Cal engineering dean supports diversity plan

November 22, 2011 1:04:24 PM PST
The dean of UC Berkeley's College of Engineering expressed support today for a recommendation from a student group that the college create a recruitment and retention plan for women and underrepresented minority students.

The move came after representatives from several engineering student groups presented a list of recommendations to increase diversity and equity in the college at a meeting of the college's executive committee, which includes Dean Shankar Sastry and department chairmen.

A Nov. 18 letter to the committee, signed by the presidents of eight student groups, cited an Oct. 27 California Watch report about undergraduate Cassie Parkos' experience with sexism in the college and in the engineering field in general.

The students' letter said Parkos' story is emblematic of other students' experiences in the college, and it is due to low numbers of female and minority students admitted, enrolled and mentored in the College of Engineering.

The letter argued that even though administrators have promised in years past to address the low numbers, the situation has not improved. In 2009, the college eliminated the Center for Underrepresented Engineering Students and implemented a new organization, Engineering Student Services, which aimed to increase diversity while also benefiting all students.

Two years later, the numbers have dropped. At the undergraduate level in 2010, the college enrolled two African American, three Native American and 10 Hispanic freshmen out of 474 total freshmen, for example. That compares with enrollments in 2008 of three African American, two Native American and 33 Hispanic freshmen out of 563 total freshmen, according to data from the American Society for Engineering Education.

"It's nice to know that you realize there's a problem," said Ryan Shelby, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. "But you guys realized this back in 2009. Your policies not to have recruitment and retention plans in place are causing the numbers to drop. It's not just the money."

Shelby asked administrators not to "dither" on the recommendations with further reports or public statements. He called instead for action. Sastry said he couldn't agree more.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves," Sastry said.

Sastry said at the meeting that he planned to respond fully to the students' letter in writing. He also planned to host another meeting of the executive committee to deal with the climate issue in early December.

Deans and faculty members discussed several other next steps, such as starting a private fundraising campaign centered on increasing diversity, adding a committed vice chairman of diversity for each department and increasing student representation on the college's Broadening Participation Committee.

"We all have an equity chair or diversity officer in our departments," said Lisa Pruitt, a mechanical engineering professor and chairwoman of the Broadening Participation Committee. "Most students don't even know who that person is. Most people who serve this function -- it's just one of the many things we do. We need a dedicated office with a teaching release."

Sastry said the college should try to get private fundraising groups together to raise donor cash for sweetening financial aid packages that can be offered to diverse engineering graduate students.

He said the challenge would be to ensure the fundraising groups are separate from the UC itself -- so as to meet the requirements of California's Proposition 209. The law prohibits public institutions from giving preferential treatment based on race, sex or ethnicity.

UC Berkeley's funding packages are "the single most prevalent reason why applicants to our grad programs decide on other schools," said Karen Rhodes, executive director of marketing and communications for the College of Engineering.

The students' letter recommended that the college create a college-wide version of the SUPERB (Summer Undergraduate Program in Engineering Research at Berkeley) program in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department. The program is considered a successful way to recruit women and underrepresented minority undergraduates to attend UC Berkeley as graduate students.

The college's executive associate dean, Fiona Doyle, said faculty with National Science Foundation funding can request supplements to provide undergraduate research experiences -- money that can help fund the SUPERB program.

"This is a really quick fix. Creating SUPERB opportunities is something that's actually very easy to do completely within the framework of California law," Doyle said.

David Culler, associate chairman of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department, said that he had invited Barbara Liskov, associate provost for faculty equity at MIT, to talk to his department about that university's investigation into diversity issues there.

"The thing that made the most dent on me -- her number-one recommendation is, this is the personal responsibility of every chair," Culler said.

Shelby, who penned the Nov. 18 letter, said he was encouraged by Sastry's comments and hopes the statements lead to real action.

"I really want to work with you guys on this, but I've seen in the past the policies the college does -- we have these meetings, you form committees, you produce reports and nothing happens," he said.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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