In August, Dr. Gibor Basri assumed the new position of vice chancellor for equity and inclusion at the University of California- Berkeley. Basri, who reports directly to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, oversees a staff of approximately 50 and a $5 million budget. His responsibilities include fund raising to support new programs, as well as collaborating with faculty, students and staff to expand current programs. His initial focus is in recruitment, retention and promotion of historically excluded ethnic minorities.
An expert in “brown dwarves,” stars that cool down to planetary temperatures, Basri is an astrophysicist, who has taught at Berkeley for 25 years.
He has served on numerous diversity committees and advisory groups before and since the passage of Proposition 209, the controversial voter-approved measure that banned the consideration of race and gender in college admissions. Basri has been chairman of a faculty workgroup of the UC regents’ study group on university diversity, a fact-finding committee that has been gathering data on the status of diversity efforts since Proposition 209 passed in 1996. He also has been active in encouraging minority students to pursue the sciences.
A New York native, Basri grew up in Fort Collins, Colo., where his Jewish father taught physics at Colorado State University and his Jamaican mother taught ballet.
DI: What are your goals?
GB: The primary thing I hope to accomplish is to get the same kind of networks in place that the majority now have. We need to let people in to the university, have them be successful and have them stay. It starts with those outside campus having the networks to come to the university. It includes the mentoring networks the majority now has. It also includes the networks that when students go out looking for jobs, whom do they call? I want to make sure those kinds of networks are working for everybody. Since the semester began, many people on campus have told me how glad they are that this is a full-time position.
DI: How do your experience and skills as an astrophysicist translate to your new job?
GB: Both involve complex systems, and I’m an analytical person.
DI: Shortly after Dr. Birgeneau became chancellor in 2004, he criticized the lack of Blacks and Latinos in the student body. He said that instead of finding “camaraderie across cultural lines,” he saw “too much alienation, mistrust and division.” Did you agree with his conclusions?
GB: The things the chancellor pointed out were all true. This is a very loaded subject, and he could have been brave about it or he could have been cagey. He chose to be brave. A lot of us on campus appreciated his honesty because it meant he wanted to do something to move forward.
DI: Since Proposition 209 was passed, how has the university community tried to reverse perceptions that minorities aren’t welcome?
GB: If you have too few people of color, they will feel isolated. We’ve tried to get a composition of students to better reflect the population of the state. We have programs on campus to make people feel welcome. Older students reach out to younger students. And our students reach out to high school students. Of course, we need to do more.
DI: How did your growing up in a place that lacked ethnic diversity influence your views on equity and inclusion?
GB: I was the only African-American in my school. I was generally accepted and treated as an individual. I probably had a better experience than if there had been a group of African-Americans. I always felt different though, and my family sometimes didn’t get invited to things because we were mixed.
DI: Why did you apply for the vice chancellor position?
GB: I became so increasingly involved in diversity work that I spent half my time on committees and writing proposals. I was also the acting chair of the astronomy department during 2006-07. It was time to either jump into the diversity work with both feet and down pedal on teaching and research or to return more fully to teaching and research. Then I realized it was an opportune time to get something new done at the university.
DI: Faculty members work long, unpredictable hours teaching and researching. Why did you get so heavily involved with diversity efforts throughout your career, knowing it would consume even more time?
GB: Had I been born 20 years earlier, my opportunities would’ve been very different. I came to Berkeley on a postdoctoral fellowship and have been here ever since. I have always wanted to get more people here whose backgrounds, like mine, meant they hadn’t always had the opportunities.
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