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Berkeley Issues Plan to Improve Diversity in Engineering

21 December 2011 2:03 pm
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Promising "disruptive progress," the engineering college at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, has named an associate dean for equity and inclusion to help it increase the number of students and faculty members from underrepresented groups.

The new position is part of a plan unveiled last week after a coalition of student groups demanded that Berkeley do a better job of attracting and retaining African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women in engineering. The issue came to a head at a 21 November meeting of the college's executive committee, at which the students presented Dean Shankar Sastry with 13 recommendations to improve the college's abysmal track record and to address what they described as a hostile atmosphere toward women and minorities.

The new associate dean is Oscar Dubon, an associate professor of materials science and engineering. As chair of the college's committee on broadening participation, Dubon wrote a stinging letter last spring to Sastry taking the college to task for its lack of "a coherent recruitment and retention plan."

Dubon tells ScienceInsider that he was "surprised" by the dean's offer and that he took the job "only after I became satisfied with the college's commitment to disrupt the status quo." Dubon praised the "significant collective effort" by students in pressing the college to improve conditions for underrepresented minorities and said he benefited from programs to help minorities during his undergraduate and graduate training at UC Los Angeles and UC Berkeley, respectively. He assumes his position on 1 January.

The college's first step will be to improve its "yield"—the percentage of students who actually enroll after being admitted into either the undergraduate or graduate engineering program. Sastry believes that more money would make a big difference. "Fellowship support is the primary factor in improving yield" at the graduate level, he says. Winning over high school students is more complicated, he admits, and the college plans to try everything from overnight visits to summer research experiences. The plan also discusses various approaches to improving student retention rates, as well as a long-term strategy for recruiting more minority and female faculty members.

"I think it's a start," says Ryan Shelby, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and leader of the Coalition of Underrepresented Engineers, which spearheaded the campaign. "I am glad the COE [college of engineering] finally realizes that they have a serious problem." At the same time, Shelby says he's still trying to quantify the college's promise of "adequate staffing" and resources for diversity efforts and notes that "I don't know yet if Dubon is a figurehead or if he has real power." Dubon declined to discuss details of his new post until after taking office.

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