At symposium, students discuss whether campus climate is hostile, exclusionary

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The UC Berkeley community gathered at Clark Kerr Krutch Theater on Friday to discuss issues of campus climate in response to critical results from a universitywide survey published last spring.

The daylong event featured a series of panels with students sharing their experiences of exclusion or discrimination on campus. The symposium was organized in part to address issues of hostile or exclusionary conduct on campuses presented by the universitywide campus climate assessment.

“We wanted to create an opportunity for people to get together,” said Liz Halimah, UC Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor of equity and inclusion. “Not so much to discuss the data … but the qualitative story.”

Between November 2012 and May 2013, the University of California conducted its first ever systemwide survey of faculty, students and staff in an attempt to gauge the climate on UC campuses. Participation rates were low — some 21 percent of undergraduate students responded to the survey — but its results indicated that nearly one in four individuals in the UC system experiences discomfort on campus.

Analysis showed that students from underrepresented ethnic minorities, as well as transgender and genderqueer individuals, disproportionately reported having negative experiences. Forty-two percent of undergraduate students on campus who reported experiencing exclusionary behavior said it took place in a class or lab. Thirty-nine percent said the experiences were in a public campus space.

For many students at the symposium, however, the results were more validating than illuminating.

“It was honestly really just an affirmation,” said one attendee, fourth-year student Jaime-Andres Flores-Marquez. “A statistical validation of what we already knew and lived.”

Black fourth-year student Samya Abdela remembered when a professor would not let her into a building, asking for her student ID to verify that she was a UC Berkeley student.

Halimah agreed that the survey results mostly served as numerical proof of students’ known experiences, but she said the data uncovered one surprising campus dynamic — a phenomenon she called the “awareness gap.”

Of the surveyed undergraduates, nearly 90 percent of Asian and white students perceived campus climate as “respectful” or “very respectful” of their black classmates. In contrast, only 47 percent of surveyed black students rated their campus climate positively.

“There seems to be one group of people who think that things are better off for the minority than they actually are,” Halimah said. “How do we improve campus climate? I think the first thing to do is make that acknowledgement in spaces like the symposium.”

Second-year student and panelist Kerby Lynch attributes this misperception to a tendency to glorify black students as athletes.

“For the most part, the campus represents black students as athletes,” she said. “That creates a really interesting dynamic. (Students) watch black people for entertainment, so it looks like they have a great life. … That’s really where the problems come from.”

Lynch, who spoke about being black, queer and male-presenting, was one of many students to talk about “intersectionality” — the reality of living with multiple, often socially conflicting identities.

During the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning panel, freshman Camille Fassett, who identifies as nonbinary, said she is bothered by offensive language she hears in the residence halls.

“I can’t control what people say or think, but I shouldn’t have to listen to that as I fall asleep,” Fassett said. “This is where I live. I’m not queer enough to belong in a queer space. But not straight enough to be in a cis, straight space.”

In many ways, intersectionality seemed to be the theme of the event, as students from every part of the socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, gender and sexuality spectrums converged to tell the qualitative narrative behind the university’s survey.

Halimah said the symposium is one of a series of events that will begin to tackle issues of campus climate. Fassett only asks one thing of UC Berkeley students as this dialogue opens.

“You don’t even have to understand,” she said. “Just listen.”

Contact Arielle Swedback at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @aswedback.

A previous version of this article stated Camille Fassett said she was not queer enough to belong in a queer spaces like campus’s LGBT-themed housing program Unity House. In fact, she wasn’t referring specifically to Unity House in that statement.

A previous version of this article also stated that Fassett identified as nongender-binary. In fact, she identifies as nonbinary.