UC Berkeley McNair scholars and directors struggled to find what went wrong after a denied federal grant application dissolved campus’s 30-year-old research scholarship that prepared underrepresented undergraduates for higher education.
Campus’s funding application was denied by a matter of points, according to program director Juan Esteva Martínez. The majority of point deductions occurred in the “objectives” and “needs assessment” sections. Notably, the application failed to include relevant institutional data when prompted, Esteva Martínez alleged.
“The problem with these grants is that they’re detailed,” Esteva Martínez said. “They’re very specific in terms of what they expect from you.”
Esteva Martínez said he was “worried” when campus Dean of the Graduate Division Lisa García Bedolla and Assistant Vice Provost for Graduate Education Denzil Streete, new to the program in 2020, took over writing the application this cycle.
Prior to writing the proposal, Bedolla and Streete said they provided all data submitted in previous cycles and modeled their report using federal information sessions, the previous successful application and expert review.
“We were confident, when we submitted it, that we had put together a strong, competitive proposal,” Bedolla and Streete said in an email.
Bedolla and Streete were confused by the results of their application, which received full credit for the “rationale” section they said had similar criteria to the failed “objectives” category. The final score was mere points below the appeal cutoff, Esteva Martínez said. Bedolla and Streete added that there is no way to receive additional feedback.
The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to multiple requests for comment as of press time.
Campus McNair scholar Giovani Pimentel-Solorio speculated that alleged mismanagement of the program in recent years led to the application’s failure. Pimentel-Solorio alleged the campus program administration lacked clear communication and organization, which allegedly caused confusion and discouragement among participants.
In response to these allegations, Esteva Martínez said internal organization is independent of the grant proposal due to double-blind grading.
Pimentel-Solorio also alleged he felt pushed to avoid taking a gap year to meet the McNair program’s 30% quota for enrolling students in graduate school.
“They need time to reflect on what they’ve (allegedly) done wrong,” Pimentel-Solorio said. “I hope the next time they set up the program they are able to set up a better administration that will listen to our voices.”
Campus McNair scholar and senior Dana Brenklin alleged it could take years to restore the original caliber of campus’s McNair program after the next funding cycle opens in 2027, which she called a “devastating” loss.
Recent participants are in a “limbo” while the future of their research publications remains up in the air, according to Brenklin. Campus paired participants with graduate mentors under the Getting into Graduate School and Mellon Mays programs, though Brenklin noted the latter has limited options for STEM and the transition likely left students behind.
“With the amount of funding UC Berkeley has, I feel like there should be some way they could save this program,” Brenklin said. “This program was a kind of a safe haven for marginalized students who wanted to do research.”
Bedolla and Streete said campus supplemented federal funds with Graduate Division funds while the program was active. They added that 12 other schools were denied funding renewal this cycle.
Campus School of Public Health professor Kristine Madsen mentored a McNair student six years ago who went on to receive a master’s and doctorate degree. She emphasized the importance of programs focused on underrepresented youth in academia to create a “pipeline” in research.
“If (the mentee) hadn’t been a part of that program, he wouldn’t have been able to advocate for himself in the way he has and he wouldn’t have been able to believe in himself,” Madsen said. “If we don’t have very intentional ways of reaching students who aren’t exposed, we don’t change anything.”