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UC Berkeley Web Feature

Star hunter
Gibor Basri, UC Berkeley's first vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, avoids grand rhetoric while thinking big about diversity and the future

By Cathy Cockrell, NewsCenter | 19 July 2007

— Astrophysicist Gibor Basri has devoted more than 25 years not only to probing stars in the cosmos but to helping discover and academically assist star-potential students and teachers. Soon after joining UC Berkeley's astronomy department in 1982, he became active in the faculty effort to encourage and support local students who show promise of going far in math-based fields.

That track of his career, like the universe, has been slowly expanding since, as he has ventured deeper into "attracting the best talent to UC and ensuring that those individuals thrive," as he puts it. He has served on diversity-related bodies of every dimension, from small campus scholarship committees to a UC systemwide task force and a national research-university consortium.

Gibor Basri
Gibor Basri (Peg Skorpinski photo)
A quarter-century in the diversity trenches has now landed Basri in a role he never imagined might one day exist, much less that he would fill. The week of Aug. 13, he will move to California Hall to serve as UC Berkeley's first vice chancellor for equity and inclusion (VCEI).

'The job is huge'

His mission, as he sees it, is to "take a holistic view" of the campus to see how well UC Berkeley is serving and tapping the talents of California's diverse populations, especially those who, by dint of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability have been underserved or underrepresented.

For students and faculty, on whom he has mostly focused to date, the task is to analyze the "academic pipeline" all the way from the state's K-12 school system to the professorial ranks, to understand where the "flow," as he calls it, gets jammed — where talented individuals, for reasons that have nothing to do with potential or desire, get stopped. Then the challenge is to devise measures large or small, permissible under the law, to make it possible for the best talent to advance.

"The empirical case is very clear — that there's been very slow movement in the faculty area," particularly for Native American, Chicano/Latino, and African American scholars, Basri says. The current wave of faculty retirements (expected to last until about 2015), along with state funding for faculty hiring to accommodate enrollment growth, offers a narrow window of opportunity, he notes. "If you haven't substantially changed things by then, you've lost your best chance."

For UC staff, data already in hand gives a clear picture: "Those in low pay grades are quite diverse, but as you go up the scale, they get less and less diverse," he says. "So that means we need to look at staff's career paths, how they advance, how they see their careers, what stands in their way, what opportunities are they  not taking advantage of."

He says the job facing the VCEI "is huge; it's not like one person could do it. So my role is not to do it." Rather the work is to "coordinate" and streamline wide-ranging campus efforts on equity and inclusion, he says. "It's everyone's responsibility to deal with these issues."

Prevailing in the long run

Basri brings to his new role the skills and habits of mind of a scientist and star hunter. An expert on extracting information on stars by analyzing the light they emit, he holds data, analysis, and metrics in high regard. The latter is required, in the "equity and inclusion" context, to evaluate institutional climate and the effectiveness of attempted interventions, he says. "In any science, you may have a guess about what's going on, you have hypotheses or theories. The only reason science moves forward is that at some point you check them against empirical facts and studies."

'It's not a question of whether the world or universities are going to be diverse. It's only a question of how it happens....'
Gibor Basri

By training and temperament Basri is patient, inclined to approach a monumental challenge by "figuring out what's a realistic rate of progress." In astronomy, he notes, "we don't have any hope of seeing changes occur in the basic structure of stars; it doesn't happen on a human time scale. You just have to be patient and see enough of an orbit."

He believes his long practice in thinking "on many time scales" simultaneously — short, moderate, human, and "very unhuman" — is helpful when addressing issues of diversity, where the ultimate solution "is certainly longer than my time span." Short of total success, however, "you can institute a program and see whether in two years it made the predicted difference."

Although Basri eschews grand rhetoric in favor of language like "predicted difference" and "tangible progress you can hang your hat on," he also speaks with rock-solid confidence about prevailing in the long run. "It's not a question of whether the world or universities are going to be diverse," he says. "It's only a question of how it happens, and whether it happens through a difficult, lengthy process that gets everybody upset and delays the benefits we'll get, or if it happens in a more thoughtful way that many can embrace."

Multicultural beginnings

Basri's appreciation for the benefits of multiculturalism goes back to his earliest years, in a family whose story he characterizes as the quintessential "American story." His father, a Jew from Iraq, and his mother, who was Jamaican, met at International House–New York while attending Columbia University. "They came without much in the way of support," he says. "But they both were going to college" and held academics in high esteem. When he was three the family moved to Fort Collins, Colo., where his father taught physics at the state university and his mother taught dance.

'I love the way astronomers send our minds out into the universe....'
— Gibor Basri

Being raised bi-racial and Jewish in a small western city at mid-century was formative. So was going abroad for a year each to Burma and Sri Lanka as a child (while his father was on Fulbright lectureships) and doing a "slow meander" across the globe en route. "Living in third-world countries certainly opened my mind to a much broader perspective on humanity" and "how very differently things can get done," says Basri. "Those two years of my childhood were very broad; the rest was Fort Collins."

As a child, he began gazing at the night sky through a small telescope, and being transported to outer space by science fiction. Pinned to the wall of his neatly organized office in the Campbell Hall is a photo of sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke, whom he met in Sri Lanka. Of his chosen field he says: "I love the way astronomers send our minds out into the universe and actually gather data that tells what's really happening. We range over the whole universe and also through all of time. It's tremendously empowering and awe-producing to do that."

Given his affection for astronomy, Basri "wasn't really looking for a career change," he says. "But I kind of executed half a career change already, just by how much I've gotten involved in diversity issues. So it's not a wrenching transition."

A necessary project

One of Basri's first priorities as VCEI will be to decide with other campus leaders which existing programs should be moved to his unit. "I figure that 80 percent of this job is going to be meetings, at first." Calling himself "a collaborative sort of person," he says he likes to ascertain what stakeholders think, "to go get their ideas before I move. I like to go around it a couple of times — to the extent possible," he adds.

It's not lost on Basri that the mission he's chosen to accept is "fraught with political danger," that efforts to promote equity and diversity can get caught in "a swirl of emotions, agendas, histories, complexities. There's nothing simple about it."

And yet, to Basri, it's a necessary project. "The bottom line is that the university's mission is to serve the people of California, to generate new ideas and new leaders. And that doesn't mean some of the people; it means all of the people," he insists. As a public university that relies on public support, it's "obviously a mortal danger if the people come to perceive the university as really not serving their interests." If the university fails to fulfill its mission, "it becomes an irrelevant institution."

But Basri prefers to think in terms of opportunity rather than danger. "We have this incredibly diverse and rapidly changing state, and the rest of the world is experiencing this as well," he says. "It's incumbent upon us to figure out how best to navigate the 21st century. It's going to look like California everywhere; it already does in many places. So our mission is to make the most of our reality."