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Tumbling the Ivory Tower

At UC Berkeley, one radically engaged academic program could finally force the school to own up to its mission as a public university — if the administration agrees to fund it.



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Like students, tenure-track instructors are implicitly encouraged to put community engagements aside until they reach tenure. "[Administrators are] interested in high value research ... assessed in dollars brought to the university," said Kadir. "They're not interested in things that don't bear those fruits because they have a very economic mindset about it all, and I think unless that's changed, things like ACES are always gonna have a real big fight."

Still, ACES classes are constantly overflowing with students and the instructors who teach the classes say it's worth doing, just for the fulfillment. "I work seven days a week," said Kadir. "I'm not gonna do that for sixty grand a year and insecurity if I'm not gonna enjoy it."

When Chancellor Nicholas Dirks arrived on campus in 2013, he called for a return to the university's utopian ideals, and a renewed commitment to fulfilling UC Berkeley's mission as an institution that truly serves the public. Part of that call included the announcement of an initiative to transform undergraduate education at UC Berkeley. He appointed a committee of deans and advisors, along with Catherine Koshland, vice chancellor of undergraduate education, to dissect the curriculum and rebuild it for the better.

Two years later, the campus community is still waiting to hear that plan. In a recent interview, Koshland said that the announcement is slated for next spring.

Robinson and Akin, meanwhile, are anxiously awaiting the chancellor's priorities, which will determine whether the university considers ACES to be a failed experiment or a new commitment. The way ACES currently operates, now that the Haas donation has run out, the duo must submit their budget to the university and pray that it gets approved. That means the program has no security and no room for growth. But in order to address the structural issues that ACES faces, Robinson and Akin argue that the program needs much greater financial support.

"Our model is not an expensive model and it's not a model we would like — really, it's a smattering of resources that are very thin in terms of what we're trying to achieve," Robinson said. "If we really want to take this seriously, we need a lot more financial support."

Suzan Akin is one of two members of the ACES administrative staff. - BERT JOHNSON
  • Bert Johnson
  • Suzan Akin is one of two members of the ACES administrative staff.

The university has approved Robinson and Akin's staffing positions within ACES for the next year. But with each of them working in the ACES program only part-time, that won't be enough to accomplish what they would like with the program in the future. Meanwhile, ACES instructor Powers argued that the AC Center as a whole should be revitalized. "Our campus is rich with resources but there's no AC Center," said Powers, referring to the fact the AC Center no longer has the resources and programs for teachers that it used to offer. "The AC requirement requires faculty who aren't specialists in this fraught topic of racial formation to acquire a certain proficiency. Where are they going to acquire that if they're focused on research?"

Many UC Berkeley students, meanwhile, still aren't even aware of the ACES program, even though multiple student groups have declared it a priority. In 2013, the ASUC (UC Berkeley's student government), put forth a bill requesting that the university dedicate institutionalized funding to the ACES program, and last spring semester the school's Black Student Union included funding for ACES in its demands. Pritzkat — Powers' devoted ACES fellow — was part of the ASUC when the bill passed. He said administrators promised that steady funding was on its way, but so far it hasn't come. "ACES doesn't work to completely dismantle, but at least erode, the wall that gets created between this ivory tower — the university — and the community," said Pritzkat. "I think the university doesn't know how to handle this type of radical academic work that is bringing community in. ... We've been beating this drum about how cool ACES is for at least four years."

For her part, Koshland said in an interview that she considers the program to be wildly successful. "We've seen the value of this kind of education," she said, "and are committed to finding ways to continue to support it." But ACES is tied up in the larger funding challenge on campus, she said.

Koshland said that ACES will be included in the chancellor's undergraduate initiative priorities to some degree — likely as part of a new mandate that all undergraduates complete some kind of in-depth capstone project in order to graduate. But when asked about institutionalized funding, she said that the university will look for more philanthropic funding — like the $947,000 it received from Haas. (The AC Center and AC courses are not at risk of having no funding in the future like ACES is.)

So, even if ACES ends up being a priority, everything could stay the same. "We're sort of in this landscape where, even if the work you're doing is considered a priority by the campus ... that doesn't necessarily guarantee any sustainability or stability for the work or the ability to kinda continue and grow that work and do it in a deeper way," Robinson said. At least, she and Akin added, it would be much easier for them to secure outside funding if the program is incorporated into the chancellor's priorities for undergraduate education to be released next spring.

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