Debate Today on Engineering Diversity Program at Berkeley

Unhappy students and faculty members at the University of California, Berkeley, are expected to jam a campus town hall meeting this afternoon to hear the dean of the college of engineering explain why he's dismantling a model program for underrepresented minorities and women.

In announcing the change last month, Dean Shankar Sastry said he hopes that melding the Center for Underrepresented Engineering Students (CUES) into a new Engineering Student Services (ESS) office will actually strengthen the college's efforts to promote diversity. The center’s three employees were told last month that their contracts would not be renewed, effective 30 September.

Although the university is under severe financial pressure, engineering officials say the reorganization is not being done for budgetary reasons and that ESS will not be jettisoning any staff positions. Karen Rhodes, head of marketing and communications for the engineering college, says that the school’s “yield”—the percentage of students deciding to enroll in the fall after being accepted in the spring—is much lower for incoming minority engineering students than it is for the campus as a whole. She says a study by an outside consultant also found that many engineering students were dissatisfied with the current level of services being offered. "We need to become friendlier and in tune with what they want,” says Rhodes.

In addition, the school has seen a sharp decline in the overall percentage of minorities in its entering class—from 11% in 2004 to 6% this fall. That "alarming trend," says Rhodes, has led the college to "rethink our approach to serving underrepresented minorities."

However, supporters fear that the needs of minority students and women will get lost in the reshuffle. A precursor of the center was begun in 1981, and its cluster of activities—which include a summer bridge program, undergraduate research experiences, and academic and career counseling—have been emulated over the years by several other top universities. CUES’s supporters say that the current statistics argue for more, not less, emphasis on the needs of those students and that eliminating the center as an independent entity sends a signal that the college is diluting its commitment to broadening participation.

"I was absolutely shocked when I first heard the news," says Stanley Prussin, a professor of nuclear engineering and a former associate dean who oversaw CUES in the late 1990s. "It's been a model for the rest of the campus and for the entire country. The number of underrepresented minorities [within the college] is not what you would like it to be, but the problems have not disappeared. If anything, the need for a more intensive and independent approach to the problem seems to be greater than ever."

Ryan Shelby, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, says that CUES was a big reason he chose Berkeley. "I wanted to make sure I had a support system, and they showed me how much they care. Their sole mission is to increase diversity and minority participation in engineering. It's not just a collection of programs; it's their entire approach." Shelby is a leader in a student group that is asking the dean to conduct a more thorough review of the center's impact before making any changes.