The reactions of the campus and Berkeley communities to the grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner show that these decisions deeply affect the moral sensibility, sense of justice and political activism of many of us and deservedly so. It is unclear whether there is an uptick in the number of such incidents or whether they are just receiving increased attention, but what is clear is that they are long-running symptoms of the structural racism that has plagued our country since before its independence. As our campus community reflects and responds to these events, let us also take a moment to take stock of the racial climate right here at UC Berkeley.
UC Berkeley is not immune from the perceptions, biases and stereotypes that afflict American society. I am deeply conscious that the police killings not only of Brown and Garner but of a much longer list of unarmed people of color have brought a new urgency to engage in issues of campus climate and equity. Indeed, UC Berkeley’s recent campus climate survey showed that one in four campus community members personally experienced exclusionary behavior in the past year, such as being intimidated, ignored, harassed or bullied. By every measure, UC Berkeley’s African American students, faculty and staff consistently reported the lowest levels of feeling respected and supported. The survey also showed that the rest of the campus community overestimates the level of respect for African Americans on campus.
Therefore, it is important for all of us to pause and to reflect on and discuss how we can each contribute to reducing these social ills on our very own campus. We should willingly accept our students’ desires to express their calls for justice. We have a responsibility to preserve the right to free speech and our academic missions while also ensuring public safety. These rights and responsibilities have been part of the UC Berkeley culture, legacy and ethos since the founding of the Free Speech Movement here in 1964, which was itself in reaction to the national civil rights movement for racial justice.
As a university known for leadership, UC Berkeley should create a campus community that, as Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has suggested, “can serve as a model for the sort of society we are striving to build.” We must do our part to create citizens and leaders for our state and nation who are comfortable with difference and uncomfortable conversations, who question the status quo and who advocate for the disadvantaged or oppressed. We have a responsibility to create, through intellectual rigor, new knowledge about systemic inequities and their cures. This will inform public policies that move us toward a society in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive.
The Division of Equity and Inclusion, with funding from the chancellor and in partnership with many others around campus, is leading a new campus climate initiative that has the goal of creating a climate where all students, faculty and staff are respected and valued. Please keep an eye out for a more formal announcement of this initiative and other opportunities to participate, including our innovation grants in campus climate. Of course, the campus climate initiative is only a small part of what must be a large and multifaceted continuing effort. It is only through the engaged participation of students, faculty and staff that we can become the change we want to see.
UC Berkeley’s pursuit of excellence is inextricably tied to its public mission of improving society at large. Let us remember our responsibility to take action — whether through engaging in constructive and thoughtful dialogues, holding nonviolent demonstrations, advocating for public policy change, working in our communities or conducting research — to make our campus and society more just and equitable.
Gibor Basri is the vice chancellor for equity and inclusion and a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley.