Berkeley Engineering Dean Defends Student Services Shakeup

Students and faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley, had a chance yesterday to air concerns about a major change in the status of diversity programs within the College of Engineering. But while Dean Shankar Sastry said he welcomed their input, he made it clear that his decision earlier this summer to fold the long-running Center for Underrepresented Engineering Students (CUES) into a revamped Engineering Student Services (ESS) office is a done deal.

"The decision to reorganize has been made," Sastry told some 60 people who attended a town hall meeting on campus. “I know that people are worried about change," he said, adding that "we will continue to have meetings like this." He also announced the formation of a faculty-student task force, to be headed by electrical engineering professor Ruzena Bajcsy, to provide ongoing advice.

Audience members pressed Sastry for details about why the change was being made and why he thought the new structure would benefit students. And they weren't happy with the answers they received. “I heard a lot of opposition from the students present and less-than-direct answers to many of their questions,” said Anne MacLachlan, a senior researcher at Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education and the final speaker in the 90-minute dialogue.

Sastry said that integrating the programs under CUES into ESS would help address a 40% drop since 2005 in the number of minorities and women entering the college. “I’d like to be able to make sure that the underrepresented student part of student advising is not an island. I’d love to bring it in a little tighter with the faculty and students of the college. …That is the biggest single reason to bring it in,” he said. Acting ESS Director Kristen Gates said that the college hoped to offer new programs in peer advising, outreach, internships, and research opportunities for freshmen.

MacLachlan worried that parents of prospective students could interpret the new structure as evidence that Berkeley does not welcome students of color, she said, and that their concerns could undermine the goal of increasing enrollment. Others questioned the timing of the transition. “What’s the hurry?” asked Caroline Kane, an emerita professor of biochemistry and molecular biology with the Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Math, Science, and Engineering. “It seems like we're dropping a bomb right when we’ve got students coming back to the college of engineering who are used to having a community and community space,” she said.