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.

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  • Fair Right

    May be the authors of this article should investigate the case of the African American woman who was offered a tenure track faculty position in Energy and Resources, Environmental Science area about a decade ago. Her offer mysteriously went puff. It is not that there are no great URM scientists to take jobs at Cal. But, even when they succeed in tough competition with hundreds of people, folks in Cal work really hard to ensure that they never join the faculty. When you are wondering about the lack of diversity in the faculty at Cal or similar places, look at the faculty who actively work to prevent that from happening. Dr. Hayes experience with only lip service being paid to diversity and the environment being unnecessarily hostile and tough to POC is very correct. This is is how Cal and similar institutions stay dominantly white over the years.

  • D.Plorable

    Article needs some context. Like what is the profile of the undergrad program, what it’s looked like over the years. Once upon a time in the DC published data on race by different departments/degrees, it was pretty segregated and if memory serves at one point in the 90s there were zero blacks in EECS. There was once an article on GPA by degree too, I recall one of the hardest graders was one of the Bio degrees at B- (no surprise how as you get softer curricula the GPA goes up!)

    So let’s just lower the bar, that will solve everything. But would you do that for the football or basketball team?

    OK here’s a positive note, but look where this thing is located. Not in the Bay Area or LA.


  • Left Unsaid

    Identity uber alles.

  • garyfouse

    What about Asians/Asian-Americans? I don’t see them even mentioned. Could that be because they are, in fact, represented in faculties?

    Also, you can’t force someone to study fields they are not interested in. It seems the issue here is that black and Hispanic students have no interest in biology or other sciences.

    Maybe, just maybe, if so many students were not wasting their time studying ethnic studies, gender studies and gay studies, more might be drawn into something more worthwhile?

    Just a thought.

  • California Defender

    “The importance of diversity”

    An entire section titled the “importance of diversity”. Yet it fails to explain why it’s important.

    Graduate Assembly President Kena Hazelwood-Carter tries by stating “If people do not see themselves
    represented in the ranks of a department, they are less likely to join it.”

    That’s just racism.

  • ShadrachSmith

    The diversity of the faculty should mirror the diversity of the specimens. Where are the crustaceans?

  • thompson_richard


    • thompson_richard

      just checking. Now I know.
      Please don’t send me any more requests for donations so that your editors won’t have to take a pay cut.

  • thompson_richard


    • thompson_richard

      just checking. I was asked by a Chinese student here at UCSD if I thought he’d get into medical school. I answered him “if you took Bio-Engineering with a B+ you’ll get in.”
      There are only 11 percent of undergrads at Cal who are white male. They’d have a definite uphill battle if they set out to oppress the other 89 percent.

  • thompson_richard

    I was asked by a young Chinese man whether I thought he’d get into medical school. Are you a UCSD student? Yes. Well, you’ll get in because you’ve taken the right class, Bioengineering. Today only 11 percent of undergraduate students at Cal are white males. If they row, work at Top Dog, and major in Biochemistry, they’ll have to spend a disproportionate amount of their waking hours oppressing the remaining 89 percent.

  • zzz

    They should hire some creationists to increase diversity and then not expect anything of the the creationists other than showing up and having some sort of opinion, it seems to work elsewhere.

    • lspanker

      Best post yet… :O)

  • lspanker

    Just out of curiosity, is anyone else experiencing this site grinding to a halt because of all the adware and popups that the Daily Cal developers have incorporated into this site? I have just this single page open in Google Chrome on Toshiba laptop running Win 10 and per the built in Task Manager I’m using 750MB…

    • BerCaley

      Booby, have y’all ever considered ad blocking? Probably not but hackers do love idiots.

    • California Defender

      Get a reputable ad blocker. They work wonders here and elsewhere.

      As an added bonus, I grin each time I read the Daily Cal’s note that replaces the blocked ads:

      “Please consider turning off your ad blocker or donating to The Daily Californian. We are a nonprofit student-run newsroom, and we rely on advertising revenue to help support our coverage.”

      No soup for you, Daily Cal!

  • rychastings

    diversity /= quality

  • That Guy

    Why not close “ethnic studies” and transfer the students to biology?

    • Marcos Hernandez

      Well, the story and issue is about diversity among the faculty, not the students, but hey – don’t let facts get in the way of your cheap shots at ES. Learn to read.

      • lspanker

        Can somebody explain what type of marketable skills are taught in Ethnic Studies courses?

        • That Guy

          Ethnic studies majors are eligible for really cushy jobs as heads of inclusion and diversity which pay better than most STEM jobs and require no work at all. You do have to invest in “ethnic” clothing and hairstyles because you should be able to spot the inclusion/diversity head at 100 paces. However if they miss this opportunity they become bums. To be safe it’s best to major in ethnic studies and minor in PE to if you miss the inclusion/diversity track you can become a gym teacher.

      • California Defender

        It is about students. The article suggests that non-white faculty would attract more non-white students.

        It goes along the line that professors of one race are unable to effectively teach and guide students of another race. A clear argument for the benefit of segregated schools like Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, SC State, AL State, UT El Paso, UN Reno, etc.

        • D.Plorable

          The undergraduate program in Electrical Engineering was majority-Asian by the 80s and probably even before that. There were no Asian faculty. I had a conversation about this with professor from the B-school of that era who knew all about it and was primarily concerned with “diversifying” the PhD program in the B-school, he said they plead with the brightest Asians but when they saw what kind of $ they could make right away with an MBA they said phooey on the PhD. The same thing was going on at EE and probably elsewhere too, even a BS as the video game/PC wave of tech kicked into gear that was like a license to print money. I do know for sure that CS had a thing where they recruited women who already had a non-tech BA degree to come get a CS BS which of course meant stiffing some number of male applicants to then-as-now one of the most competitive fields.

