Berkeley Social-Justice Institute to Be Shuttered, But Not Without a Fight | #students | #parents

The University of California at Berkeley’s decision to disband a prominent institute devoted to the study of racial and social injustice is drawing anger from faculty and staff members and alumni of the institute, who say the closure sends a troubling message about the university’s priorities.

Supporters say the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues is not only Berkeley’s primary hub for social justice-related research but also a source of community for scholars of color. To them, its closure, at a time of intense national conversation about systemic racism, amounts to a shirking of Berkeley’s commitment to marginalized communities. They’ve begun a campaign to preserve the institute, whose website features dozens of testimonials and a petition that so far has more than 400 signatures.

The administration says that poor financial stewardship and a building in disrepair made the decision inevitable, and that it will work to house the institute’s many projects elsewhere on the campus. The dispute is a reminder that colleges face particular scrutiny these days of budgetary decisions related to social-justice initiatives.

‘Edict Coming Down’

The ISSI, which was founded in 1976 as the Institute for the Study of Social Change, describes itself as a interdisciplinary endeavor dedicated to research on marginalized communities and to training graduate students, many of whom themselves hail from marginalized communities. It hosts seven research centers, whose subjects include Asian American, Latinx, and Native American communities, right-wing movements, ethnographic research, and social change.

The institute’s signature initiative, a two-year Graduate Fellows Program that offers funding, professional development, and mentorship with the aim of improving retention rates for doctoral students of color, has seen 159 participants earn their Ph.D.s since 1976. The institute also offers office space to about 40 graduate students in residence.

Deborah Freedman Lustig, the institute’s associate director , and Martín Sánchez-Jankowski, whose term as director ended on June 30, said they learned of its closure in an email from Linda Haverty Rugg, Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor for research, on June 4 .

Rugg’s email outlined a difficult set of circumstances: The building that houses the institute, part of the historic Anna Head Complex, needed “tens of millions of dollars” in renovation costs. Most urgently, a wooden porch that was the only wheelchair-accessible entrance was rotted, putting the ISSI in noncompliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Even the cost of fixing the porch or adding another wheelchair-accessible entry was more than what either ISSI or Rugg’s office could afford.

What’s more, she wrote, the ISSI had been spending down its reserves at a rate that would extinguish its funds in four years, and the budget crisis prompted by Covid-19 might require her office to further cut funding to institute and other research units.

The $350,000 provided by the vice chancellor’s office to ISSI each year, which amounted to the bulk of the institute’s income, made it among the most expensive of the 50 units the office oversees, Rugg said. Outside funding — either through gifts or grants — had been minimal, and there’d been few applicants to replace Sánchez-Jankowski as director. Rugg would work with the institutes’ leaders to find new homes for its programs, she wrote, but “we don’t see a way forward for ISSI.”

Lustig and Sánchez-Jankowski saw things differently. They’d had no indication that closing the doors was under consideration, and Rugg’s office hadn’t made its expectations or concerns known to them, they said. “We were never approached in kind of a collaborative spirit of, ‘Here are some issues. What’s your plan going forward? We have limited resources to help you. So is this going to work out?’ Lustig said. Instead, she said, Rugg’s email felt like an “edict coming down.”

Rugg’s impression of the institute’s budget was inaccurate, Lustig said, and the ISSI’s budget for this fiscal year would have been sustainable for at least five years. As for the accessibility concerns, Lustig and Sánchez-Jankowski felt that cheaper solutions could be found.

Both wondered whether there was a hidden agenda behind the closure. “I kind of thought, ‘Was this decision made a long time ago and we weren’t told about it?’” Lustig said.

A meeting with Rugg, she said, didn’t offer much hope for reversing the decision. “It was like she had clearly made up her mind. I took it as a chance to register my protest.”

I kind of thought, ‘Was this decision made a long time ago and we weren’t told about it?’

The promise to house ISSI’s projects in various other places on campus is not a solution, Sánchez-Jankowski said. “It won’t be the same program, because they don’t understand that it’s not about something you institutionalize. It’s a place — a social space that was provided and social support that was provided — that was special,” he said.

Sánchez-Jankowski sees a troubling racial subtext in the decision to close the ISSI. “Berkeley is in an economic crisis because of Covid and other things, and they have bills to pay and everything else,” he said. “So who do they ask to pay a very heavy price? It’s a place like this, that serves nonwhite people.” While such a decision “would be problematic under any time, it is really problematic now.”

