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Political Scientist

December 7, 2009
by Kerry Tremain

Berkeley Chancellor and physicist Robert Birgeneau on his priorities for new research and why he’s creating a vice-chancellor position for “equity and inclusion.”

Two years into his term, the chancellor speaks confidently about the initiative that he brought to Berkeley and that has drawn the largest public notice—to increase the number of underrepresented minorities on campus. Racial politics of course can be a minefield, a reality he acknowledges in his often careful choice of words, but his conviction that he knows what is needed is equally in evidence. Interviewed in his office at California Hall, he shared some of the political experiences that shaped his determination, as well as his hopes that Berkeley’s academic depth and breadth will yield big solutions—in energy, health care, and other field—to some big problems.

Lawrence Berkeley Lab under Steve Chu and the university have significant initiatives under way to find new sources of energy, and new ways to conserve energy. What, in your view, are the most promising areas of that research?

It’s always dangerous to pick one over the other because all of the different approaches require research, and until the research is finished, you don’t know which is best. It may be that through our Department of Energy—financed initiative someone will develop new solar cells that are very cheap to manufacture and will be incredibly efficient. A second area in which we’re going to make a major investment here at Berkeley is biomass energy conversion. The essential point is to find new energy sources that are carbon neutral, which really means that you take carbon that’s already above ground and recycle it so that you’re not increasing the carbon content, as opposed to digging it up from below ground and bringing it into the atmosphere.

Plants, presumably?

Right. We would like to find plants that grow very efficiently, ideally in areas where we’re not currently growing food, and figure out a way to convert them into fuel—and to do that inexpensively. There are many people who believe that with the techniques of synthetic biology, we could genetically alter bacteria and that these bacteria would eat the plants, convert them into sugar, and the sugars could be converted into alcohols, which you could then burn either to heat homes or to power automobiles.

What are some of the other areas of publicly oriented research here that most interest you?

There are two that I’ve put some fair amount of personal energy into. Stem cell techniques have phenomenal promise in enabling us to address some of the most horrific, debilitating diseases that mankind suffers, most especially neurological diseases—ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Type 1 diabetes. We now have a Center for Stem Cell Research. It has 30 faculty members, and they cover the range from fundamental molecular biologists like Randy Scheckman to people like Charis Thompson who worry about ethical issues and equity in reproductive medicine. In addition, we have an outstanding synthetic biology group and very strong bioengineering generally. One of the challenges with stem cell research will be how you go from the test tube to the whole population.

Has this office been active in trying to change the attitude toward stem cell research in Washington?

I’ve talked personally to friends of the president to try to get them to persuade Mr. Bush that his policies are shortsighted. That obviously was not successful.

In announcing this new position of Vice Chancellor for Diversity Issues—

It’s actually Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion. The title was chosen carefully.

Okay. For Equity and Inclusion. You suggested that the outcomes couldn’t be measured just in numbers—that what’s needed is a kind of holistic approach to making a comfortable environment for different people. How will you evaluate the new vice chancellor’s success?

Currently, we have a wide range of programs that are connected with equity and inclusion—outreach programs, support programs, mentoring programs, what have you. However, almost everybody agrees that the whole is less than the sum of the parts, that we’re missing coherence in these programs. The goals are multiple, but the important one is to create a climate so that every single person views Berkeley as a place where he or she can prosper and be happy and maintain his or her individuality. I could imagine doing sophisticated sociological surveys of these kinds of human issues and I would hope, with the creation of this position, that we’d see progressive improvement and a reduction in the number of alienated individuals.

For example, I met with one of the underrepresented minority staff groups, and they informed me that there were some university departments where they felt people from their group were welcomed and could prosper, and there were, frankly, others, sad to hear—and this is their report, not mine—where they felt unwelcome. Now, I’m sure those departments would be in complete denial, right? So part of what we will want to do on the staff side is to try to identify areas which are not being as friendly to particular sets of people and, under the leadership of this new vice chancellor, figure out how to make the environment more inclusive.

In the previous two issues of the magazine, history professor David Hollinger and Boalt dean Christopher Edley took opposing positions on whether the university can or should promise to correct for inequities among ethno-racially defined communities in its admissions policies. How do you fall on that?

First of all, there is a law in California, namely Proposition 209, governing hiring and admissions. We are a public institution and we must and we will obey the law. But I want to emphasize that 209 has two halves to it. The half which the public is focused on is that we cannot in hiring people or in admitting students take into account either gender or race as a variable. However, 209 also requires that we not discriminate. I don’t mind saying that I actually view the two as contradictory because, by not taking into account the reality of race in contemporary American society in our admissions and hiring policies, we de facto are discriminating. But that’s my personal view.

