I-House must prioritize diversity in leadership positions

Illustration of a diverse group of students conversing in front of UC Berkeley's International House
Aishwarya Jayadeep/File

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A few weeks ago, I received an email notification from the International House announcing the hiring of its latest executive director, Shaun Carver. I clicked on the email and read through the director bio before slamming my laptop shut in disappointment.

I-House is a multicultural living and learning residence that houses approximately 600 residents from more than 70 countries who attend UC Berkeley as full-time students, researchers, visiting scholars and exchange students. In its 90 years of existence, I-House has had five executive directors; Carver is its sixth.

According to I-House historical records, no woman or person of color has ever served as executive director of I-House. As an I-House alumna, this makes me frustrated — to say the least. After a summer defined by the continued leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement and national cries for racial equity, especially within the UC system — which named its first Black president, Michael Drake, in July — the conclusion of I-House’s search for a new director seems to perpetuate the status quo.

The board’s decision feels tone-deaf given this inflection point in history and also out of touch with the UC system’s own recent calls for diversity as a priority in hiring. Furthermore, it seems to undermine existing plans set forth by UC Berkeley’s own Affirmative Action Plan and Placement Goals, suggesting that these may simply be plans with no intention of being implemented. More importantly, this decision seems a failure to fully understand the history of I-House, which was designed to be a place of inclusivity.

In the 1920s, when the idea of an International House was first proposed to the UC Berkeley community, it was not well received. In fact, there was opposition to the idea of men and women living in the same house, xenophobia and hostility toward foreigners and astonishment that people of color would live integrated with white folks.

These sentiments were especially prevalent near fraternities and sororities, which, at the time, excluded foreigners and people of color from membership. That is why the site of I-House on Piedmont Avenue holds such significance: The facility was founder Harry Edmonds’ attempt to “strike bigotry and exclusiveness ‘right hard in the nose.’ ” And given the sheer size of I-House, especially in comparison to nearby residences, that message resounded.

As a resident, I took pride in this history of I-House, a pioneer of its time. But today, that pride is waning.

Recently, I conducted a basic web search of LinkedIn profiles, public articles and professional pages to find pronouns that suggest the gender identity of each I-House board member. With respect to gender identity, of the 24 board members, only four individuals identify with she/her/hers pronouns; 18 use he/him/his; two are unidentified because no information could be found on them. Currently, it seems only four out of 24 members on the board identify as womxn.

This, combined with the past homogeneity of I-House’s executive directors, is enough for me to conclude that I-House fails to sufficiently address diversity in leadership positions.

I find it incredibly ironic that despite I-House’s proclaimed mission to foster “leadership skills for a more just and peaceful world,” it appears it has failed to promote individuals who represent the diversity of I-House, including womxn and people of color, to leadership positions.

And this is only in regard to gender and racial diversity. Diversity goes well beyond race and gender: It includes ability, religion, socioeconomic upbringing and so forth. When governing a residence hall of hundreds of international students per year, these perspectives are essential to making better-informed decisions. From designating spaces for moments of worship to celebrating various countries and cultures over coffee hours in the Great Hall, even the most mundane decisions have a profound impact when making I-House a home.

To address this, I call upon UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, chair of I-House’s board of directors, and her office to provide insight on the policies and practices that led to the selection of the board and executive director. I also ask for the campus Division of Equity and Inclusion to issue a task force to investigate if the policies and practices used by I-House align with UC Berkeley’s initiatives to integrate “equity, inclusion, and diversity into all aspects of university life.” Lastly, I ask for full transparency from I-House, which it can provide by releasing data on its recruitment process as well as the candidates interviewed for all executive leadership positions.

I-House’s existence is more than an act of resistance; it is a rejection of racism, xenophobia and sexism. Today, this bold and unapologetic defiance of a status quo that enables injustice is more important than ever.

We must protect all that I-House represents and hold it accountable when it fails to live up to its own mission and expectations. For so many international students and scholars, this is their first experience with American culture and a window into the greater UC Berkeley community. Our message needs to be clear: You belong here, especially at the decision-making table.

Only when individuals and institutions are held accountable can they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and pave a better path forward.  That is why it is imperative that I-House is held to account by addressing its lack of diversity in leadership positions and defining a clear path toward amending this. The experiences of future residents and the UC Berkeley community depend on it.

Sonya Salimy is a former I-House resident. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2014 and earned her master’s degree from the University of Freiburg in 2017.