UC Berkeley engineering school appoints new dean to promote equity

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FEBRUARY 15, 2012

UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering is striving to increase gender and ethnic diversity among its students following allegations of discrimination last semester, although efforts are progressing gradually.

The college garnered much attention last October when a California Watch article pointed out instances of sexism in the campus’s male-dominated engineering student population. In a December letter, college dean Shankar Sastry admitted that the representation of women and underrepresented minorities was “markedly low in comparison to the rest of the Berkeley campus and to our engineering peers” and planned to dedicate efforts toward increasing diversity.

According to a demographic summary of gender and racial distribution released this month, out of the 3,052 students enrolled in the college in 2010, only 20 percent were female. Additionally, underrepresented minority students made up only 7 percent of the college in 2010 — compared to a campuswide 16 percent — with American Indian and Pacific Islander students at less than 1 percent.

To help rectify the lack of diversity, the college has been focusing on K-12 students in the hopes of attracting a broader range of applicants, according to Karen Rhodes, executive director of marketing and communications for the college.

“We are constrained from using ethnic or gender quotas by law, but what we can do is look at the current numbers and improve them,” Rhodes said, adding that there is “strong potential” for increasing the college’s acceptance yield rate.

Rhodes said the college is also working on planning partnerships with student groups and inviting students from “low-performing schools” for overnight stays.

Additionally, Oscar Dubon, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, began a new appointment Jan. 1 as associate dean of equity and inclusion for the college. Dubon is charged with overseeing and coordinating departmental efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented students and faculty, among other duties, according to the December letter.

Perhaps because the efforts are concentrated more on recruiting future students than on the existing student body, however, tangible results of the college’s efforts to increase diversity have been largely unobserved by current engineering students.

Ryan Shelby, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who spearheaded diversity efforts on behalf of student organizations representing minorities, said the college has been trying to address the issue of diversity since 2009 but with a stagnant task force and “unfulfilled objectives.”

He said Dubon, with whom he has met, is “passionate about fixing the problem” but has no budget at the moment.

Shelby said the college should begin setting hard numbers for percentage increases of underrepresented students.

“They’ve made a lot of cosmetic changes, setting up committees — I want to see change actually happen,” Shelby said. “I hope it does happen.”

The lack of diversity is not quite as pressing an issue to all, however. Claire Thompson, a freshman studying electrical engineering and computer science — the major with the smallest percentage of female students, according to the demographic summary — said she has grown somewhat used to the gender disparity in her classes.

“When you first walk into the room and see you’re one of the only girls, you think it’s kind of weird,” Thompson said. “But after a while, you get used to it.”

Contact Amy Wang at 


FEBRUARY 18, 2012