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Prop. 209, COVID-19 hiring freeze complicate UC diversity hiring efforts

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MAY 13, 2020

For years, UC Berkeley has been working to address low faculty diversity through hiring initiatives despite difficulties posed by California’s ban on affirmative action.

Recently, the UC system has invested millions of dollars into testing and implementing programs to increase faculty diversity. Despite these initiatives, the financial impact of COVID-19 has caused the UC system to cease nonessential hiring efforts, prompting some to worry that faculty diversity will be impacted.

Diversity by the numbers

Proposition 209, which passed in 1996, prohibits California public institutions such as the UC system from giving preference to individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or national origin in hiring and admissions. This ban on affirmative action “eliminated” some of the strategies the university previously used to increase diversity, according to a 2016 UC report on enhancing diversity within the UC system.

“We can’t select faculty just for demographic characteristics, but we can see if their individual characteristics will contribute to the faculty in meaningful ways,” said David Ahn, chair of the UC Berkeley Academic Senate committee on diversity, equity and campus climate. “There are some ways in which having to work around Prop. 209 has made the process of diversity in hiring more deliberative.”

The level of minority representation at UC Berkeley is not lower than that of peer institutions, Ahn added, although it is significantly lower than that within the general population. Ahn attributed this to “long-standing pipeline problems.” According to a report from the UC President’s Task Force on Faculty Diversity, these issues include a drop in representation of minorities at each stage of the “pipeline,” from high school to college, from college to graduate school and from graduate school to faculty.

According to the campus Division of Equity and Inclusion website, as of 2016, the percentage of faculty from underrepresented groups was significantly lower than that of the student body. In 2016, 18% of undergraduate students came from underrepresented groups, compared to 9% of faculty members. Women were also less represented among faculty than in the undergraduate student body by 21%.

In 2017, 44.1% of new ladder-rank hires, or those with or eligible for tenure, were women and 17.1% were from underrepresented groups, according to a 2018 UC Office of the President, or UCOP, press release. The press release adds, however, that gender and racial faculty diversity differs significantly among disciplines. Women and racial minorities are less represented in science, technology, engineering and math fields than in non-STEM subjects, the press release states.

A lack of faculty diversity can lead to lower student retention, according to ASUC Senator-elect Chaka Tellem, who will be representing the Black community on campus.

“When you see someone who looks like you doing the work you want to do, you feel less isolated, and retention definitely increases,” Tellem said. “Having low faculty diversity also lowers the impact of classroom discussions — there are certain things you can’t teach without having had that experience.”

Current ASUC Senator and Academic Affairs Vice President-elect Nicole Anyanwu agrees, adding that while seeing representation among faculty can be empowering, lack of representation can be discouraging. Anyanwu also said professors who lack an awareness of diversity are not able to accommodate students from diverse backgrounds.

UC initiatives

Since 2016, the UC system has received $2 million annually in state funding to support equal employment opportunities for faculty, with an increase to $2.5 million in 2019. With these funds, the university created the Advancing Faculty Diversity, or AFD, program, which promotes the development of “innovative and focused” campus projects aimed at increasing faculty diversity, according to a UCOP report.

The report adds that in 2018, the university expanded the AFD program to include funding for faculty retention and campus climate initiatives. According to the UCOP press release, the UC system has pledged to commit more than $7 million annually toward initiatives aimed at increasing faculty diversity and improving faculty retention.

To distribute the funding, UCOP created a competitive grants program in which campuses submit proposals to test faculty diversity initiatives. These initiatives are intended to develop practices that can be adopted more broadly across the UC system, according to the UC Berkeley Office for Faculty Equity and Welfare, or OFEW, website.

“We know that students’ academic performance and career aspirations are enhanced when faculty of similar backgrounds serve as role models,” said UC President Janet Napolitano at a UC Board of Regents meeting in September 2018. “Teaching, research, innovation and service thrive when all members of our community are welcomed and supported. That’s what we want at UC.”

Campus initiatives

In 2018, three UC Berkeley colleges collaborated to create the Initiative to Advance Faculty Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Life Sciences, which received $500,000 in funding from the competitive grants program, according to OFEW. This initiative is ongoing and has piloted the use of diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, statements during the hiring process.

Under the initiative, a candidate for a faculty position is required to include a DEI statement in their job application, outlining their history with diversity and their plans to advance diversity on campus. The colleges’ Rubric to Assess Candidate Contributions to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — which is one factor considered in the hiring process under this initiative — looks for knowledge of DEI, track records in DEI and plans for advancing DEI.

“The statements are a way to assess where faculty’s values lie when it comes to diversity, and I think that’s a huge asset in trying to build the campus culture that we want,” Anyanwu said.

Anyanwu added that creating a campus culture of diversity and inclusion requires ensuring that faculty members are culturally sensitive, which allows students from diverse backgrounds to feel more comfortable asking for help and engaging in class. Additionally, the statements allow for non-obvious factors of diversity such as disability and sexual orientation to be considered, Anyanwu said.

As part of the UC system’s commitment to equal opportunity and diversity in hiring, UCOP spokesperson Sarah McBride said, campuses have flexibility in deciding whether to use DEI statements. McBride added, however, that the UC Academic Senate recently recommended to UC Provost Michael Brown that assessment of contributions to diversity become part of all faculty reviews in the UC system.

Additional hiring strategies to improve inclusion include targeting and defining faculty recruitment searches differently, according to OFEW. Devoting resources to hiring in cutting-edge fields of research can increase the diversity of the candidate pool, the OFEW website states, as can focusing on hiring nontenured faculty.

Cluster hiring, a strategy in which hiring efforts to fill multiple positions are grouped together, has also been shown to increase the diversity of the hiring pool, according to Benjamin Hermalin, UC Berkeley’s vice provost for the faculty.

“We project accelerated growth in the number of ladder-rank faculty who will join UC in the next decade, in large part to educate our growing student enrollment,” Brown said in the UCOP press release. “We need to seize this opportunity to make progress on the efforts to increase faculty diversity.”

COVID-19’s impact

Amid the pandemic, UC administration has instituted a systemwide hiring freeze for nonessential roles in order to ensure that the UC system can dedicate resources to current faculty and staff, that it does not “grow” its workforce and that it addresses the current economic insecurity, McBride said in an email.

All hiring searches under the UC Berkeley College of Engineering and life sciences departments have already been completed and resulted in appointments, according to Hermalin, although many other searches have been discontinued. Cluster hiring initiatives have also been postponed, according to Ahn, as have other campus hiring efforts.

Ahn added that the people who are least able to “absorb the cost” of COVID-19 are those who are impacted the most.

“I hope people don’t underestimate the effect on diversity and equity that the financial impact of COVID will have,” Ahn said.

Alexandra Feldman is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.

MAY 14, 2020

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