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Old and new: A history of Black UC Berkeley faculty

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The increase in Black ladder faculty on campus comes from increased efforts in diverse hiring and retention.


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FEBRUARY 22, 2023

Over the past 40 years, UC Berkeley has more than doubled its number of Black ladder faculty members.

Currently, campus has 80 Black ladder rank faculty, according to Fabrizio Mejia, UC Berkeley Associate Vice Chancellor. However, despite this notable growth, diverse hiring and retention are still issues, according to associate professor Ula Taylor from the campus department of African American studies.

Though campus’ total proportion of Black staff has declined from 13% in 2008, campus has a more diverse faculty than the UC system as a whole, according to Mejia: Black staff represent 9.1% of campus’ staff, compared to the UC system’s 7.5%.

“From the 1980s to the (2000s), there were usually only a couple Black ladder faculty hired in a given year,” Mejia said in an email. “In the last few years, that pattern has shifted to around 5-7 Black ladder faculty hired in a given year which has been the major driver in the increase from earlier decades.”

Ladder faculty have been campus employees for several decades and so tend to be the longest serving faculty, according to Mejia. He added that because of this, their numbers are slow to change. Even so, the number of Black ladder faculty has more than doubled in the last 40 years.

According to Mejia, this is partly due to campus efforts like cluster hires, which contribute to a diverse applicant pool, outreach during the hiring process and making an open search a requirement when looking for applicants. 

When Taylor began teaching at UC Berkeley 30 years ago, she said, there were less than a dozen Black female faculty. Now, she notes, there are at least 35 Black women in the faculty. Departmental hiring practices and the pathways departments rely on when hiring can both affect the diversity of applicants, according to Taylor.

However, Mejia added that “there is still a long way to go.” According to Taylor, another difficulty in increasing faculty diversity is retention.

“It’s one thing to have diverse hiring practices, it’s another thing to be equally committed to retaining that faculty,” Taylor said.

Some reasons for this difficulty include campus failures to match competing offers from other universities and Black faculty feeling isolated in their departments, according to Taylor.

Personally, Taylor said, she never had to experience such a reality in the African American studies department, but has heard from colleagues in other departments about feeling unwelcome.

“I’ve had a particular experience at Cal and that has been shaped by being a faculty person in the department of African American studies,” Taylor said. “If I were in another department my professional life would be totally different, and I think it’s important to say that I haven’t experienced some of the tensions and some of the remarks that put people on the defensive.”

The orally stored histories of 15 trailblazing Black campus faculty may provide a clue about how to improve retention.

Consisting of 15 interviews, the oral history center’s collection of the lives and experiences of some of campus’s first Black professors and faculty is stored in a collection, according to Paul Burnett, director of the campus oral history center. Their stories are extremely impactful, Burnett said, since they tell the story of campus and national history around the period of the Third World Liberation Front strikes of 1968 and the civil rights movement.

It was this original cohort of Black faculty, hired before affirmative action, who changed much of campus’ ideals and research narratives, according to Burnett.

These faculty challenged current departmental norms in the humanities and social sciences by forcing scholars to amend the “pathologization of blackness,” Burnett said. He added that these individuals forced fields like sociology to begin looking at research and knowledge gained within the broader historical context of society.

“One of the big interventions by members of this group had to do with challenging the social sciences,” Burnett said. “They were really crucial players in that conversation about the transformation of the humanities and social sciences generally.”

The Oral history library catalogs stories of pre-1970s Black faculty from diverse fields. It includes musicians and artists Olly Wilson, Henrietta Harris and Margaret Wilkerson, as well as architect William Russell Ellis. Additionally, it includes sociologists Harry Edwards and Troy Duster, and African American studies scholars William Banks and Reginald Lanier Jones.

The catalogs are not limited to the arts and humanities, with the experiences of scientist William Lester, engineer Robert H. Bragg and mathematician David Blackwell recorded in its archives. The historians also spoke with Mary Perry Smith, the co-founder of the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement program.

This collection of stories, according to Burnett, shows some of the work done to shape campus and the social sciences as they are today.

Contact Rae Wymer at 


FEBRUARY 22, 2023