UC Irvine aims to improve the recruitment and support of black students

Calling anti-blackness an “existential threat” to its mission, UC Irvine unveiled an ambitious plan on Monday to step up recruiting of black students, faculty and leaders and create a campus climate that supports their success.

A new Black Thriving Initiative, inspired by the rising demands for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, will research and teach about the black experience with 10 new faculty members and a new program of 30,000 Expand USD Research Grants. The campus aims to increase the number of black students, which was among the lowest in the 10-campus UC system at 3.3% last year, and also to increase the number of graduates.

UC Irvine is also launching a comprehensive review of its anti-blackness police practices and classes. In order to hold itself accountable, the university will issue a “scorecard” every two years in which survey responses will be analyzed on the campus climate, progress in increasing the representation of blacks and the completion of anti-bias training. A new website offers resources to help fight the blackness, and a solid new community engagement effort is planned.

“Anti-blackness is an existential threat to our mission to be a place where all people can teach, learn and thrive,” said Douglas M. Haynes, Vice Chancellor for Justice, Diversity and Inclusion. “We are determined to create a national model for institutional change.”

Efforts come from locations across the country answering calls to anticipate racist legacies in society and their own institutions. In the past few months, UCLA has approved a Black Resource Center that students have been demanding for years. USC has announced an investigation into its police force, more rooms for color students and the hiring of a chief diversity officer. UC Berkeley, whose campus-wide diversity initiative launched in 2018 resulted in the largest number of black and Latin American students admitted in 30 years, will dedicate this academic year to an investigation into social justice, racism and anti-blackness.

For UC Irvine student Iyanna Blackburn, the effort is long overdue. Blackburn, an aspiring double major specializing in film, media and African American studies, said the campus was “perfect,” aside from the severe underrepresentation of black students and faculty. Of UC’s nine campuses, UC Irvine has the second smallest percentage of black students after UC San Diego.

Despite that small number, 57% of Black UC Irvine students who responded to a 2018 UC survey said their race was respected on campus. That’s higher than UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UC San Diego.

Blackburn, who grew up in different Carson, said it was staggering to arrive in Irvine, where she was the only black student in her dorm. She hadn’t experienced any overt racism, she said, but had encounters that made her uncomfortable: non-black students using the N-word when listening to music and assuming they were speaking in black slang or that Newest in Rap and Hip-Hop; She was the only black student in classes where she was expected to be the voice of an entire community.

The experiences drove her to make a short film in which students at UC Irvine Black were told about their experiences on campus. Students described being one of the few black people in their classes, how other black students are singled out by bad jokes, how non-black students talk about whether they like dating black people, and being racist from a business in the surrounding community Security officers are profiled.

Jaylenne Thach, a philosophy and earth system science student, said her non-black sisters asked her to straighten her hair so it would look the same.

“That hurt me,” she said to Blackburn. “As a black woman, it takes a long time to just accept our hair … to love our curls.”

Blackburn and other students said they had found community and support for black students on campus – an apartment building in Rosa Parks, a residential and study community called Black Scholars Hall, a resource center that provides academic counseling, career and career development, health programs, and finance Offers offers assistance and other services.

“The rooms are therapeutic for us,” said Blackburn. “It feels like at home. You don’t have the feeling of walking on eggshells.”

UC Irvine created the Black Scholars Hall and Resource Center as part of the campus’s response to Black Student Union demands in 2015. Now, Haynes said, the university is ready to take the next big step by focusing on academic concerns concentrate.

The campus has already made progress. This fall, 13 new Black faculty members – from engineering, life sciences, business, history, English, and dance – will join campus as the largest such group ever recruited in a single year. Other recent milestones include the appointments of the first black deans of UC Irvine’s business and law schools.

Despite its location in Orange County, where black residents make up only 2% of the population, UC Irvine attracts more California black applicants. While the black student population was 3.3% last year, the campus received the second highest number of black freshman applicants in California after just UCLA.

In addition, the gap between black undergraduates and all freshmen in retention and graduation rates is narrower than at most of the UC’s other high-level research universities. The retention rate for first-year black students is 92.1%, compared with 93.9% for all students, while the six-year graduation rate is 81.7%, compared with 85% overall.

But that’s not good enough, said Haynes. The campus plans to reevaluate its entire philosophy regarding teaching and evaluating today’s students. For example, it is asked whether the lecture format or the grading of curves are still appropriate.

“As a campus, we cannot do this piece as much as we feel we are enhancing the experience of our black students, faculties and staff,” said Haynes. “This is a national imperative that requires an equivalent response.”

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