Q&A with Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Na’ilah Nasir

Kore Chan/Senior Staff

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The campus recently appointed UC Berkeley professor Na’ilah Nasir as the new vice chancellor for equity and inclusion after Gibor Basri — the first to hold the position — opted to step down. Nasir, who is set to begin her term Nov. 1, sat down with The Daily Californian to talk about how she plans to work with students, why leading the division of equity and inclusion is so challenging, and how her academic research will inform her new administrative position.

Editor’s note: The following questions and answers have been edited for space and clarity.

The Daily Californian: What are some of the most important things Basri worked on that you’ll continue in your term? How do you plan to build on his work?

Na’ilah Nasir: Gibor set an amazing foundation for this position in terms of doing lots of work around faculty retention, faculty diversity, setting up the Haas Institute (for a Fair and Inclusive Society), raising funds within the division. There’s been lots of reorganization around the multicultural student development offices and getting additional staff there. So I think there’s just been an incredible amount of work that has gone into this first eight years of this position. Because he was the first person in this position, as the inaugural person, he kind of set up a lot of systems and structures that are what the division of equity and inclusion are. So I’ll be building on that work every single day.

In terms of higher-order priorities, I’m trying to come in with a really open mind and listen and hear what folks within the division and what campus folks really want to see happen. I think that we’re in an interesting and unique time in terms of dealing with issues of equity and diversity and inclusion on campus in ways that have a new kind of urgency, given the national landscape, and so I’m excited about being able to really build on that sense of urgency and do some great work. … My style is very much to work collaboratively with people who are already doing work and know the terrain best.

DC: How do you picture yourself collaborating with people?

NN: When I said “collaborate,” I was referring to both folks within the division — the division is divided up into nine clusters, and each cluster is charged with a certain set of tasks and activities. … Obviously, each of those cluster leads, I’ll be talking with, so both the internal people, in terms of collaboration, but also collaborating across campus. One of the things that I’m excited about is also building and building onto connections between the work that happens in (equity and inclusion) and academic departments and (American cultures) and the research side of campus …

My work in — my scholarly work — some part of it has really looked deeply at the learning process and the way people learn and the kind of cultural and racialized aspects of learning. And one of the things that I write and think a lot about is the fact that the very way we learn is kind of inherently cultural and racialized, and so you can’t disconnect the academic side from the social side, or from the diversity and equity work.

DC: Basri has spoken before on how promoting diversity and inclusion is so challenging. Why is that?

NN: It’s challenging because we live in a world that is socially stratified in very deep, profound and pervasive ways. So to push for — we use these terms, right, to push for diversity and inclusion — means you’re pushing up against an entire system that our society runs on that privileges some and marginalizes others. And at the same time, obviously, we have a really strong ideology about equality and meritocracy, and so we have a vision, I think, as a country of a certain kind of equality. But our practices have not and our policies and our outcomes have not matched that vision.

So I think the work is hard because we live in a world that is unequal in lots of ways … but it’s what also makes it an opportunity, in a way, because if there’s any place that you kind of push back against these bigger societal mechanisms and create, in some ways, a microcosm that fulfills our national ideals, it’s a college campus, and it’s Berkeley. … I think we can do some really innovative things at Berkeley, especially again in this historical moment when a lot of issues of race and equality and gender and gender violence are really, really public and painfully public. A lot of innovation is born out of struggle.

DC: How is UC Berkeley doing in matters of equity and inclusion versus other college campuses?

NN: UC is under the constraints of Prop. 209, so I think on all the UC campuses, there’s a little bit of an additional challenge that some of the public universities have that our private peers don’t have. (Private colleges) can do explicitly race-based admissions programming in a way that we just — we have this legal constraint. … There are places to learn from. I think that UCLA has done a really great job of leveraging their alumni donors to support student scholarships. … There’s a lot of places that we can look to as we build up.

But I think the unique potential at Berkeley is both its tradition around being on the cutting edge of important social issues and … I think we have absolutely amazing scholars here. … We have an amazing group of scholars that care really deeply about issues of equity on all kinds of dimensions, and I think that gives us a set of resources that I’d like to see us really, really leverage.] How does our work here not just inform how we make the campus more inclusive? … How does it also inform and is informed by the research literature on these topic?

DC: How do you plan to measure success during your term as vice chancellor? Are there certain markers you hope to see?

NN: Generally, I think those types of metrics always involve something concrete, like retention rates (and) the demographics of our faculty staff and student communities. But there are also things like what shows up in our campus climate survey around how people feel to be here — do people feel whole and included and like this is their academic home? So I think some combination of kind of the harder outcomes and also the more experiential — how people experience and feel in the place — because those things are connected.

DC: What distinctive qualities will you bring to the position?

NN: I hope that (my legacy) will, at least, be connected to how we experience ourselves as a diverse community — how intentionally we all, as a campus community, support creating a space where people feel included and valued deeply. … There are the issues of representation, which are really, really important in terms of diversifying the numbers — that’s critical. But I think as you do that you also have to be really intentional around how people experience this place. So I hope that students of all backgrounds, when they graduate from Berkeley, feel like, “This was my academic home. This was a place where I learned, and I grew, and I was well taken care of.”

DC: How do you see yourself working with students?

NN: I’ll have regular standing meetings with certain student groups. I’m always available to meet with students and talk with students, so I definitely see myself as an advocate of students. And I think how that happens will kind of evolve. Other than kind of staying in touch by really talking with people, I imagine there’ll be opportunities to collaborate around specific things moving forward.

DC: Are there takeaways you’ve found from your academic research that you think will be particularly useful in this position?

NN: I mentioned already my work on learning and kind of the cultural aspects of learning, and I think that lens is really, really important. For me, issues of identity and culture and belonging are a core part of the learning process or a core part of the academic process, and so I think that underlying belief really informs my work. And I think a lot about how institutions and institutional structures and teaching and learning environments communicate messages to people about who belongs and who doesn’t belong, about who’s smart and who’s not, about who gets to have their needs met in a space.

I also think that how I do my academic work informs, at least, how I’m envisioning taking on this position, which is that I think best in groups with other people. … I love that point in a creative process where you come to something that comes out of a group where you’re bouncing ideas around, and something grows and gets bigger and takes shape that you couldn’t just sit down at your desk and create by yourself.

Contact Melissa Wen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melissalwen.