UC Berkeley News


Diversity Research Initiative draws enthusiastic response
Ten faculty pre-proposals, from a surprising array of fields, advance to next phase

| 19 April 2006

In the recent book Radical Equations, civil-rights activist Robert Moses and journalist Charles Cobb argue that mastery of math skills is an essential steppingstone to lifelong economic opportunity in a technology-based economy, and that entire communities are losing out in quantitative literacy. Why that is happening, and how to democratize mastery of math, are questions that Berkeley should be studying in a systematic, multidisciplinary way, say a group of faculty from education and the physical sciences.

They elaborate on this idea in a preliminary proposal for "Enhancing Mathematics and Science Education for All Students," one of 21 varied research concepts submitted in response to a call from the Berkeley Diversity Research Initiative (BDRI), and one of 10 that have been selected as finalists.

Breslauer: BDRI should make Berkeley more attractive to minority scholars

George Breslauer (Peg Skorpinski photo)

In a wide-ranging Q&A session posted recently on the website of the College of Letters and Science, which he has served as dean of social sciences and, most recently, executive dean, newly appointed Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer spoke to the importance of access and diversity, and the way in which the BDRI is likely to promote both goals. The full exchange between Breslauer and Monica Friedlander of L&S is online at ls.berkeley.edu/george_qa.html.

Diversity is an important issue for you. How will you try to expand opportunities for low-income families and achieve a more diverse student body?
There are two distinct issues here: access and diversity. Regarding access, the concern is that students from low-income households may, in increasing numbers, find it impossible to attend Berkeley as fees (and, therefore, the so-called "self-help" component of their financial aid packages) increase. One-third of our undergraduate student body comes from low-income households. So we are not talking about a small number of students being affected by rising financial burdens. On this score, there are several possible solutions: (1) raise large sums for undergraduate scholarships from private donors; (2) see whether the state would be willing to match funds raised privately for this purpose; and (3) transit to differential fees based on ability to pay, using the higher fees from high-income families to subsidize the lower-income admittees. At this time, we are assessing how much progress might be possible toward realizing each of these possible solutions.

Diversity is a different issue. We are constrained in what we can do by Proposition 209, which is state law. But within the parameters defined by the law, we can do a great deal to enlarge the pool of qualified applicants from minority groups and to increase the proportion of those admitted who accept our offer of admission. Fielding more Spanish-speaking recruiters, for example, would likely increase the so-called "yield" among Hispanics admitted to Berkeley. The Berkeley Diversity Research Initiative, which is energizing the campus with research on the nature of multi-ethnic and multi-racial societies and the conditions under which they can be led to flourish, should also increase the attractiveness of studying at Berkeley among ethnic minorities with such intellectual interests.

"We've been extremely pleased and gratified by the response," says Gibor Basri, a member of the BDRI steering committee. "It's proof," he says, "that if you provide incentive," incorporating diversity issues into the academic enterprise is "an exciting and viable thing to do."

Incentive comes in the form of funding for new faculty hires, who will collaborate with existing faculty across a wide range of disciplines on specific diversity-related research themes and, eventually, instructional programs. Chancellor Birgeneau, who has committed to funding up to 10 new FTE to launch the BDRI, in November invited campus faculty to submit ideas for meritorious research topics related to diversity, inclusion, and intercultural competence.

Response came from 21 teams from a broad array of scholarly fields - including fields not immediately associated with diversity issues, says Alice Agogino, co-chair of the BDRI steering committee and current chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.

The 10 pre-proposals selected by the BDRI steering committee include, among others, multidisciplinary projects on immigration and diaspora, achievement and leadership in a diverse society (involving experts in business and psychology), neighborhoods and health disparities, and the philosophical and theoretical framework of values for a just and multicultural society. Faculty in each case described how their research project would help shed light on the nature of multi-cultural societies, point to factors that contribute to their success, and/or identify ways to reduce ethnic and racial disparities in California and the nation while drawing upon the strengths and assets of its diverse communities.

The math and science education group, for example, noted that disproportionate numbers of poor, African American, Latino, and Native American students underperform on K-12 math tests and thus leak from the academic pipeline in science, technology, engineering, and math fields (known for short as the STEM disciplines). That's a dilemma that "every science and engineering unit" on campus has recognized for some time, and that numerous campus programs have attempted to address, says Professor of Education Alan Schoenfeld, a collaborator on the proposal. "In order to understand what's blocking access, or making it difficult, you have to look at what's going on in school classes. You need the expertise of education faculty, because we've studied educational settings; you need expertise from the STEM disciplines. But you also need the powerful contributions of anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists, because these problems don't start at the classroom door."

Philosophy chair R. Jay Wallace, who helped develop the proposal for research on the theoretical framework for a just, multicultural society (with a single FTE), says his group plans to join with the "Diversity and Democracy Cluster" for the final phase of adjudication, by a blue-ribbon panel. That cluster, developed by faculty in political science, sociology, and the law school, combines empirically oriented social-science research with theoretical work.

"There's a huge debate, right at the center of contemporary political philosophy," Wallace notes, "about what a just, well ordered, liberal society should look like, and about the bearing of multiculturalism and ethnic and racial diversity on these normative questions. We think it's very important that the BDRI engage with these lively theoretical debates as it addresses questions of policy and empirical research, especially regarding the California experience."

The process of applying for BDRI funding, he says, "brought to our attention that some of the debates in political theory about multiculturalism and group identity and religion are not studied enough on campus. Berkeley should be doing some of the leading research on these issues. We need to work on that, and the BDRI is a perfect context."

A panel of researchers and higher-education leaders will review the final proposals and announce which will be funded. The names of the panelists will be announced soon. Their final decision - which, according to BDRI guidelines, could involve "one FTE in each of six to 10 areas or allocation of four FTE in each of two to three areas (or some other variant)" - is likely to come this summer.

Research quality and potential to make a positive impact will be key criteria, says Agogino. "The goal is to provide research-based programs to really have an impact on diversity in the state of California, first, and then the nation."

For information on the Berkeley Diversity Research Initiative, including speakers and seminars under its auspices and a list of the 10 pre-proposals selected, visit bdri.berkeley.edu.