After more than eight years as UC Berkeley’s first vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, Gibor Basri intends to step down at the end of the academic school year, leaving behind him a multifaceted legacy.
When Basri first stepped into his office in California Hall in August of 2007, it was barren except for a table and desk. Now, his office is but one part of what Basri built from scratch: the Division of Equity and Inclusion, which is the entity charged with resolving systemic inequalities at UC Berkeley. While defining the terms of his position and setting the standards for those who will follow, Basri brought his scientific background to the forefront of campus diversity issues, applying data to a topic that is typically intangible.
Basri will return to the astronomy department as a professor of the graduate school once he steps down.
For former chancellor and fellow physicist Robert Birgeneau — who helped select Basri — the facts driving science are straightforward in ways that the human aspects behind inequality are not.
“For people who are nonscientists, physics is the most difficult, most complicated thing that you’d stay as far away from as possible,” Birgeneau said. “Actually, from my point of view, compared to complicated human interaction, physics is pretty simple.”
According to Basri, the topic of inequality is not only less understood than astrophysics but also much more complicated.
“People say, ‘I’m not a rocket scientist,’ ” Basri said. “Well, rocket scientists have it easy compared to this subject.”
From astrophysicist to vice chancellor
Though Basri had little administrative experience prior to becoming vice chancellor, he had firsthand exposure to inequality from an early age. He identifies as coming from the “American melting pot” — his mother was Jamaican and his father an Iraqi Jew, and the three spent several years abroad in developing countries during his childhood.
After he was brought to UC Berkeley in 1979 as a fellow of the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, Basri and collaborators were the first to announce the existence of brown dwarfs — substellar objects too large to be planets and too small to be stars. Since joining the faculty in 1982, Basri served on several committees such as the Graduate Affirmative Action Advisory Committee and the Academic Senate’s Committee on the Status of Women and Ethnic Minorities until eventually assuming his position as vice chancellor.
Alongside chemistry professor and co-chair of the Diversity Project Coordinating Committee Angelica Stacy, Basri presented to Birgeneau in 2006 — just two years after Birgeneau had assumed his chancellorship — the committee’s findings, in what would soon lead to the Berkeley Diversity Research Initiative.
“In spite of Berkeley’s liberal reputation, we realized that there were a whole lot of issues connected to diversity and inequality,” Birgeneau said.
This initiative was paired with the creation of a new leadership position at the vice chancellor level, with the hope of addressing the topic of equity across every significant division, which spurred a national search for the right person to fill it. With much encouragement from his peers, Basri threw his name in the mix.
“We were finalizing the job description, and I thought, ‘Wow, I pity the poor person who has to do this,’ ” Basri said with a laugh. “Everyone was taking a chance, including me, as to whether I was the right kind of person for this. I think, luckily, I turned out to be.”
A data-driven approach
Throughout his tenure as vice chancellor, Basri has embraced the use of data in an attempt to quantify the impact of inequality on campus, spearheading the first systemwide campus climate survey and establishing a comprehensive plan to address these issues.
As the division flourished from three people to more than 150 employees, it developed the UC Berkeley Strategic Plan for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity, from which many initiatives have come to fruition since 2009.
Part of this initiative’s objectives was to identify a unit of the division tasked with the assessment and management of staff diversity. Basri said for his first 25 years on campus, the number of faculty members of color was completely stagnant.
“The number was incredibly flat, so you have to ask what was happening,” Basri said. “In physics, when we see something like that, we say there must be a strong hidden force that forces this equilibrium. What could that be?”
In spring, the findings of the Campus Climate Survey were released, revealing that 26 percent of respondents reported exclusionary, intimidating or offensive conduct, 10 percent of whom felt that the conduct interfered with their ability to work or learn. According to Director of Staff Diversity Initiatives Sidalia Reel, assessing the needs of the staff is not as easy as it sounds.
“Part of what we’re doing is follow-up with each of the departments on campus, (but) it’s not just a peanut butter spread of one solution for everybody,” Reel said. “We want to be able to customize whatever actions we take.”
At the heart of Basri’s commitment to data-driven research is the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, backed by a $16 million donation from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. The institute is operated by seven research clusters, each committed to a separate issue of disparity.
In addition, he also spearheaded the Multicultural Education Program, in which students, faculty and staff participate in several workshops that look at societal issues through a lens of diversity.
‘Quiet yet effective’ leadership
In an email to the campus community, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks characterized Basri’s impact as “quiet yet effective,” a description typically not associated with a figure of authority. But Dirks’ description is widely agreed upon by those who are close to Basri.
“He isn’t a bombastic person and has never felt the need for great public acclaim in what he’s been doing,” Birgeneau said. “That position in particular needs somebody who can bring communities together.”
Though Basri recognizes that he leaves his position while many of these issues still remain unresolved and disputed, his supporters speak highly of his leadership style and hope that his successor will be of a similar disposition.
“Gibor’s touch is not directive but rather Socratic. He says, ‘Here’s the data; how do you bring it to bear on your work?’ ” said psychology professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. “Then there’s the people who can’t or won’t or don’t recognize that there’s a problem. It was a very courageous thing to step into that fray in a leadership role.”