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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Anti-bias law has backfired at Berkeley


Chancellor Robert Birgeneau (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

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.

– 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.