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Conference: UC-Berkeley’s Equity Chief Gibor Basri Says Data Collection Key to Diversity Push

Getting the University of California, Berkeley to incorporate a diversity plan into its overall strategic plan was a long and hard-fought battle, but the more critical work of implementing the plan and achieving results is still in its early stages.

Such was the impression left Tuesday during a presentation about the plan that was given at the annual conference of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, or NADOHE.

The conference, which drew about 180 diversity officers from across the nation, was held in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the larger annual conference of the American Council on Education, which drew close to 1,700 attendees.

Among the presenters at the NADOHE conference was Dr. Gibor Basri, an astrophysicist who holds the UC-Berkeley post of vice chancellor of equity and inclusion.

When not searching for the stars of the lower heavens, Basri has spent his time trying to get the university to institutionalize the way it seeks to discover academic stars from underrepresented populations.

His vice chancellor post, created in 2006, is an outgrowth of his efforts to make UC-Berkeley more inclusive at all levels, from student enrollment and graduation to faculty positions. To that end, Basri helped launch the Haas Diversity Research Center with a $16 million grant from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund of San Francisco.

But Basri concedes that — despite five years millions of dollars — it’s too early to see any concrete results.

Asked if it would make a discernible difference if his various diversity efforts were discontinued, Basri indicated that departmental-level diversity would face the largest disruption

“We were just at the point where we’re getting these strategic plans to the departments,” he said. “If the process got interrupted, that wouldn’t happen. If I stick around a couple years, it will happen.”

Diversity has remained stagnant over the years at UC-Berkeley, at least from a graduation standpoint. Black and Hispanic students at the university consistently graduate at significantly lower rates than their White and Asian counterparts.

A more stark reality emerges when you examine the faculty roles in the university’s physical sciences department. Between 1994 and 2008, between 150 and 200 individuals served in faculty positions. White men always have numbered in the low to mid-100s, followed by Asian men and White women, who have numbered from 16 to 21 and 8 to 19, respectively.

By comparison, there has never been more than a small handful of underrepresented minority faculty.

“You can see things haven’t change for the last decade or so, despite our best efforts,” Basri said of the statistics. “It’s pretty stuck.”

He noted that he himself represents one half of the African-Americans who teach in the  department — but he noted that even that statistic might be misleading because he is of Jamaican and Iraqi heritage.

Basri has convinced the university to adopt a diversity plan, which he said he hopes to implement at a departmental level.

Among other things, the plan defines diversity as the “variety of personal experiences, values and worldviews that arise from differences of culture and circumstance. Such differences include race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, language, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and geographic region, and more.”

It also calls on the university to recognize the “acute need to remove barriers to the recruitment, retention and advancement of talented students, faculty and staff from historically excluded populations who are currently underrepresented.”

In the coming years, Basri said he intends to focus on developing the Haas Diversity Research Center, which has seven endowed chairs and focuses on disparities in education, public health and economics, as well as on diversity and democracy, LGBT equity and disability studies.

Also Tuesday, the American Council on Education presented its 2011 Reginald Wilson Diversity Leadership Award to Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University. Cantor was recognized for “helping forge a new understanding of the role of universities in society” in which the university is not seen as an “ivory tower” but as a “public good, an anchor institution that collaborates with partners from all sectors of the economy to serve the needs of society more effectively.” 

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