Mind the gap: Strides toward diversity and inclusion within UC Berkeley’s philosophy department

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Olivia Staser/Staff

Content warning: Sexual violence and sexual harassment

Two years ago, John Searle, renowned philosopher and professor emeritus of UC Berkeley’s philosophy department, was accused by Joanna Ong, a graduate student in the same department, of repeated incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Ong filed a lawsuit in March 2017 against Searle and the UC Board of Regents, alleging sexual harassment, retaliation in violation of Fair Employment and Housing Act, wrongful termination against public policy and assault and battery.

According to Buzzfeed, Ong’s case was not the first time Searle had been accused of misconduct or harassment. Prior to this accusation, multiple students had reported incidents involving Searle to fellow professors or the Office for the Prevention of Harassment or Discrimination, or OPHD, but with little result from either party.

Claire Newfeld, a campus senior majoring in philosophy, recalled that accusations concerning Searle were known by many students at the time. The lawsuit’s allegations that a survivor had been unable to seek recourse from philosophy department administrators or officials concerned many students within the department — as did the lack of response from the department about the lawsuit. According to both Newfeld and Niko Kolodny, undergraduate faculty adviser of the department, the department did not release a statement about the allegations against Searle to students.

“The confidentiality rules are very strict,” Kolodny said in an email. “(The OPHD is) not supposed to discuss the issues with other faculty or administrators period.”

Six months after the allegations against Searle became public, a group of graduate and undergraduate students came together. They wanted the department to address the campus philosophy community in a statement about the SVSH allegations, end Searle’s contract with the university and incorporate SVSH support resources in course syllabi.

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While advocating for these goals, the students re-established the campus chapter of the national organization Minorities and Philosophy, or MAP. According to UC Berkeley alumnus and MAP spokesperson Joshua Lavine, the UC Berkeley chapter of MAP was first established in 2014, but gradually became defunct in spring 2015 because of ineffective leadership and funding shortages.

According to campus senior and MAP member Nisa Lim Goldberg, members of the re-established campus chapter hoped to gather a “massive presence” to increase equity and inclusion in the department. The allegations against Searle brought to light an often undiscussed issue within the philosophy department: the lack of diversity and inclusivity for minorities.

…the department did not release a statement about the allegations against Searle to students.

“When the Searle incident happened, (students) realized there were longstanding issues with the department,” said Paul-Michael Irvin, a campus alumnus who graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. “We decided re-establishing Berkeley’s MAP chapter would be the best way to ensure that students would continue to change the department for the better.”

Many minorities — such as women, students of color or low-income students — are often underrepresented in the department of philosophy at UC Berkeley. According to the universitywide demographic census hosted by Cal Answers, the average percentage of white, male-identifying individuals enrolled in the undergraduate philosophy major from fall 2016 to spring 2019 is 28.1 percent — more than twice the percentage of the demographic enrolled in the College of Letters and Science, which is 11.9 percent. White men make up the highest demographic of philosophy undergraduates on campus.

In contrast, 33.7 percent of women and 62.2 percent of students of color were enrolled in the major at UC Berkeley on average between fall 2016 and spring 2019. These figures are, across the board, smaller than those of women and students of color enrolled in the College of Letters and Sciences, which are 65.3 percent and 74.4 percent, respectively.

This disparity also extends into the faculty. The most recent report released by the American Philosophical Association for the 2013-14 academic year noted that among the total 24 faculty members within UC Berkeley’s philosophy department, 19 identified as men and five as women. What’s more, 23 identified as white with only one selecting the option “other race.”

White men make up the highest demographic of philosophy undergraduates on campus.

Students and faculty members felt the department resembles an old boy’s club. According to Kolodny, the department is making increased efforts for recruitment and retention to diversify its faculty ranks.

“Faculties (in the department) are predominantly white and overwhelmingly male,” Kolodny said. “There is definitely a feeling among most of the faculty — and certainly speaking of myself — that we would like to diversify the faculty.”

Some students in the department have expressed concerns that the lack of representation within an academic setting can lead to feelings of isolation and marginalization.

Goldberg, who is majoring in philosophy, described feeling lonely as one of the few women of color in her philosophy classes. She recounted being initially too intimidated to speak in discussions and how her male peers often talk over and interrupt the women in the class. She gained her confidence slowly in having discussions with members of MAP — many of whom reported similar classroom experiences.

Newfeld, also dissatisfied by her experience in classes, is now on the department’s equity task force. The team, originally formed in 2014, is made up of two faculty members, two graduate students and two undergraduate students who meet regularly throughout the year.

According to Shamik Dasgupta, the philosophy department’s equity adviser, the task force is charged with hosting events, such as round-table discussions that allow students to raise their concerns about inclusion to faculty members, as well as social gatherings to bolster a sense of community in the department. It, along with MAP, strives to target key trends in underrepresentation and welcome more scholars to the field.

Although the philosophy department has yet to release a statement about the allegations against Searle, students have made efforts to improve the department’s culture. In spring 2017 and fall 2017, MAP members met with the philosophy department chair and advocated for professors to include strict guidelines disavowing sexual harassment, as well as a list of campus resources available to support survivors in course syllabi. According to Irvin, many professors within the department now do so.

(Goldberg) recounted being initially too intimidated to speak in discussions and how her male peers often talk over and interrupt the women in the class.

Irvin said MAP, in proposing this initiative, sought to create ways to address SVSH within the department itself — not just through universitywide policies.

MAP’s current project is to investigate why so few minority students choose to major in philosophy. According to Kolodny, philosophy is seen by some as a high-brow discipline, one a student should only pursue if they had a natural talent for deciphering obscure texts. MAP seeks to change that perception by showing the public that philosophy is just the discussion of all kinds of ideas related to human nature.

According to Irvin, MAP at Berkeley is pushing forward a high school outreach program that introduces university-level philosophy curricula to high school students at Berkeley High School. The program aims to let high school students learn more about the possibility of philosophy as an academic path prior to college.

“The type of people who learn what philosophy is are a fairly narrow section of people,” Irvin said, adding that a redefinition of what philosophy can be is vital for increasing the diversity of scholars within the department.

According to campus senior Louie Campos, also a member of MAP, prospective students are often deterred from the field because they don’t identify with the philosophers and texts traditionally taught in introductory courses in college, which can make them feel excluded.

Newfeld believes that class discussions should focus more on acknowledging that many philosophers have clearly racist or sexist viewpoints.

A member of both MAP and the equity task force, campus junior Israel Garcia also stressed the importance of the department’s efforts toward diversifying syllabi.

MAP, in proposing this initiative, sought to create ways to address SVSH within the department itself — not just through universitywide policies.

Garcia sees rising recognition of the presence of minorities in philosophy in several course offerings that was introduced in the department fairly recently — namely, Philosophy 190 (Proseminar: Feminism and Philosophy) and Philosophy 117AC (Philosophy of Race, Ethnicity and Citizenship), first taught in spring 2013 and fall 2017, respectively. Since then, both classes have been offered almost every semester. According to Garcia, the graduate student instructors of those courses gave students biographies of philosophers who are minorities and thereby provided examples of minorities succeeding in the field.

Revised syllabi and course offerings, according to Garcia, help minority students feel more included in the material.

“It is for our own good to not continue ignoring these voices,” Garcia said.

For Garcia and many other students, it is a relief to know that their voices are being heard, and that the department is making an effort to diversify both its community members and its syllabi.

“Minority or ally, wherever you are on the intersectional spectrum of privilege and oppression, what’s important is understanding that we are all here to try and make things better for everyone and make philosophy accessible,” Goldberg said in an email.

Contact Tianyi Ding at [email protected].