What Really Happened to Diversity?
When Talking About Berkeley’s Ethnic Makeup, Chancellor Birgeneau’s Remarks Hurt More Than They Help
In response to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s recent statements concerning diversity, equity and inclusion at UC Berkeley in Diversity Officer Magazine, we are compelled to inquire: Why are Asians and Asian Pacific Americans (APA) conspicuously absent from his discussion? As Birgeneau acknowledges, the post-Prop 209 UC system is seriously flawed regarding African American, Chicano/Latino and Native American admissions. We agree. Yet as a research post-doc, a lecturer and a graduate student whose concerns, as members of Asian and APA communities, are invisible to the present university administration, we have yet to see evidence on the level of actual university policies, practices and programs of Birgeneau’s commitment to the elevated sentiments he professed in his interview. His assertions of dedication to diversity aside, what does the record say about progressive measures taken under Birgeneau’s leadership toward a more equitable, inclusive and diverse campus?
On paper, Berkeley boasts of a 45 percent ethnic Asian student body, and as tacit opinion in the university administration would have it, the sheer numbers of Asian and APA students render attention to this paradoxically “overrepresented minority” unnecessary. But make no mistake: the prevailing view that Asians and APAs are no longer underrepresented has resulted in our continued institutional marginalization and exclusion. In response to APA community concerns that the new UC admissions policy will adversely impact Asian and APA matriculation, UC President Mark Yudof offered these glib words: “They’ll be fine.” By no means reassuring, Yudof’s invocation of the model minority myth burdens Asian and APA students with the expectation that they will succeed even when admissions policy is stacked against them. Moreover, his homogenizing statement elides class differences amongst Asians and APAs as a demographic. Although intended to promote greater African American, Chicano/Latino and Native American admissions, the new policy, as the UC’s own commissioned study and data indicate, will have negligible impact on the designated target populations while decreasing Asian and APA admissions rates by 10-20 percent. At the same time, white admissions are projected to increase by 20 percent or more. Far from diversifying the UC student body, this misguided policy will result in the latter’s dramatic bleaching. As Professor Emeritus of ethnic studies Ling-Chi Wang, notes, the new admissions policy is essentially “affirmative action for whites … extremely unfair to Asian-Americans on the one hand and underrepresented minorities on the other.”
It bears scrutinizing how the pernicious fiction of Asian and APA self-reliance and self-initiative has played out at Berkeley under Birgeneau’s leadership. In his interview, Birgeneau offered a trickle-down theory of diversity originating in the ivory tower: “Diversity literally must start at the top. If people in the trenches feel that the leader is advocating for equity solely out of political correctness, they will see through that immediately.” Yet we “in the trenches” question the chancellor’s “genuine commitment” to Asian and APA equity and inclusion. How can he advocate on behalf of our needs and concerns when he fails to regard us as a population meriting acknowledgment?
In fact, what we have witnessed at Berkeley, a university touting itself as a major Pacific Rim institution, is default reversion to a Eurocentric curriculum. Under Birgeneau’s tenure, we have seen continued rollback of gains made by pioneers of the Third World Liberation Front who established Asian American Studies at Berkeley in the 1960s. Institutionally speaking, Asian American Studies at Berkeley has been subjected to willed extinction. There have been no serious recruitment efforts to address the slated retirement of key Asian Americanist scholars-Ron Takaki, Ling-Chi Wang, Sau-ling Wong and Elaine Kim. Instead, in this alarming vacuum, we have seen the university’s readiness to rely on part-time lecturers who function as disposable “guest workers” and are paid poverty wages with few benefits or protections.
Increasing reliance on casualized labor has also undermined Asian-language education. In spring 2008, Berkeley’s administration targeted Asian languages for draconian budget cuts. Despite annually turning away hundreds of students for lack of room, Japanese and Chinese classes were slated to be halved; Tagalog, Thai, Tamil and Hindi classes faced major reduction; and Korean classes stood to be extinguished. Only after students waged a massive campaign to safeguard Asian-language education, which we insist is critical to Berkeley’s curricular diversity, were the proposed budget cuts reversed. We launched an e-mail-blast operation landing 650 student e-mails in the chancellor’s inbox in a single morning, gathered 8,000 signatures on our petition, organized a major student rally, conducted door-to-door fundraising, held press conferences and generated 70-plus news reports on our grassroots struggle in the press. Given the lack of administrative vision and institutional will regarding the place of Asian languages in Berkeley’s curriculum, we organized a forum in February to advocate for a durable structure of support for Asian-language education.
To be clear: the structure of Asian-language education at Berkeley reinforces racial and gender inequity. As John Duncan, director of UCLA’s Center for Korean Studies, stated in support for labor security for Asian-language lecturers: “(Asian-language lecturers) are treated as second-class citizens by the UC, with heavy teaching loads, low salaries and virtually no hope of advancing to tenure-track positions. Simply put … American institutions of higher learning have chosen to balance their instructional budgets on the backs of temporary/adjunct faculty, a high proportion of whom-in the case of Asian-language programs-are women of color.” According to a 2006 UC diversity report, 78 percent of tenured faculty is white; only 13 percent is Asian American. Indeed, Asian
American women are the least likely to receive tenure within UC. Here, APAs are absent from administrative positions and the Academic Senate hierarchy.
Berkeley’s ongoing failure to support both Asian American Studies and Asian-language education, despite overwhelming student demand, suggests that the university views its obligations to Asian and APA diversity narrowly in terms of bodily numbers while disregarding our stakes in Berkeley as a public educational institution. Indebted, it seems, to George W. Bush’s notion of America as an “ownership society” in his interview, Birgeneau asserted: “It is fundamental to our values that every member of our community must feel that she or he fully owns the institution. That is what we mean by inclusion.” Given Berkeley’s dismal track record on Asian American Studies and Asian-language education, Asian and APA students, lecturers and teachers are hard-pressed to claim meaningful “ownership” over Berkeley’s future. In response, we borrow from President Obama’s apt critique: Birgeneau may have called this an ownership society; what he really meant was “you’re-on-your-own” society.
By CHRISTINE HONG, CATHERINE LEE and ANDREW LEONG