A social revolution in the College of Engineering? Just maybe.

Courtesy californiawatch.orgLast November, a rather inciting petition was circulated among the women and minority student groups of UC Berkeley. Directed at the leadership of the College of Engineering (COE), the petition demanded marked improvements in the College’s social climate and a massive overhaul of the failing recruitment and retention plans aimed specifically at women and minority graduate students (also termed “underrepresented engineers” or simply UEs).

What follows is the recent social history of the COE, how the student-led petition came to be, where the COE’s efforts to enact change currently stand, and our prospects for meaningful social change in the near future.

UC Berkeley’s underrepresented engineering students and the COE’s social climate

Courtesy http://coe.berkeley.edu/about/history-and-traditions/deans.html/

Friedrich Godfrey Hesse, considered to be the father of the COE.

Engineering, like many scientific fields in the U.S., has traditionally been a field for white males. Even today, engineering leadership at the elite research universities is readily described by the epithet, “pale, male, and stale.” The modern U.S. engineering field may be more diverse then ever  — in gender, color, and country of origin – yet here in the COE, our UE student body is just 24% female and 6% ethnic minority. (However, you won’t actually find these statistics on the COE’s “College Facts” webpage. My guess? Because they’re embarrassingly low.)

At the undergraduate level, the numbers of female students in the COE plummet below 20%. And similar trends are perpetuated at the faculty level: there are over 100 faculty and lecturers in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and scarcely 10% of that pool is female. This overall progressive loss of UEs at successively higher rungs of the academic ladder (undergraduate to graduate to faculty) has been termed the “leaky pipeline,” and it is a national phenomenon in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) academia. For comparison, the entire UC Berkeley population is 53% female at the undergraduate level and 45% female at the graduate level.

For female students in particular, our proudly declared 24%, waiting for social change within the COE raises an entirely different set of issues: do the perpetuated climate problems actually deny them of their right to an equal education, as Federally guaranteed under Title IX? For example, sexual harassment and pregnancy-related discrimination are both very real concerns in the COE — and both of these issues also fall under Title IX.

The unequal and highly confrontational oral exam structure, which is part of an archaic, patriarchal system, is but another symptom of the debilitating social environment that our UE students wish to see changed. While this is an exam that all COE graduate students must face (and pass) to advance to candidacy within the College, its structure is inherently biased toward the success of the most innately confident students — the white males. Even so, the sensitivity of this group of students occasionally acknowledges the unhealthy social dynamics of the exam structure: just over a month ago, I spoke with a current white, male graduate student who described the qualifying exam as akin to “rape” for female graduates.

Other “underrepresented engineers” less talked about include student-parents and gay engineers. Engineering, among other professional disciplines, has a long history of homophobia; many gay engineers today still keep their personal lives private, afraid of the possible social backlash they might experience. Of course, these are also socially sensitive categories of engineers. We do not ask their numbers, so we often have no idea how many there are. They’re not simply underrepresented — they’re not represented at all.

UC Berkeley’s COE: A world-class leader in social change?


Howard P. Grant, the COE’s first black graduate (1948).

Each respective group of UEs is undoubtedly a minority in size. However, in total, our numbers within the COE student population approach and likely surpass 30%. Yet even today, as the largest total “minority” group that we have ever been (30% isn’t that small!), we are still fighting to change the social environment in our academic and professional field.

The “cold climate” and historically very sexist and homophobic culture within engineering create a level of hostility that can make achieving difficult for some of our most inspiring and incredible UE students. Not only must UE students prove themselves within the classroom and in the research arena to succeed — but they must do so in a culture that has traditionally been very unwelcoming and disbelieving.

UC Berkeley is undoubtedly a world-class leader in the engineering disciplines (in fact, it’s the #3 engineering program in the U.S., according to U.S. News and World Report). Yet for all of the brilliant insight and innovation that pours forth from our COE, the College has not succeeded in proving itself a world-class leader in social change within the academic engineering arena.

The history behind the student-led petition for change in the COE

In 2009, the COE commenced a restructuring of its student services. As part of this effort, the pre-existing Center for Underrepresented Engineers (CUES) and all of its programs were to be rolled into an all-encompassing structure, Engineering Student Services (ESS). The decision was not without controversy, however, and quickly made national news (you can read more at Science’s ScienceInsider).

At the same time, the College formally established the Broadening Participation Initiative (BPI). The Initiative was largely named after and in support of the rhetoric used by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which places special emphasis on “broadening participation” goals to increase numbers of UEs.


Dean S. Shankar Sastry

In a letter issued to the UC Berkeley engineering community in August 2009, Dean Sastry officially charged the BPI with all responsibilities relating to UE students. The BPI’s purpose, according to Dean Sastry, was to “address issues specific to underrepresented engineering students.” In this letter, Dean Sastry further stated that the BPI would carry “a high level of accountability for meeting diversity and inclusion objectives.”

In short, it was the creation of the BPI and the words of support from Dean Sastry, backed by the COE, that made the loss of CUES as palatable as it could be for the College’s UE students. At the time, it appeared that the COE was truly on the verge of real social change, with respect to its UE student population.

