Examining the lack of faculty diversity in the UC Berkeley biology department

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Until recently, professor Tyrone Hayes was the only faculty member of color in the UC Berkeley integrative biology department — for nearly 30 years.

Nationwide, diversity in academic faculty at many higher education institutions falls short of being representative of their respective minority populations. African Americans represent 5.5 percent of college faculty nationwide, Latinos represent 4 percent, and Native Americans and Alaska Natives represent less than 1 percent, according to a report from the University of Pennsylvania School of Education.

Postdoctoral researcher and former campus affairs vice president of the Graduate Assembly Dax Vivid said that at UC Berkeley, there are fewer than 10 faculty of color in biology departments that have hundreds of faculty members.

According to Hayes, the integrative biology department hired a Mexican American professor this year. Hayes called this the “biggest accomplishment” in diversity the department has made in the 28 years that he has been on the faculty.

“There is a severe problem of an insufficient number of URM (underrepresented minority) graduate students and postdocs, and therefore of qualified applicants for faculty positions,” said Richard Harland, campus associate dean of biological sciences, in an email. “The intense competition to recruit them often favors the richer institutions like Stanford.”

A lone voice

Hayes earned his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1989. Hayes was the first Black person in the UC Berkeley integrative biology department to obtain his doctorate. His research involves observing the effect of the herbicide atrazine on frogs. He concluded that atrazine feminizes male frogs, a finding that was disputed by the atrazine manufacturing company Syngenta. The company allegedly attempted to discredit Hayes’ scientific reputation, according to the New Yorker.

Hayes is a former member of the Integrative Biology Diversity Committee, but he said he stepped down from his position after a three-day departmentwide retreat failed to address the issue of faculty diversity. Hayes said he had requested that diversity be discussed at the retreat but was given a 30-minute time slot, squeezed in after dinner and a beer-and-wine reception, to address the issue. The amount of time allocated to this topic was shorter than the 40-minute coffee breaks, Hayes said.

A faculty member of more than 20 years, Hayes said that aside from being invited to join the Diversity Committee, he has never been invited to join any review committee that makes decisions that impact the department. As a result, Hayes said, he has experienced many obstacles, including having to pay 10 times more money than any other professor to maintain amphibians in his lab. When he attempted to raise awareness of this issue, Hayes said he was told by former dean of biological sciences and professor of immunology and pathogenesis Mark Schlissel, “You can’t prove it’s because you’re Black.”

“He was thinking about liability,” Hayes said. “(It was the) ultimate old boys’ network. By not inviting me it’s an incredibly exclusive environment.”

Hayes said the general attitude he received was that he should just “be happy” to be a part of the faculty. He added that someone else in the department said, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

Hayes said that although this information seems to contradict the campus’s message about inclusivity and diversity, the fact that his face is plastered on “countless (campus) posters” only serves to support this issue. In a campaign to raise money for the construction of Li Ka Shing Center, Hayes said he was only invited to join because “they need(ed) my face.”

“I feel like they used me,” Hayes said.

According to Hayes, speaking up about the lack of diversity may be risky, especially for young assistant professors who aren’t guaranteed tenure.

“There is a cost to speaking up,” Hayes said.

The importance of diversity

The doctoral program for molecular and cell biology takes about six years to complete, according to the department website.

Students of color have a harder time obtaining financial support to get through graduate school because of their lower average economic status, Hayes said. They also face unseen challenges such as a lack of knowledge when applying to labs that are crucial for gaining experience in order to be admitted to graduate school, he added.

David Ackerly, associate dean of biological sciences, and Audrey Knowlton, biological sciences graduate diversity director, said in an email that students from “non-traditional backgrounds” may not know the value of reaching out to individual faculty members before submitting their applications for a particular research lab.

“Imagine you’re an undergrad, and you don’t know where to go to get assistance and you’re not comfortable going to office hours to get help,” Hayes said. “Then you grow up and it’s kind of true, there is this study group you never get invited to, and there are things that are being hidden that you’re not being included in.”

Hayes recalled a instance 20 years ago when a senior student with “objectively” the best grade in his class approached him for a letter of recommendation. According to Hayes, the student explained that Hayes’ class was the first time she had felt included in the right study groups and that she didn’t have anyone else to go to.

“If people do not see themselves represented in the ranks of a department, they are less likely to join it,” said Graduate Assembly President Kena Hazelwood-Carter in an email. “If you do not see someone ahead of you in the pipeline it is harder for you to envision yourself upon the next rung, let alone understand how to get there.”

An unlevel playing field

Campus sophomore Lizbeth Nuñez, who intends to major in molecular and cell biology, said she missed an appointment with immigration services to renew her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, status after her request to move her Biology 1B midterm to an earlier date was denied.

According to Nuñez, Biology 1B Admin Coordinator Brett Boltz emailed her saying she could not take the exam early. He added that she could opt out of taking the exam but that her final exam would account for 1.5 times its original value if she did so. Nuñez said she chose against this option and as a result had to change the location of her immigration appointment from Bakersfield, a farther location, to Oakland to accommodate the original midterm date. By doing so, Nuñez said she ran the risk of not getting her DACA status renewed, as she was unsure whether the Oakland location could accommodate her because of time concerns.

“I know other students are in similar shoes who actually struggle in recent politics,” Nuñez said. “(Faculty members) should be aware that we have this situation. They could be a little more compassionate towards us. … We just want support from others.”

According to Vivid, Nuñez’s situation demonstrates the need for a system that supports students who are disproportionately being impacted by events outside of their control.

“(We) need to find ways to level the playing field for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and increase diversity on our faculty,” said integrative biology associate professor Caroline Williams in an email. “Many of the struggling students I see as an undergraduate advisor are working to make ends meet, dealing with family issues, lacking money for supplies and textbooks, and generally hav(e) a much harder time of it than their advantaged and high-achieving classmates.”

The future of biology at Berkeley

The biology department attended another retreat Tuesday to discuss the future of biology on campus. On June 13, then-Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Carol Christ requested in an email to Jennifer Doudna, professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry and chair of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Biology, that she lead the committee in “convening a group of outstanding Biology faculty and advisers to consider the future of Biology at Berkeley.”

Harland, who was chair of the Future of Biology at Berkeley retreat, said diversity and inclusion were an “integral” part of many of the issues discussed at the retreat, adding that these topics were “unsurprisingly a repeated theme.”

The group of faculty members that was invited to attend the retreat, however, drew concerns from the Graduate Assembly. According to Hazelwood-Carter, the student organization submitted a letter to the organizers of the retreat with concerns that the group of faculty invited to the retreat did not include the diversity adviser nor any faculty of color.

“Many of the members of the group who have been included have stated their belief in the importance of (equity and inclusion),” Hazelwood-Carter said in an email. “However, without seeing more overt evidence of that in their process, it is hard for us to know the actual extent of their commitment.”

Contact Elise Ulwelling at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @EMarieulwelling.