UC Berkeley Has a Plan to Boost Black Student Numbers After Affirmative Action Ban

The university will invest $20 million in scholarships and recruitment.

(Photo: Facebook)

Sep 11, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Two decades after its governing body eliminated affirmative action from its admissions policies—and its African American student population plunged—the University of California, Berkeley, has launched an ambitious $20 million program to bring more black students to campus and help the ones who are already there feel welcome.

In an open letter released late last week, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said the university’s new African American initiative is designed to increase and sustain a “critical mass” of black undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty as well as create an endowed scholarship foundation that can help sustain that population.

Dirks’ launch of the initiative comes six months after members of Berkeley’s Black Student Union complained of feeling socially and academically isolated and sent him a list of demands, including hiring advisers and a psychologist for black students.

Although the initiative was launched on the heels of the Black Student Union’s protest and demands, Gibor Basri, Berkeley’s outgoing vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, said it’s based on a 2012 campus survey.

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“We identified very clear results: one, that Berkeley’s African American students assess the campus climate as quite poor, and two, that at other campuses where there are more black students, they’re less unhappy,” Basri told Berkeley News.

“There’s actually a relationship between the fraction of black students present and the dissatisfaction,” he said. “Our efforts intensified this past year in response to listening to our students express their needs, and in response to a renewed national attention on issues of race,” including the Black Lives Matter protests.

The shift at Berkeley is also occurring months ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court rehearing of Fisher v. the University of Texas, a high-stakes reverse-discrimination case that could further dismantle what’s left of affirmative action programs in higher education.

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A series of rulings from the high court over the last decade curbing race-based college admissions have left elite public schools such as Berkeley, the University of Texas, and the University of Michigan struggling to increase campus diversity amid constant legal challenges. As a result, the African American student population at Berkeley and on other campuses has dropped sharply, just as analysts predicted. Now, conservative activists are targeting admissions practices at elite private schools such as Harvard University.

In 1995, according to a UC fact sheet, of the roughly 22,000 freshmen entering the UC system from California, 4.3 percent were African American. By 2013, the share had dropped to 4 percent of roughly 33,000 first-year students. By contrast, the Latino/Hispanic share of the incoming class rose from 15.6 percent to 28.1 percent over the same period.

The percentage of black students has continued to fall, despite the university’s efforts to recruit and prepare college-bound African American high school students—including an admission guarantee for students in the top 9 percent of their high school class, revising admission criteria to boost the chances of applicants who have overcome obstacles in life, and de-emphasizing standardized test scores.

“The numbers of African American students have gotten so small on this campus as to affect the experience of being a black student here,” Claude Steele, the university’s executive chancellor and vice provost, told Berkeley News.

“If you’re such a small minority, you can feel a kind of spotlight pressure that starts to be a factor in how you are able to engage the institution, and to engage the opportunities here, and the resources here,” he said. “It’s something you’ve got to deal with.”

Meanwhile, the university’s city, Berkeley, is dealing with a headache of its own: News reports show that as the city has become more gentrified, a large portion of its black population and culture has drained away. An inability to find black people and black culture either on or off campus is likely a contributing factor in the discomfort of African American students.

Recently, it’s become obvious that black students “have faced challenges at Berkeley in terms of their representation and the climate with which they must contend,” Dirks wrote in his letter announcing the initiative. “The share of African Americans among our students and faculty has been hovering at disproportionately low levels for many years,” contributing to black students’ sense of alienation.

To reverse it, the university plans to “achieve and sustain a critical mass” of black students, faculty, and senior staff and “ensure that the African Americans who are here now feel welcome, supported and respected,” Dirks wrote.

At the same time, the university plans to raise $20 million for an undergraduate scholarship fund, ramp up its recruitment and retention programs for African American students, and increase the diversity of its upper-level management ranks over the next decade.

“Berkeley’s reputation as the world’s preeminent public university is well deserved, yet that standing is only part of what makes this such a special place,” Dirks wrote. “We believe deeply in the importance and benefits of diversity in every sense of the word, while our public mission and ethos mean that we all have a stake in our continued ability to offer a model for the sort of society we hope to build in the world around us.”