The testimony of one undergraduate inspired an entire graduate student coalition

Courtesy CaliforniaWatch.org

COE undergraduate Cassie Parkos

Then, in fall 2011, came COE undergraduate Cassie Parkos’ testament to the sexist, cold climate that female engineering students often experience here at UC Berkeley. Her account was first published in California Watch. The initial interview was conducted for a news piece covering the recent finding that females in engineering struggle with a unique set of confidence issues. For example, according to the research team who published the original study, a portion of female students struggles when choosing whether to stay in engineering due to a lack of “career-fit confidence – that engineering fits with their values and the things that are important to them.” According to Ms. Parkos, who has been teasingly called “Barbie engineer” more than once by her male peers, unsurprisingly, the answer among the female students who choose to leave is a resounding “no.”

In fact, it was precisely Ms. Parkos’ account that motivated then-graduate student Ryan Shelby of Mechanical Engineering to write the petition, which demanded that the COE address its climate and UE recruitment and retention issues. In particular, Mr. Shelby implored the COE to stop ignoring its own statistics: in the years since CUES had been dismantled and the COE had publicly declared its support for UE students by establishing the BPI, somehow UE enrollment rates had actually managed to flatline or even, in some cases, decline. Mr. Shelby called direct attention to the BPI’s original mandate, citing that none of its goals had ever been achieved — and worse, that the COE didn’t even seem to care.

Courtesty CaliforniaWatch.org

COE graduate Ryan Shelby

Simply by submitting his petition to the College, Mr. Shelby had done something unabashed and uncommonly bold — but then he took it one step further.

Once he had received support signatures from a sweeping list of COE students and underrepresented student groups, not only did Mr. Shelby send his petition to the administration of the COE, but he cc’ed every COE faculty member, the administration of NSF, and several news media organizations, to boot. Within hours, the responses began pouring in. From the eyes of the UE graduate students, it appeared that Mr. Shelby had re-awakened the COE social revolution here at UC Berkeley.

On November 11, the COE administration and faculty met with Mr. Shelby and a cohort of UE graduate students to discuss the students’ demands and recommendations. The meeting was also attended by independent news media reporters, and within days the meeting had put UC Berkeley’s COE back in the national news spotlight (California Watch and Science’s ScienceInsider).

How far we’ve come (or have we?)

Today, in August 2012, over nine months have passed since Dean Sastry publicly reiterated his support for the UE students of UC Berkeley. Much of the hullabaloo has evaporated and the COE has returned to a “normal” state of complacency, as Le Chatelier’s Principle might have predicted. Many of the outspoken UE graduate students in Mr. Shelby’s contingent, which named itself the Coalition of Underrepresented Engineers or CUES in homage to the support center that the UE students had lost several years prior, have been hooded and are in the final stages of filing their dissertations and departing for new positions.

So, where is our social revolution now?

  • One UE-focused center in the COE has, apparently, had at least a portion of its NSF funding renewal denied for failure to meet stipulated requirements for broadening participation. The overhead (nearly 50%!) charged to external grants is a tremendous source of income for the University, and each year, millions of dollars of Federal and private grant money are funneled into UC Berkeley via COE grant overhead. If the COE continues to fail in its efforts to actually increase UE recruitment and retention, then UC Berkeley may yet see another tidal wave of financial loss.
  • More recently, an anonymous donor has allocated a very generous $500k of support to the COE, earmarked solely for improving the climate and retention issues that disproportionately affect its UE students. Professor Oscar Dubon, from the department of Materials Science and Engineering, has been appointed to a new position, the Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion. He has pursued open communication with the UE students, including student-parents, toward identifying how the windfall of support might be allocated.
  • Some COE departments have begun discussing new hiring strategies for future UE faculty vacancies, such as identifying top-notch UE candidate pools in the years before a Full-Time Equivalent (or FTE) faculty search has been officially authorized by the University.
  • In Mechanical Engineering, Chair David Dornfeld has led a tidal wave of support, attempting to engage faculty and students at every level, to discuss UE-related climate issues.
  • Meanwhile, of the most recent graduate admissions cycle, which usually yields well over 50% acceptance rates to admissions offers extended by the COE — scarcely 10% of admitted hispanic students actually enrolled. Lacking in more specific feedback from the students who turned UC Berkeley down, one can only guess as to why this talented pool of UEs chose to pursue their doctorates elsewhere.

And so it would appear that Ms. Parkos’ personal account and the UE graduate student-led petition have had some influence on the COE, after all. But we have a very long way to go, particularly if UC Berkeley, one of the leaders in the engineering world, wants to be a leader in social change, as well.

It will take years to change the social atmosphere in the College, for the climate to warm and for the discouraging, sexist, homophobic, and biased attitudes to fade away. In the mean time, the UE students will continue to be subject to accusations that they are only here because of affirmative action (last I checked, Prop 209 was still in effect and has been since 1996). Attitudes like this are a top-down issue: they will never be changed until the COE leadership truly acknowledges their existence and then focuses concentrated effort to change them.

I’ll close by taking a step back, to re-examine Ms. Parkos’ perspective, because she was the solitary voice who stirred up a hurricane. Ms. Parkos indicated her desire to persevere and to see the engineering discipline change, and for that, I commend her. All of the graduate UEs do, because not too long ago, we were her.

So, I ask you, will we finally have a social revolution in the College of Engineering? Sure, just maybe.

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