Campus announces initiative to improve campus climate for black students

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Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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Campus officials introduced far-reaching plans to improve the campus climate for black students, faculty and staff in a campuswide email Thursday.

The UC Berkeley African American Initiative, announced by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele, seeks to achieve a “critical mass” of black campus community members through launching a campaign, fundraising and outreach to reduce feelings of isolation.

The low representation of black students at UC Berkeley gave impetus to the initiative. Three percent of the campus’s undergraduate student body, 4 percent of its graduate students and 2 percent of its faculty are black, compared with 6 percent of the state population.

A campus climate survey conducted in 2013 showed that black students feel the least respected of any group on campus, that they are routinely excluded from study groups and that nonblack students largely underestimate this sentiment. The survey also found that undergraduate graduation rates among black students lag behind those of other groups on campus.

“Underrepresentation makes a big difference in how students feel and how they engage with the community,” said Na’ilah Nasir, a professor in the African American studies department and the Graduate School of Education, who will begin her term as the campus’s vice chancellor for equity and inclusion in November. “This is a public acknowledgment of the importance of these issues.”

Gibor Basri, the current vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, said the initiative has been in the works for several years. His division began discussions with Dirks and Steele in fall 2014, and he later incorporated the Black Student Union’s February demands of the chancellor into the initiative.

“It’s about time,” said UC Berkeley senior Kristiana Ekokobe. “It’s a stepping stone. It’s a good start in trying to fix the campus climate.”

A major aspect of the initiative includes plans to create a $20 million endowed scholarship fund for black undergraduates. The fund would help the campus compete with other universities that provide scholarships to black students beyond the reach of UC Berkeley, said Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande in an email.

But the initiative plans on reaching beyond institutional changes to begin overhauling campus culture. According to the initiative, the campus will launch a campaign in spring to “change the widely held perception that UC Berkeley is not a welcoming place for African Americans.”

Apart from implementing diversity training for graduate student instructors and faculty, the initiative will also hire counseling professionals and a coordinator for student-run recruitment and retention centers. Additionally, the initiative will introduce an undergraduate course on intergroup dialogue and create a component of the wellness course for freshman, which will address inclusion.

“The eventual hope is that the state will be properly represented in a broader sense,” Basri said. “This is a public university that should be serving all the people of the state.”

Le Grande said that promoting greater diversity on the campus will positively affect the economic future of California. He said that many top employers have been critical of the state for not having the educated, diverse workforce it needs to compete in the global market.

The announcement of the initiative comes in time for the Cal football game Saturday against Grambling State, a historically black university. Campus spokesperson Roqua Montez said the weekend is part of Black Alumni Week, which is built around celebrating the return of black alumni and faculty to campus.

Dirks will appoint an implementation task force — composed of faculty, students and staff, and chaired by the vice chancellor for equity and inclusion — as insurance that the work gets done and does not “fall by the wayside,” Nasir said.

Contact Frances Fitzgerald and Ivana Saric at [email protected].