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Berkeley, UC system, look at improving campus climate

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MAY 08, 2014

Tasked with the daunting challenge of altering a campus environment where one in four in the UC Berkeley community reported experiencing exclusionary behavior in the past year, campus administrators, students and others are seeking to enact lasting change. The question is how.

The issues of race, gender and identity have drawn the attention of campus administrators and student leaders alike after the first-ever UC systemwide campus climate assessment, released in March, which affirmed the existence of tensions that many see as a stubborn reality in need of transformation.

But this change will be hard sought. One in five UC Berkeley undergraduate survey respondents considered leaving the school permanently in the last year. Underrepresented minority students reported higher levels of discomfort than their counterparts.

The campus has until the fall to gather a plan to counter experiences of discomfort on campus, after which it’ll take its ideas to the UC Board of Regents.

“It’s interesting to see so much from a survey but also know that you need more,” said ASUC President DeeJay Pepito. “And not really know so clearly how to go in that direction.”

Issues that affect campus climate spread far and wide. UC Berkeley’s climate has been called into question over the years after the vitriolic debates over divestment from companies affiliated with Israel’s military last spring and in 2010, a Berkeley College Republicans “Increase Diversity” bake sale in 2011 and various controversial Greek events, including a haunted house decoration at a fraternity in 2012 that some said resembled a lynching.

According to the survey, 42 percent of undergraduate students on campus who reported experiencing exclusionary behavior said they encountered these experiences in a class or lab. Thirty-nine percent said it happened in a public campus space.

Students from underrepresented minorities experience hostility on campus disproportionately, as do transgender and genderqueer individuals. Most survey respondents indicated that the overall campus climate was respectful of white people and least respectful of African American and Hispanic/Latino students.

Some administrators and students engaged in analyzing this data say the numbers line up with representation, arguing that minimal diversity at UC Berkeley is the biggest challenge to improving campus climate.

Despite these limitations, the campus has begun sharing the survey data with the UC Berkeley community, encouraging discussion on where it can better an environment that has often been pegged as “hostile.” Amid ideas of town halls and altered freshman orientations, administrators are hoping to develop a long-lasting solution.

“It’s a real opportunity for change,” said Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Gibor Basri in an interview with The Daily Californian. “We may have thought this all along,but here is the data that can be acted upon.”

Perceptions of respect

This data is a pool of responses from some 104,000 individuals across the university. The voluntary survey was administered online from November 2012 to May 2013. While a quarter of the UC Berkeley population overall responded to the survey, only about 1 in 5 undergraduates on campus participated.

After this data’s release at the regents meeting in March, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced a bulked-up diversity orientation for freshmen and others and funding for a program meant to generate new ideas to improve inclusiveness on campus. He also formed a committee that is facilitating the dissemination of climate data to groups across campus.

“When it comes to ensuring that every member of our campus community feels welcomed, valued and respected, we can never be complacent,” Dirks said in a statement to the Daily Cal.

Survey data show that most racial groups tended to feel less respect than students of other ethnicities assumed they felt. This disparity indicates a lapse in awareness between racial groups on campus, administrators say.

Students and others discussed this perception gap at a presentation for undergraduates at the campus Multicultural Community Center meeting in April. Shanelle Nebre, an undergraduate from the Filipino community, said undergraduate perceptions of campus climate can often be shaped by ASUC elections. She suggested that many students feel they need a senator from their racial group to be noticed.

“It’s very unfortunate that if we don’t have an advocate for our community in the ASUC, then we’re not going to get paid attention to,” Nebre said.

Outgoing ASUC president Pepito said a coordinated effort is needed to address the problems highlighted by the outcome of the survey.

“This shows that this has to go larger than resource support for undergraduates,” Pepito said. “It’s really as a community as a whole at UC Berkeley — how are we addressing these issues together?”

Critical mass remains elusive

Despite these efforts, many argue that campus climate problems will persist as long as diversity remains at its current level.

UC Berkeley has struggled to maintain a critical mass of underrepresented minority students since 1996, when California voters passed an initiative banning affirmative action from the admissions process. After the passage of this initiative, Proposition 209, the UC admission rate for underrepresented minority students plummeted, and the numbers have remained low ever since.

UC Berkeley increased the number of resident Hispanic and Latino admitted students this year, but African American representation dropped as a proportion of the total resident admits.

“We can do all of the education we want, but if there’s no critical mass of various groups there’s going to be a discomfort level,” said Billy Curtis, director of the campus Gender Equity Resource Center, at the undergraduate presentation.

Hope for an altered admissions system, however, seems far off for the university. Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right of state voters to ban the consideration of race from public university admissions. In light of the decision, UC President Janet Napolitano wrote that the university would pursue diversity with “one arm tied tightly behind our backs” in a Washington Post op-ed.

On the state level, legislators attempted to reverse Prop. 209 by placing affirmative action on the upcoming November ballot but failed to garner enough support.

“The fact that Prop. 209 is currently in place and it’s preventing a critical mass of students of color on campus (means) they will continue to feel disrespected on this campus,” said ASUC Senator Destiny Iwuoma, the only undergraduate representative on the climate committee other than Pepito.

Moving forward

During the summer, while most students are away, the campus will dig further into the data to unearth more specific findings. The campus will have to work hard to bring students who have not personally experienced exclusion into a discussion on climate, according to Associate Dean of Students David Surratt.

“Some folks who probably have had the privilege of not having to engage in the conversation will not engage in the survey data,” Surratt said. “So it’s going to be up to us as a university to develop some action items.”

Working within the legislative boundaries, the campus will look to build a strategy over the next semester to improve the climate for the student body. The campus’s next steps include targeting residence halls and revamping student orientation, but it has yet to devise a comprehensive action plan.

“The big moment is actually still in front of us,” Basri said.

Contact Somin Park and Libby Rainey at [email protected] .

MAY 11, 2014