Berkeley Struggles with Student Diversity in Engineering

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—Privately funded scholarships are essential for attracting more women and underrepresented minorities into graduate engineering programs at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, according to College of Engineering officials who met yesterday with student groups that are unhappy with the school's recent efforts to promote diversity.

The size of UC Berkeley's funding packages is "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. Engineering Dean Shankar Sastry said the college should try to get private fundraising groups to raise cash for sweetening financial aid packages to graduate applicants. Sastry said the fundraising groups must remain separate from the UC itself to meet the requirements of California's Proposition 209. The 1996 law prohibits public institutions from giving preferential treatment based on race, sex or ethnicity.

Representatives from several engineering student groups last week submitted a list of recommendations to increase diversity and equity in the college. 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. The 18 November letter said that, despite promises from administrators, the situation has not improved for women and minorities and that, in some cases, their numbers have actually declined. In particular, the number of first-year African-American, Hispanic, and Native Americans engineering students dropped from 38 (in a class of 563) in 2008 to 15 (in a class of 474) in 2010.

"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 who assembled a coalition of groups that signed onto the 18 November letter. "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. He said the executive committee will discuss the climate issue at a meeting in early December.

Deans and faculty members who met yesterday discussed other steps, including adding a committed vice chairperson 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."

California Watch is a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. For more information, see californiawatch.org.

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