I thought both Hollinger and Edley were correct. I viewed it more as a question of where can you be most effective. David Hollinger argued that really it’s a K–12 issue and that’s where the leadership of the university ought to be putting its emphasis. I couldn’t agree with him more that the state of California has phenomenal challenges at the K–12 level. It’s frankly a disgrace that we have this wonderful university system and at the same time have a K–12 public educational system which I think ranks 48th in the nation.

On the other hand, the only institution I have the possibility of directly influencing is the University of California at Berkeley, so to that extent I thought that Hollinger was off the mark. The place we can most impact K–12 is in educating people who will provide leadership in the underrepresented minority communities either by actually working in the schools or working as activists in the local communities.

One of my many worries about California is that there are groups that seem to be becoming progressively more disenfranchised, not less. We need Berkeley to be educating the people who will provide leadership in those communities to bring them back economically and otherwise into the mainstream. Current law severely constrains our ability to do that.

Professor Hollinger discussed a group that has done quite well, which is Asian Americans. To what do you attribute that success?

I’m neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, so I can’t really explain that. There was a previous wave of immigrants from Europe, Jewish immigrants who ended up in places like the Bronx, who then accounted for many of the U.S. Nobel Prize winners. There are groups who come to the United States and find American society really consonant with their own culture and they’re able to prosper and achieve in a way that’s really quite remarkable.

Is that an appropriate area for multicultural study?

Absolutely. If you look at achievements of particular groups, then it turns out some, like Polish people in Chicago, have really excelled. Why is that? In Canada, Portuguese people seem to have underachieved educationally. How can that be? Is there a mismatch between Portuguese immigrants and Canadian society?

What are some of your personal experiences that have given you a passion for social justice?

When I was in my first year of graduate school at Yale, a friend and I went around to all the community centers in New Haven to see if we could volunteer as leaders for youth groups. We ended up at Dixwell Community Center, where we discovered that there just were no white people. I mean, there were no white people in a community center a few blocks from Yale. So we said, “Let’s volunteer here.”

Peopled warned me, saying, “White people can’t walk in the projects in New Haven. You’ll get killed.” But we walked around in the projects and it was fine. We had a group of about eight or ten kids that we got to know very well. One of them ended up playing in the NBA. I don’t know if I want to take credit for that. [laughs] He might well not have ended up going to university at all if he hadn’t been part of our group. He was a smart kid. But he had incredible hostility to white people except possibly for me. One day I turned on the TV and there he was. His name was John Williamson and they called him Super John. He died in his early 40s.

I later ended up teaching at a Baptist college in South Carolina. There was a hospital across the street, and one of the students I was fond of had a medical emergency on the weekend. It turned out that they had two emergency rooms, one for black people and one for white people, and the emergency room for black people was only open Monday to Friday. So they told him to come back on Monday. Of course, the emergency room for white people was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It seems unbelievable now, but this was true. By coincidence, while I was there, a woman from the Bahamas who was teaching at the college also had a medical emergency on the weekend. She went there and they went to throw her out because she was black. Then it emerged in her screams of protest that she was from the Bahamas. They then agreed to admit her as a patient. It was only American blacks they wouldn’t treat in the “whites only” emergency room. That was also a lesson to me at a very young age—I was only 23 years old at the time—that racism in America is extremely complicated.

Not long after that, I found myself in the Soviet Union, in the bad old days, at a meeting where Soviet Jewish refusenik scientists were not allowed. This was just another example of an extreme injustice. When we were in the South, we had some pretty frightening experiences. I remember staring down a state trooper in a small town in Georgia during a protest march in which they had already put every other white person in jail. But nothing will ever match being surrounded by the KGB in the apartment of a Soviet Jewish scientist refusenik in Moscow.

What happened?

We got harassed a bit, but ultimately they released the Jewish scientists. I went to Tel Aviv after they had been released. It was one of the finest moments in my life when I got big Russian bear hugs from these refusenik scientists. And it was our efforts that led directly to their release. That was, early in my life, dramatic proof that responsible social activism can produce change in society.

One final question. Have you found time to do any of your own research since you arrived?

I did find time last autumn to write a research proposal through Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to the Department of Energy to be part of a consortium to study quantum materials. At the beginning of the summer, they informed us that they were going to fund a subset of the proposal, including mine. There are now two badges in my wallet. One badge is my Berkeley badge as chancellor at the top; and my other badge is Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as an LBNL staff scientist at the bottom.

From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.

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