Risks to diversity in a time of great austerity

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In the April 6, 2011, Daily Californian article, "Social science consolidation on track despite student opposition," writer Alisha Azevedo brought needed attention to the discord on campus surrounding cutbacks being executed under the misleadingly named Operational Excellence (OE) program.

At issue is the contention between the administration and a coalition of undergraduate and graduate students representing the small but vital African American Studies, Ethnic Studies and Gender and Women's Studies departments. Beyond opposing the visionless and antidemocratic manner in which austerity measures are being implemented, these students, staff and faculty point out that cuts are having a severe and unacknowledged impact on those departments and on campus diversity as a whole.

As a representative of the coalition, I appreciate The Daily Californian highlighting our cause. Yet it is unfortunate that our struggle was reduced to that of wrangling over statistics when we see the broader process as fundamentally flawed. Herein lies the problem: Clearly UC Berkeley takes pride in presenting itself as an inclusive and ethnically diverse campus, and it is the desire of our coalition that diversity should further flourish.

What rarely gets acknowledged, however, is that staffers within these departments play a significant role in cultivating campus diversity. They mentor marginalized students from various departments, assist in recruitment efforts and generally help to build a diverse sense of community, doing much of this outside of their regular paid duties. Students from many departments, both undergraduate and graduate, can attest that the terminated staffers have been vital supports to them throughout their time at Berkeley.

Therefore, OE, whatever its successes, deals a heavy blow to campus diversity, equity and inclusion because of the loss of individuals who are key to actually maintaining those realities. Nowhere does our coalition see evidence that OE planners took this into account.

The present budget crisis is severe and compels change. However, planners and administrators must remember the broader political context in which they seek to address economic shortfalls.

During the last few years there has emerged a disturbing trend in which the very right of these programs to exist is being called into question. Arizona House Bill (HB) 2281, signed into law last May, is the most extreme example. HB 2281 prohibits courses designed primarily for a particular ethnic group from being taught on a district or charter school level, except Native American Studies courses, arguing essentially that such courses promote resentment and hatred toward other ethnicities. Chicano/a Studies in Arizona has been the primary victim of HB 2281. Such reasoning is a serious misunderstanding of the raison d'etre of the ethnic studies disciplinary cluster and, by extension, gender and women's studies; scholarship that has little to do with promoting the chauvinistic parochialism ascribed to it by right wing politicians and their friends.

African American, ethnic, gender and women's studies programs emerged in part from the confluence of the civil rights and feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and were shaped by the critical knowledge cultivated therein. Applied to an academic context, this knowledge, situated in the experiences of the subjugated, are ever mindful of the location of power in the various stages of the research process. They offer direct and productive challenges to institutional norms, procedures and policies that make up what Black Feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins calls the "matrix of domination." When the knowledge claims of scholars are consistently judged against the norms of a traditionally Eurocentric and patriarchal academy, it makes it difficult to challenge the dominant cultural beliefs that infuse academic disciplines.

The emergence of centers of intellectual production like African American Studies, Ethnic Studies and Gender and Women's Studies provide a safe space for the development of knowledge unique and specific to the experiences of historically marginalized groups. To silence or banalize this knowledge, or to allow it to fall by the wayside by starving supportive programs, is not only a blow to diversity at UC Berkeley along lines of race, ethnicity, sexuality and gender, but it diminishes the diversity of intellectual traditions and voices on campus. This is intellectual sloppiness of the highest order.

Robert Connell is a Ph.D. student in the African American Studies department at UC Berkeley. Reply to [email protected]

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