      • That Guy

        Reading comprehension seems to be something you missed along the way. “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,”

  • Anonymous

    Check back in a few years to see if the Mexican-American Assistant Professor gets tenure. This person rose to the top in a very expensive selection process, but if things go as normal, he will have to put up an extensive fight to get tenure and may not be successful They hire minorities and women – use them up and let them go. This is not a matter of quality. Quality is out there. White males breeze through the tenure process, minorities and women don’t.

    • California Defender

      “White males breeze through the tenure process.”

      Funniest line I’ve heard all month! Clearly, you’ve never spoken to a white tenured professor in your life (or the countless ones who were denied it).

  • Anonymous

    This behavior is so ingrained (entrenched – I don’t know which is stronger), that it will be impossible to change. In it’s entire history the Botany Department (prior to the Biology reorganization) had one woman faculty member (who they managed to run out of the department) in it’s entire history on campus. And the “retreat” doesn’t sound like it did anything to help the situation. It is still very much an “old boy network” with a few token women thrown in. Don’t expect any changes in the foreseeable future.

    • California Defender

      After checking the department’s website, 40% of the faculty are women.

      Do you work for CNN? You’re a great fake news writer, Anon.

  • Oakley

    “As a result, Hayes said, he has experienced many obstacles, including having to pay 10 times more money than any other professor to maintain the animals in his lab.”

    I’m having trouble following this. Is it possible that the quote is out of context or missing something?

    • Disqusted

      The university sent him a large bill for maintaining his frogs.

  • flashsteve

    By focusing on these few examples, the article fails to address the basis of the problem. Kids of color enter our school system disadvantaged by low income, poor parenting, lack of emphasis on education, weak schools, etc., and never catch up. Therefore, they are underrepresented in colleges, in graduate schools, etc., and the pool of faculty recruits is tiny. We have been hearing about this issue for two generations now, with only modest gains. Until our society confronts the very uncomfortable issue of kids being born into situations with poor prospects for success, we will read about it in the next generation’s Daily Cal.

    • Oakley

      I had read somewhere that one cannot mention single parent families as a negative because it is culturally insensitive to do so.

      • lspanker

        The Gen 3 militant feminists (many of them upper-middle-class entitled white women, FWIW) are especially hypersensitive to the idea that children thrive best in a caring 2-parent family, because it undermines their assertion that a government check is an adequate substitute for a man in the house…

        • Nunya Beeswax

          Beyond that, there’s a basic denial of how parenting works. Two parents who both work full-time cannot manage childcare. Either one has to stop working and stay home with the kid (until he reaches school age, at least) or both of them have to switch to a more flexible work schedule and work out some sort of trade-off for childcare.

          The well-to-do have the option of hiring nannies, but that’s not a realistic alternative for most people–and I’m not really convinced that it’s a good idea to offload parenting onto a third, non-related party who does it for money.

          • lspanker

            Two parents who both work full-time cannot manage childcare.

            You realize you’re challenging the whole Supermom worldview with that one, right? The idea that women have limitations in real life, just as men do, is not especially popular in contemporary feminist circles…

      • flashsteve

        You and Ispanker (I just got the meaning haha) are both correct. Anytime we bring up ‘cultural’ barriers to success, we are in danger of being called racist or classist, or whatever. Even saying positive things about some Asian cultures can be risky. That doesn’t make any of it inaccurate. I agree that politicians and minority activists will not touch the issues either. It is up to folks on the ground floor (ministers, some teachers, maybe some non-ideological non-profits) to just say, hey kids, if you want to succeed, don’t create babies until you are at least out of high school and in a viable relationship, and encourage your kids to respect education and all that it can benefit you.

    • lspanker

      True, but don’t ever forget that politicians and bureaucrats believe the solution is kicking the can down the road and blaming someone else. Their goal is to churn these kids through the system so they can get their state and federal funding, then blame “racism” on their predictable failure.

    • D.Plorable

      The alleged experts and elites have been beating this horse for 50 years. Which is why at this point about the only thing they can do is shriek “racism” and deny the evidence contrary to their doctrines (latest is “restorative justice” and “disproportionate suspensions/expulsions”) such as the prophetic work of the Moynihan Report in 1965. The underlying social statistics for black Americans were better before they started all the “reforms” and the measures that were supposed to fix everything actually made everything worse.

      Somebody is doing something about it right now–and getting tremendous push-back from the various establishments relevant to the issue:


      In a previous generation another independent educator, Marva Collins, tried to do the same thing in Chicago. The establishment defeated her ultimately and her school closed, interesting to read her various obits and see how they “spin” the story.

      Today there is an “Exhibit A” of all this in Oakland. The last educrat the fools handed it to blew $15 million on admin overhead which just happens to be the amount they came up short on the budget. (then he blew town and got the job in charge of the schools in DC!)

      This whole state is now a giant welfare plantation for the production of a mestizo class whose function is to feed, breed and vote Democrat. Good luck figuring out some way to pay for this as diabetes is emerging as endemic and the tech billionaires themselves incessantly wail that the education system as it stands fails to produce the work force they need. Gee, it’s only half the state budget.

  • lspanker

    Is there any evidence to support the idea that race or ethnicity are being used as selection criteria for biology professors? If so, present it so the issue can be investigated in the open. If not, give it a rest. People who constantly make claims of racial discrimination need to put up or shut up with their accusations…

  • Steve Carter

    It is the quality not diversity that counts!