Survey done: Now it’s time to transform our campus climate

William Pan/Staff

At last week’s campus climate symposium, students, staff and faculty gathered to discuss the state of the campus climate at UC Berkeley. Ostensibly, the campus climate survey was the impetus for the symposium. This survey had a few surprising — but mostly unsurprising — results.

What was not surprising was that one in four survey respondents indicated they had experienced some form of exclusionary behavior, such as being intimidated and feeling isolated, ignored or harassed. Also not surprising was that historically marginalized and underrepresented groups reported more exclusion than others.

What did come as a surprise, however, is what I call the “awareness gap” — the difference between how one group perceives the respect felt by other groups. For example, nearly 90 percent of whites and Asians said the climate for African Americans is respectful, while only 47 percent of African Americans rated the climate as respectful.  There seems to be a real disconnect between the lived experiences of the excluded and the perceived experiences of the excluded. This is one of the biggest challenges of our campus climate at UC Berkeley: One group feels that everything is fine, while the other feels isolated and ignored.

It was very illuminating, therefore, to hear the stories shared by panelists at the symposium that put the survey data into context and made it real and tangible. I heard panelists who felt conflicted about their connection to UC Berkeley. Many felt pride in their accomplishments and commitment to academic excellence while also feeling frustrated and even angry at being excluded from study groups, left out or talked over in class discussions, being called overly sensitive, gender stereotyped or sexually objectified.

What are we to do when the empirical data and the shared narratives both tell us the campus climate is in immediate need of improvement? I would argue for a three-pronged strategy.

First, we need to increase the critical mass of our most underrepresented populations, starting with African American undergraduates who make up only 3 percent of the student body but closer to 7 percent of the state population. The campus Division of Equity and Inclusion has done analysis of UC Undergraduate Experience Survey data that shows that as the critical mass of a population increases, the level of respect felt by that group increases as well. To paraphrase campus professor john powell, who does not capitalize his name and was the symposium’s keynote speaker, you know you’ve reached a critical mass when you stop looking for and counting the number of people like you. This makes perfect sense, of course. If I see more people like me, I feel more comfortable.

To increase the critical mass, we need more coordinated recruitment and outreach efforts between the student-run recruitment and retention centers and our campus admissions and precollege outreach offices. Working with our alumni clubs, we also need more merit-based scholarships targeted at underrepresented students to attract those students, who often get better offers from private and out-of-state universities.

Second, we need to improve the climate for those who are here — and now. This means learning from and teaching one another to recognize exclusion when we see it and to do something about it. There are numerous ways to gain this knowledge and skill, such as through open-enrollment workshops, trainings, and American Cultures Engaged Scholarship courses. In fall 2015, campus professor Rudy Mendoza-Denton will offer a new course on intergroup dialogue that will give students the language and capacity for dialogue in a diverse society.   

The third part of our strategy: We need to have healthy dialogues. These dialogues should be like the kind we had at the symposium — about race, gender, sexual orientation and ability differences on campus, as well as how many of those intersect. And those dialogues need to happen with people in the room with whom we don’t always agree.

It’s tempting, perhaps even easy, to say these problems are too big to tackle. What UC Berkeley needs is a cultural change, and anyone who’s ever taken a sociology class knows that it can take a generation. I argue, however, that it is the small actions that collectively add up to the biggest change. Take a moment to talk to a prospective student, to listen to the views and experiences of those different from you, to speak out when you see exclusion or harassment or to share your experiences — even the hurtful ones — to help others understand their impact. One panelist asked, “Is this survey to inform or transform Berkeley?” I argue the survey has done its job: It has informed us. It’s now up to up to us — collectively and individually — to transform UC Berkeley into a place where everyone is respected and valued.

Elizabeth Halimah is the assistant vice chancellor and chief of staff for the Division of Equity and Inclusion at UC Berkeley.

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