‘This Is Mission-Critical’

Naniette H. Coleman, an ISSI graduate student in residence who studies cybersecurity, surveillance, and privacy in Berkeley’s sociology department said the ISSI had made a “profound” difference in her experience at Berkeley. After arriving on campus, she recalls, she felt “untethered” and lacked a “landing place,” particularly as an older and nontraditional student who’d worked extensively in government and in university administration before returning to the classroom.

“I needed a place to sort of lay down my worries at the end of the day, that was outside of the gaze of faculty in my own department, where I could talk to other people who were having similar experiences because they were ‘other’ in their department,” said Coleman, who is Black. Sánchez-Jankowski offered her office space at the ISSI, where she found a supportive cadre of fellow students and of faculty members.

In time, the ISSI would also become home to one of Coleman’s own ventures, the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Privacy, through which she offers undergraduates — many of them women and people of color — training in research and professional-development skills. ISSI provides meeting and lab space for the group, which Coleman says has served hundreds of students.

“There’s just so much that will be upended, uprooted, and will potentially either die or be made more difficult with the closing of that building,” Coleman said. That’s why she is willing to go to great lengths — literally — to save the institute. She’s currently in New Hampshire but said, “I am prepared to drive cross-country in the middle of a pandemic and pose a one-woman sit-in on the steps of ISSI to make a point here. This isn’t folly. This is mission-critical for graduate students of color at Berkeley.”

Michael Burawoy, a professor of sociology and secretary of the Berkeley Faculty Association, who with Celeste Langan, the association’s co-chair, wrote a letter of support for the ISSI, took issue with the timing of the announcement.

“It just seemed extraordinary that they should announce this at the very time of all these protests around social/racial justice,” he said. “Why close this institute of all the institutes on the campus? It’s just a terrible signal to the rest of the world.”

Other campus leaders have echoed that sentiment. Twenty-five people, among them department chairs and program and center directors, signed a letter supporting ISSI. “Changing our campus climate depends on building on positive nodes and cultivating existing relationships and places of belonging,” the letter reads in part. “ISSI has been there since the beginning of this process at Cal and is a crucial part of the ecosystem that we are nurturing.”

‘They Were Going Into the Hole’

Rugg, for her part, said the decision to close ISSI was the result of a “perfect storm,” forced by the confluence of concerns about the institute’s finances and its building, in the Anna Head Complex.

All of the units overseen by the vice chancellor for research’s office, Rugg said, have faced budget cuts since the 2008 economic crisis. The ISSI, unlike many of the other units, was completely dependent on that campus funding and was unable to find other sources of support, she said.

“We’re looking at this model where they were going into the hole, and they weren’t going to be able to support their administrative function, let alone their programs,” Rugg said. She’d been exploring ways to help the institute stay afloat, she said, when she learned of the physical problems with the Anna Head Complex and the ADA-compliance issue. For that, too, she said, she tried to find a solution, asking the campus architect and an ADA compliance officer to evaluate the building while Rugg explored fund-raising possibilities for repairs.

But the report came back that the building was in such bad shape that it wouldn’t be worthwhile to make the accessibility repairs. Considering the budget problems as well, Rugg decided that the only path forward was to save the individual programs that make up ISSI.

She and others have been working to identify new homes for the ISSI’s projects. The graduate-fellows program, for instance, will continue with the support of two other administrators and will, in fact, be better-funded than it was before, she said. But even that, Rugg acknowledged, is an imperfect solution. “I recognize that anytime you take apart a fabric like the institutional fabric that was ISSI,” she said, “you lose something by taking it out of the context that it used to exist in.”

At the same time, Rugg doesn’t see how the decision to close ISSI could have come as a great surprise to its leaders. “They knew that they were in a state of decline. They also knew that they were eating into their reserves. One of the things that I found in talking to people is that there’s a little bit of a resistance to accepting realities.”

“In battling about preserving ISSI exactly the way it has been, we’re losing sight of our need to really support these programs and make sure that they have good homes and that they continue to exist for the people that they’ve served,” Rugg said.

“This was not about deciding not to fund social-justice programs. It was about having to make a decision about this particular unit and its difficult situation that it found itself in. And because the decision happened to coincide with all of these things are going on, people sort of grabbed that and said, ‘Oh, Berkeley doesn’t care about social justice.’ And that’s not true.”

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