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UC Berkeley Chancellor Inaugurated

Robert J. Birgeneau says boosting the enrollment of blacks and Latinos, which fell after Prop. 209 was passed in 1996, will be a priority.

April 16, 2005|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

BERKELEY — Robert J. Birgeneau, who was inaugurated Friday as the chancellor of UC Berkeley, said his most significant challenge will be trying to boost the "egregiously" low enrollments of African American and Latino students at his campus.

In his inaugural address, Birgeneau, 63, cited the disproportionately low enrollments of these students at UC Berkeley as what he called the "unintended consequences" of the state's ban on affirmative action.

He has pledged to launch a public awareness campaign on the issue, as well as a major research initiative to study the effects of Proposition 209, the 1996 voter-approved initiative that bars the state's public colleges and other agencies from considering race in admissions or employment.

The chancellor stopped short of advocating voter action to reverse Proposition 209, although he has said he believes eventual rollback or reform of the law is inevitable. While he hopes to explore ways to boost minority enrollment, he said admissions officers at UC Berkeley "of course" will continue to obey current restrictions.

Birgeneau, a physicist who started at Berkeley in September but was inaugurated in the formal campus ceremony Friday, is raising his voice forcefully and repeatedly these days about the issue. "As the head of UC Berkeley, if I don't speak out, who's going to?" he said in an interview this week.

His critical comments on Proposition 209 during the address Friday drew repeated applause from an audience of several hundred academics, staff and students. But not everyone is happy with his statements.

"I think he is encouraging people to break the law," former UC Regent Ward Connerly, who helped lead the campaign for the statewide affirmative action ban, said in a telephone interview. "If he wants to lead a movement to reverse 209, he should have the grace to resign. And if he doesn't do that, he ought to be fired."

In response, Birgeneau said he has told Connerly that they simply disagree.

The ceremony, which featured parades of faculty in colorful academic gowns and dance performances by student groups, was delayed for 45 minutes by a bomb threat that proved phony. Police cleared and searched Zellerbach Hall before allowing the crowd to return.

The white-haired Birgeneau was undeterred. He described the current numbers of Latino, Native American and African American students on his campus as "appalling" and said that boosting the enrollments of such underrepresented minorities will be a top priority of his tenure.

"Ultimately, it is a fight for the soul of this institution," Birgeneau said, his tone rising. "Inclusion is about leadership and excellence, principles that California and its leading public university has long represented -- and must again."

Admissions of black and Latino students, considered underrepresented at UC because their numbers are not proportionate to their population levels statewide, dropped dramatically throughout the UC system after the affirmative action ban went into effect.

In recent years, the percentage of black and Latino students admitted to UC campuses has slowly risen to about what it was before the ban, partly as a result of broader admissions criteria that allow the consideration of such socioeconomic factors as poverty and hardship. Last year, across the UC system, 3.2% of California freshmen were African American and 14.7% were Latino.

But at the system's most competitive campuses, UC Berkeley and UCLA, the figures have not rebounded. At UC Berkeley, for instance, in 1997, the last year before the ban took effect, African American students represented 7.8% of enrolled California freshmen. By 2003, that percentage had fallen to 4.3%. Similarly, the percentage of Latino students fell from 14.6% of enrolled California freshmen in 1997 to 11.8% in 2003.

Birgeneau points to another figure. In 1997, 260 African American freshmen were enrolled at UC Berkeley. This year, 108 black students are members of a freshman class of 3,600. At UCLA, the figures are similar: 221 black freshmen were enrolled at the Westwood campus in 1997, but only 110 of 3,723 freshmen this year identified themselves as black.

Such numbers, the chancellor said, are too low to provide black students any sense of community on campus and can lead to uncomfortable experiences in class. And he also said that the lack of diversity harms everyone's educational and social experiences at UC.

That view was echoed by several students.

Dorian Peters, 22, who will graduate from UC Berkeley in May, said he is typically the only African American in his classes. "People always turn to me for the 'black American view,' as if I could speak for everyone," he said. "It's pretty weird."

Peters said he is unsure exactly how Birgeneau's efforts might boost black enrollment on campus but applauds his efforts. "I'm excited that he's dealing with this issue head-on and really trying to do something."

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