In my last few weeks at UC Berkeley School of Law, I met with my favorite professor to thank them for mentoring and supporting me throughout most of my law school career. In an environment where most of the professors were standoffish and seemingly uninterested in mentoring students like myself, this professor stood out for making me feel valued.
At lunch, we discussed my professor’s recent tenure, which he had successfully secured in record time. He knew that I was a student leader in the Coalition for a Diversified Faculty, a student movement that demanded that the Berkeley Law School hire and tenure professors that were women and people of color. We were met with strong resistance by the Berkeley Law leadership. At that time, the tenured faculty was composed almost entirely of white men; there were two tenured white women and one tenured Black man. Two eminently qualified white women had just lost their tenure battles. There were no people of color even in the tenure track process.
The quality of our educational experience was compromised by this glaring lack of diversity among our teachers. Faculty diversity was, and still is, essential to meeting a basic student need. This is how we prepare students of color to see themselves as future leaders and for all of our students to become culturally competent professionals.
Over lunch, things got emotional. My professor, a white man, felt that the Coalition demands for diversity were a personal attack on his right to tenure. He cried, in public. I felt awful that I had made my beloved professor cry, but I also stood by my convictions that we as students had a right to teachers who reflected the diversity of California, our nation and world.
Today, I am proud to teach in UC Berkeley departments in which important efforts are underway to increase both faculty and student diversity. We have come a long way since I was a UC Berkeley student, and yet, there’s still much more we need to do to adequately represent the people of California.
As a teacher, I understand that I hold a sacred duty to my students, to serve as a mirror and provide other mirrors for their future selves. The iconic UC Berkeley professor and scholar, Professor Ronald Takaki, called this the work of “different mirrors.”
I stand in the classroom unapologetically in the fullness of my humanity, with all of my experiences as an Asian female immigrant. I have lived a life of both overcoming discrimination and working to advance racial justice and healing in our world.
I believe that students have a right to my teaching. They also have a right to the teaching of Black, Indigenous and Latinx professors who are still severely underrepresented in UC Berkeley classrooms. In 2003, 17.5% of UC Berkeley ladder rank faculty were nonwhite. By 2018, this number had only increased to 25.3%. While an improvement, the faculty diversity numbers are still not at all in pace with California’s racial diversity, which is 64% nonwhite.
As a lecturer, I have no formal role in faculty recruitment, hiring or tenure decisions. However, I use the power that I do hold to bring the diversity of our community inside the classroom. My students have a right to a faculty who represent the amazing and powerful diversity of our world, who can empower them to see themselves as future planning and public policy leaders.
I intentionally ensure that my guest speakers are Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and also white leaders working on the specific topics we study. This is not about tokenism but rather, about putting in the work needed to identify eminently qualified people who have a right to belong in our classrooms.
In the words of one of the world’s foremost poets, thinkers and my former Berkeley professor and mentor June Jordan:
“It seems to me that … this moment of ours, is just an obvious, excellent moment to declare for America, and for ourselves, a Manifest New Destiny … a destiny that will cherish and delight in the differences among us, a destiny that will depend upon the empowerment of the many … a destiny that will carry us beyond an eyeball basis of knowledge into an educated, collective vision of a really democratic, a really humane, a really really good time together.”
June Jordan, Toward a Manifest New Destiny
I believe, like June Jordan, that faculty and student diversity is the campus’ 21st century Manifest New Destiny. I see the joy that lights up in my students when they can see themselves in and/or experience the diversity of the people standing in the sacred and powerful space in front of the classroom.
Faculty diversity meets a basic need of our students. For our students of color to be fully seen and feel that they too belong in the classroom. For all of our students to see and experience the full range of humanity. This is how we fully equip all of our students to live and thrive in a multiracial world — by bringing the diversity of our world into our classrooms.