There weren’t many people for me to look up to when I grew up. Born and raised an Egyptian in California, I obviously had my parents, but I never really saw someone like me doing big things in science, politics or entertainment.
It felt like I was living in a world that wasn’t built for me – a world that didn’t include me or people like me in its plan for the future. That was all supposed to change after I came to UCLA, one of the most diverse universities in America.
And for the most part, the university met my expectations. I’ve met amazing students from all over the world, including Egypt. But as long as I’ve been here, I’ve seen the same white professors, over and over again.
Students at the University of California as a whole are about 70 percent nonwhite, which is understandable considering many of the students enrolled at the University come from California’s diverse population. Diversity, however, doesn’t seem to apply to those running everything around here: 70 percent of tenured professors and administrators in the UC are white.
The UC needs to address its diversity problem. It’s easy for the University to trumpet how diverse it is by plastering photos of minority students on its brochures and posters. But the UC can’t claim to represent minority students until it ensures those students have what they need to succeed: a diverse slate of professors and administrators. The way to do that is to establish clearer pathways for minority students to pursue graduate education and careers in academia.
Ricardo Vazquez, a UCLA spokesperson, said the university is committed to diversity of all forms.
“Diversity isn’t just about race,” Vazquez said. “The UC has been praised many times for enrollment of low-income students and Cal Grant students, and there’s a huge geographic diversity in terms of where students come from.”
And that’s true. The university has been doing a good job recruiting a diverse class of students. But just enrolling people from different backgrounds doesn’t ensure the success of minority students; having diverse teachers and role models is also necessary.
The Center for Education Data & Research, an organization that aims to study the effects of different factors on students’ educational successes, found in 2015 that students of color tend to perform better academically, personally and socially when taught by teachers from their own ethnic groups. The center found that improving the diversity of teachers plays a great role in closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.
UCLA students know this to be true. Kosi Ogbuli, a second-year neuroscience and political science student and vice president of the Afrikan Student Union, said he thinks it’s important for students to have professors who look like them.
“A lot of students give up or change majors or disciplines because they don’t see people like them,” Ogbuli said. “How can you put students in this environment where they feel like outsiders all the time and expect them to excel?”
Devon Graves, the UC student regent-designate and a graduate student in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, said he thinks departments make excuses about improving diversity rather than put in the additional effort to address the lack of it.
“Departments say that because there’s only a small amount of people who have a Ph.D in their field, it’s hard to find folks of color to fill seats,” Graves said.
He added he thinks academic departments should be more transparent about the ways they recruit and retain diverse faculty and graduate students.
It’s easy to see why faculty diversity is still a problem in the UC. Affirmative action is illegal in California, and as Graves said, a majority of those with doctoral degrees in the U.S. are white. But that excuse makes the assumption that a great number of minority undergraduate students are encouraged to attend graduate school and eventually move into academia – something that’s clearly not the case.
Eighty-five percent of graduate students in 1976 were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2008, that number dropped a bit to 64 percent. If it took 32 years for graduate students to to catch up, academia won’t be seeing radical shifts in faculty composition anytime soon.
The reason graduate students are predominantly white is because universities aren’t doing enough to recruit diverse graduate school applicants – a notable difference from how they recruit undergraduate students. This system keeps minority academics trapped in a self-fulfilling cycle: They don’t see anyone with a similar background studying what they’re interested in, and they’re discouraged from continuing to pursue it.
The way the UC can fix its diversity problem is by educating its current faculty about the best ways to recruit more diverse applicants, offering more private scholarships for minority students considering graduate school and highlighting the successes of minority academics.
Academia has long been an exclusive, white people’s club. Challenging that norm would ensure the UC is a place for minority students and academics to succeed, not just an institution they find themselves at.