UC Berkeley students, faculty, alumni fight closing of Institute for the Study of Societal Issues

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UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues provides a range of services, including office space for Ph.D. students, collaboration opportunities among students and staff, workshops with alumni and career guidance for aspiring scholars.

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Students, faculty and alumni from UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, or ISSI, are campaigning against the campus’s decision to shutter the program amid the COVID-19 budget crisis, a move that they allege undermines the campus’s commitment to members of color.

ISSI is a crossroads for the study of racial and social injustice, with research centers focusing on various fields such as health care and the study of the global right wing, according to the institute’s website. The institute also provides a range of services, including office space for Ph.D. students, collaboration opportunities among students and staff, workshops with alumni and career guidance for aspiring scholars.

To save ISSI, members have created a website that has a petition, which has gathered more than 400 signatures, as well as dozens of testimonials from current and former students.

“ISSI staff and programming provided me with a rare combination of mentorship, training, and vital financial resources all at the same time,” said ISSI alumna Miriam Solis in an email. “More importantly, ISSI was a community.”

Solis, who had her first child during her time at ISSI, said the institute became the only place where she could “meaningfully connect” with other women who were mothers and faculty hopefuls. Naniette Coleman, an ISSI graduate student in residence, said the program provides a vital shelter for underrepresented students and faculty on campus.

The closure of the institute comes as a logistical necessity, however, according to Linda Haverty Rugg, campus associate vice chancellor for research.

The program, Rugg said, had been consistently overspending its annual allocation over the past years, an allocation that has decreased across all programs since the Great Recession while ISSI’s spending stayed constant. A 2015 review, while praising the institute’s work, also reported that its finances were unsustainable.

According to Rugg, ISSI’s organizational model posed further issues, as the administration “kind of couldn’t handle” the large number of semi-disparate programs under ISSI’s headship.

Complications regarding the program’s home in a historic campus landmark also affected the decision, according to Rugg. After campus launched an Americans with Disabilities Act investigation into a porch no longer being wheelchair accessible, they discovered that the building was rotting through the foundation.

“It’s not about not supporting social justice research,” Rugg said. “It’s about not supporting a building that’s falling apart and not supporting a financial model that hasn’t been working.”

ISSI Associate Director Deborah Freedman Lustig alleged that campus administration did not adequately communicate with ISSI or attempt a “collaborative approach” before announcing the closure.

Lustig claimed that provided the same level of funding, ISSI would be able to sustain itself for more than seven years. She alleged that ISSI has been in communication with campus administration regarding the building’s ADA issue for two years and has experienced a general problem with campus deferring reported repairs.

“The building is university property, and it is the university’s responsibility to maintain it,” Lustig said in an email. “Given that there is such a scarcity of space on campus, it seems like it would be a good investment to do some minimal repairs on the building.”

If ISSI is shuttered, the campus plans to preserve several of its programs, such as the Latinx Research Center and the Graduate Fellows Program, Rugg said, either through independent funding or by moving them into an administrative unit capable of supporting them. The funding for these programs would be portioned out from the money previously allocated to the institute, Rugg added.

This dismantlement, however, would strip the “unique” interdisciplinary climate afforded by ISSI’s design, according to campus anthropology professor and ISSI Center for Social Medicine Co-Chair Charles Briggs.

“(ISSI) is a very special creative and critical environment,” Briggs said. “(We have) a unique coming-together of so many people with so many specific research interests and the spirit, conviction and love to think about new and better futures.”

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr.