Egalitarian at the gates
After 23 years working to keep Berkeley's doors open to all, Richard Black, associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment, calls it a career
| 19 July 2006
From his second-floor Sproul Hall office, Richard Black has a bird's-eye view of the buzzing throngs of Berkeley undergrads who stream through Sather Gate every day of the academic year.
(Deborah Stalford photo)
But Black, who retires July 28 as associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment, is anything but a disinterested observer of the passing parade. Since his arrival on campus 23 years ago as director of financial aid, he's been instrumental in shaping the student body here, laboring not only to maintain Berkeley's rigorous academic standards but to extend world-class educational opportunities to the full range of California's brightest students, including those on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
Black has described such work as "my calling." Asked to explain his near-missionary zeal, he tries his best to indulge his questioner. "I think it's self-evident - at least it's always been so to me - that poor kids ought to go to college just like everybody else. It's important for our country, it's the American dream," he offers at last, a bit uncertainly, as if improving access to higher education needed no more justification than breathing. "It's something I've always wanted to do."
He has, in fact, been doing it for four decades, beginning with his very first paycheck in the mid-1960s. An English major at Harvard, Black initially set out to earn a master of arts degree in teaching at Wesleyan, but changed course after only a year.
"That was a very important educational experience for me, because it absolutely convinced me I did not want to be an English teacher," he recalls. "I said, 'No, I'm really more interested in helping poor kids go to college.'"
He went on to get a graduate degree in educational guidance and counseling instead, and soon enlisted in President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty" as project director, and later president, of a neighborhood youth corps in Cambridge, Mass. He later worked in financial aid at Harvard, Georgetown, and Tufts universities - all of which, while excellent schools, "in no way could extend the kind of opportunity to low-income students" that's possible at a public institution.
Berkeley, by contrast, "is a wonderful place for helping poor kids to get an advanced education," says Black, savoring the word as well as the wonder. And moving here in 1983, he declares, "was the best thing that ever happened to me and my family."
Don't block up the halls
The campus was already ahead of its academic peers in enrolling economically disadvantaged students when he arrived, Black says. But the services provided them - and undergraduates generally, regardless of family income - left much to be desired. "We had lines at registration and financial aid that would go down the hall and literally down the stairs," he recalls. "And these lines would stay there until the early weeks of October before we would finally get things straightened out."
"I knew there were a lot better ways to do what we were doing. And the satisfaction of the past 23 years has been to see that we've been able to do all of these things," says Black. "When a student comes on campus now for the first day of class, the student can go to class. The student can go to the library. The student can go to the lab. The student is not going to spend [his] time here in Sproul Hall."
Procedural problems, alas, proved easier to crack than financial ones. "A lot of people look back on the '80s as the good old days," when fees were "several hundred dollars" - compared with $3,700 currently for state residents - per semester. "The amount that a student has to earn or borrow to finance a Berkeley education is a major concern right now, and it was not in those days."
In 1983, Black's first year on campus, a student receiving financial aid could typically get by with a part-time job of just 15 to 20 hours a week for a single semester each year, he says. Today it's common for students not only to work that much throughout the fall and spring semesters but to supplement their income by borrowing as much as $15,000 a year.
"Are we pricing ourselves out of the market for the very low-income? Not yet," he says, rapping his knuckles on his desk. "But that certainly is a concern. And the middle-income as well. And we need to do everything we can to make sure that Berkeley's doors stay open for these students."
His advice to financially strapped students: Don't worry too much about debt, and don't spend too many hours behind that Starbucks counter. "Some of these students, I think, are making a mistake working more than 20 hours a week so they don't have to borrow," he says. "I would like to tell them that when you get out of here - or when you get out of graduate school - you're going to get a job that's going to allow you to make the payments."
Prop 209 'a simplistic solution'
In addition to rising fees and dwindling state support for higher education, Black's office has faced intense scrutiny - from inside and outside the UC system - over its efforts on behalf of ethnic and economic diversity. Opponents of affirmative action delivered a body blow with the 1996 passage of Proposition 209, which bars state-funded institutions from considering race in hiring and enrollment decisions. Questions were later raised about so-called comprehensive review, an explicitly color-blind admissions process - albeit a more subjective one than those based mainly on grades and test scores - that was already taking shape when Black assumed his current job.
"What comprehensive review says is that we're going to look at the student in the context of the opportunities that the student has had, and we're going to form an overall impression," he explains. "I think it is absolutely the fairest way" to judge applicants for admission to Berkeley.
He terms Proposition 209 "a simplistic solution to a complex problem," adding, "I look forward to the day when Californians will realize that this is placing us at a competitive disadvantage, and we should at least exempt higher education." Meanwhile - thanks largely to comprehensive review and extensive outreach efforts - the numbers of admits from underrepresented groups have improved since the plunge that followed the ballot measure's enactment.
"I'm proud of the modest gains that we have made in spite of the constraints of Proposition 209," Black says. "And I hope that at some point in the future, California will be able to implement the federal model, which says that race can be one consideration among many in an admissions decision."
Berkeley's not Harvard . and that's a good thing
To Black, working under a microscope - or navigating what his boss, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Genaro Padilla, has called "the mine fields of admissions policy" - comes with the territory. And he resists any suggestion that he's faced significant "challenges" as the head of Berkeley's undergraduate-admissions office.
"It is a political position," he agrees, "and that's good. We are California's flagship university, and so the people of California should be interested in how we're doing it. We run a fair and open process, and I think we've demonstrated that again and again. And I'm very proud of it.
"I'm flattered if people think I have a challenging job. I think I have a fun and rewarding and, yes, at times demanding job. But that's the way it should be."
At least, that is, until next Friday, when he officially calls it a career. "I will confess to a certain amount of administrative fatigue," Black admits. "But when I got my first student-affairs job and signed up for [pension benefits] back in 1965, there was a blank on the form that said you're eligible for retirement in 2006. I didn't think that day would ever occur, but it has. And so I'm curious now. I'd like to go try some other things."
High on the list of "other things" is traveling to Pennsylvania and Maryland to see his four children - three of whom attended UC campuses, including Berkeley - and four grandchildren, one of whom isn't yet 2 months old. He's also looking forward to being able "to come home at night and not have to open the briefcase, and instead open a book."
And does he have any advice for his replacement, whoever that turns out to be?
"I certainly would tell that person that they are entrusted with this mandate that Berkeley has to educate students from all of California's communities," says Black. "We do it so well now, and we must keep doing it. There's no point in trying to make Berkeley mirror an institution that charges $45,000 a year to educate its students - a Harvard, an MIT, a Stanford, and so forth. Those schools do what they do very well, and they should continue to do that. But that's not who we are. And I'm confident that my successor will assure that Berkeley keeps true to its purposes of educating outstanding students from all economic levels of California."
Looking back at his 40-year career, he seems as sanguine about the past as he does about the future.
"My first job out of college was in an anti-poverty program. So I've always felt this is what I should be doing," Black says. "And wasn't I lucky that I got to make a career out of doing it?"