenon, full of consequences that have not yet been understood. So it is very important to study the political, sociological, and cultural aspects of multiculturalism, and all the different ways they make a difference.

Q. You said in your Los Angeles Times opinion piece that you see on the Berkeley campus a climate that includes "alienation, mistrust and division" for underrepresented minority students. That sounds very troubling. What do you mean by it?

A. Overall, the spirit on this campus is outstanding, but for many of our underrepresented students, it is not outstanding. They feel totally isolated, as if they were being told they don't belong at Berkeley. Now, I'm a physicist, not a psychologist or a sociologist, so I can't explain all the origins of the unhappiness that I see among the underrepresented minority students but there is no doubt that a critical part of it is their very small numbers and the isolation of individuals.

Q. We are in the point in the admissions process where high school students will get an offer of admission to Berkeley. They will have a month to decide whether to accept. If I'm an African American or Chicano/Latino high school senior and I get an offer of admission to Berkeley, what are you going to tell me so I come to campus?

A. I'm going to tell you that this is an issue we really care about. That's what I'm doing now. We are empowering our students to tell you that this is a supportive environment. In fact, this issue is viewed with sufficient importance in the community outside of Berkeley that we now even have Bay Area businesspeople putting up funds in order to bring African American students on to our campus to see that, in fact, Berkeley is a great place to go to school.

    Posted by on Thursday, March 31, 2005 at 01:08 PM in Economics, Universities | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (0)


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