EMILY HOEVEN • NOVEMBER 29, 2022
California’s public university systems, often ranked among the best in the nation, symbolize the state’s opportunities — and can also serve as a microcosm of some of its most pervasive challenges, such as bridging economic and racial divides.
Monday marked the start of the third week of strikes at all 10 University of California campuses, where 48,000 unionized academic workers — who conduct much of the system’s teaching, grading and research — are calling for significantly higher wages, expanded child care subsidies, enhanced health coverage and other benefits they say are necessary to keep up with the sky-high cost of living in the Golden State.
And the ramifications for UC are mounting as final exams approach, with some campuses set to end classes as early as Friday: Hundreds of influential faculty members announced a work stoppage Monday, writing in an online pledge of solidarity that they “will be exercising their right to honor the picket line by refusing to conduct university labor up to and including submission of grades — labor that would not be possible without the labor of all other academic workers as well as university staff.”
The influential California Labor Federation, led by former state lawmaker Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, is also ramping up pressure on UC: Union members marched to the UC Office of the President on Monday to broadcast their support for academic workers.
- Sean Malloy, a UC Merced associate professor of history, told the Los Angeles Times: “If the only way we can have a world-class university is to pay poverty wages and have graduate students sleeping in cars, that’s not a sustainable or ethical model.”
- Nevertheless, others warned that significantly raising academic workers’ wages could have negative unintended consequences, including higher student tuition, larger class sizes and universities hiring fewer academic workers or limiting the scope of their research.
Moving on to the California State University system: One of the state’s most selective public universities, Cal Poly SLO, enrolls 21,000 undergraduate students — just 146 of whom are Black, according to a stunning new report from CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn. Mikhail found that Cal Poly SLO is likely to trail all of the state’s public universities by several common measures of racial and social inclusion:
- It’s had the lowest percentage of Black undergraduate students among all Cal State and UC campuses for nearly two decades. This fall term about 0.7% of Cal Poly’s undergraduates are Black.
- It’s had the lowest share of Black freshman applicants of any Cal State and UC each year since at least 2011, even when compared to other selective universities and campuses removed from large population centers.
- It’s educated the smallest percentage of low-income students — those who get the federal Pell grant — of any UC or Cal State annually since 2008.
Mikhail spoke with multiple Black students about their experiences of confronting racism and isolation, ranging from being called the N-word by their white peers to being the only Black person in a class and feeling pressure to represent the whole community in group discussions.
But they also emphasized the strong sense of community Black students have created on campus — which some attributed to their decision to remain at Cal Poly instead of enrolling elsewhere.
- Gracie Babatola, a third-year Black student who’s president of Associated Students Inc., the campus’s student government: “The Black students that (Cal Poly) has kept on campus is because of the work of other Black students.”
The Cal Poly administration rebuffed Mikhail’s requests for interviews, instead emailing two responses totaling 1,900 words highlighting steps it’s taken to improve campus culture and attract more Black students. Measures include expanding financial aid programs, connecting donors with an independent organization to distribute scholarships specifically to Black students and hiring more faculty members experienced in matters of diversity, in addition to staff to respond to reported cases of bias.
- Matt Lazier, a campus spokesperson, wrote that Cal Poly “is eager to identify and implement additional measures” to expand diversity. “Pointedly, this includes attracting and enrolling more Black applicants.”
- Thanayi M. Jackson, a Black Cal Poly history professor who focuses on politics and race: “Sometimes (that) absence” of Black students “is just super loud.”