Black students pressure UC San Diego to expand their tiny presence on campus

Kendall Green, who majors in sociology, wonders why UCSD doesn't have more black students.
Kendall Green, who majors in sociology, wonders why UCSD doesn’t have more black students.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

They say UCSD has done little to increase their numbers on a campus that has racial issues.


It was a bittersweet moment for Kendall Green when he took his place last fall in the beehive that is UC San Diego.

He had earned his way into a top-10 research school. And it was exciting to be on a campus where enrollment had soared to nearly 39,000.

But Green, a Black sociology major, said: “I didn’t see many people who look like me, even in large classes. It made me wonder if UCSD cares about Black students. If they did, wouldn’t there be more of us?”

The question is being pressed hard as UCSD prepares to begin its 60th year, with the Black Lives Matter movement still in the headlines.

The campus had 1,092 Black undergraduate and graduate students last year. They accounted for 2.8 percent of total enrollment, roughly one percentage point higher than a decade ago. Hispanic/Latino enrollment increased six percentage points. And in the biggest increase of all, foreign students, who pay twice as much in tuition, jumped 16 percentage points, to 23 percent.

Black enrollment at UCSD peaked in the 1970s.

Black students point at the figures and say UCSD, which markets itself as a cradle of diversity, has failed to live up to its promise to greatly increase their presence and bring racial harmony to a campus that has had some ugly moments.

The promise was made in the wake of “Black Winter,” the name given to a series of racial incidents in 2010 that included the Compton Cookout, an off-campus fraternity-led party that mocked Black History Month. Students wore costumes that portrayed stereotypical images of people living in ghettoes, with the emphasis on Blacks. The party invitation encouraged people to use offensive stereotypes of the way ghetto people speak and act.

Not long after the cookout, a UCSD student media outlet broadcast a racial slur, a noose was found in Geisel Library and a Ku Klux Klan hood was placed over a statue of Dr. Seuss.

The university underwent a painful and public reckoning.

Its academic reputation survived. “I lead two research teams. What undergrad does that?” said Syreeta Nolan, a Black psychology major. “You can do that here!”

But current Black students say they still have to deal with everything from feeling unwelcome and marginalized to struggling to find the help they need to prosper in UCSD’s famously fast and tough academic terms.

“It can be difficult for a Black graduate student to find a study group that will be a positive learning environment where you can speak with and understand your colleagues and not face unintentional bias or ignorant behavior,” said Daril Brown II, a Black graduate-level electrical engineering student.

There’s also the specter of occasional in-your-face racism.

In late May, days after the death of George Floyd, unknown intruders hacked into a Zoom conference call and hurled racial epithets at Black students who were discussing race relations.

Syreeta Nolan, a UCSD psychology major, was called racial slurs during a hacked Zoom call in May.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Nolan had the mic when the attack occurred.

“I have relatives who’ve been called the n-word, probably ancestors who were called it,” Nolan said. “I didn’t think I’d reach a point where I’d be called that out of hate and racism. It really gave me a visceral connection to my history.”

Malia Henry, an international-studies major, also was on the call.

“I just broke down,” Henry said. “I’m a student. What is it about me that makes you hate me so much that you would interrupt and defile a safe space like that?”

Many turn to the Black Student Union and Black Resource Center for comfort.

Beyond that, the options narrow.

Last fall, UCSD had 1,409 tenured or tenure-track faculty, 39 of whom were Black. That’s about 2.8 percent.

There were no Black faculty members in the Division of Physical Sciences or the Rady School of Management. UCSD’s 117 year-old Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which predates the campus, recently appointed its first Black professor. The campus also recently appointed Cheryl Anderson as its first Black female dean. She leads the Wertheim School of Public Health.

Becky Petitt is trying to help improve those numbers as vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion. She’s also serving as a healer at a difficult moment.

“UCSD is made up of human beings,” said Petitt, who is Black. “It’s made up of imperfect people. It’s made up of an administration doing our best to do right by our constituents.

“I really don’t appreciate when people try to frame the institution as racist, the institution as uncaring.”

Becky Petitt is vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion at UC San Diego.
Becky Petitt is vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion at UC San Diego.
(Erik Jepsen)

Her views don’t fully align with those of JoAnn Trejo.

“UCSD leadership and administration, ‘those in charge’ for making decisions, lack awareness and a genuine understanding of the biased and ‘racist’ policies that currently exist [when it comes to hiring Blacks and Hispanics],” said Trejo, assistant vice chancellor of faculty affairs in health sciences.

Trejo, who is Hispanic, said that increasing faculty diversity is not treated as a priority and that “the ‘fear’ of losing power and control by having ‘other’ people at the table that are new and different” also appears to be a factor.

JoAnn Trejo is assistant vice chancellor of faculty affairs in health sciences at UCSD.
(UC San Diego)

The lack of minorities can make it difficult to recruit top candidates. The problem was especially evident two years ago when UCSD was trying to lure a doctor for a residency in radiology.

UCSD officials say a Black, Harvard-trained physician was among the top candidates. He visited the school and told the hiring committee at the end of the day not to seek his services. The university says he was put off by the lack of Blacks in leadership roles.

A path forward?

UCSD promotes itself as a progressive, welcoming place.

In 2018, the school publicized a USC study that said UC San Diego performed well at serving Black students. USC partly arrived at that decision by deciding UCSD had a good ratio between Black students and Black faculty.

It’s the kind of claim that annoys some students.

“I never had a Black professor my first year,” said Adrian Dymally, a biology major who chairs the Black Student Union. “It does matter. If you don’t see yourself in the university, how can the university serve you?”

In July, The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said in a new report that UCSD and six other University of California campuses are among the least accessible elite public colleges and universities in the country when it comes to Blacks and Latinos.

The study compared the percentage of Black undergraduates at each school with the percentage of Black 18- to 24-year-olds in California.

The study said that 1.3 percent of UCSD’s undergraduates were Black in 2017, nearly five percentage points below the average for college-age students.

UCSD says the figure is more than one percentage point higher.

It’s possible UCSD will end up with low numbers again this year. The campus offered admission to a record 22,658 freshmen this fall. But the percentage of offers made to Blacks dropped by one percentage point, to 3 percent of total offers. And the campus is continuing to heavily court international students.

The Black Student Union has issued a list of demands to deal with such issues. Among other things, BSU wants:

  • The creation of a college “dedicated to the education and empowerment of Black students”
  • Black students to constitute 10 percent of campus enrollment by 2025
  • Black faculty to constitute 10 percent of the overall tenured/tenure-track faculty by 2025. The target must include all departments, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

“There are outstanding [faculty] candidates out there, but they are not being recruited to faculty positions,” Trejo said.

But is widely acknowledged that a variety of factors will make it hard for UCSD to achieve those goals.

There’s the “pipeline” problem. Only 35 percent of Black high school graduates in California meet eligibility requirements for either the California State University system or UCs. And only 3 percent of Black students enroll in UCs.

Blacks also earn less than 6 percent of the doctorates awarded nationally. Most tenured or tenure-track positions at UCSD require a doctorate.

California voters will be asked Nov. 3 to approve Proposition 16, which, among other things, would restore the right of the state’s colleges and universities to consider race, ethnicity and gender in admission decisions. That would roll back Prop. 209, which voters passed in 1996 to bar state institutions from using so-called affirmative action.

Todd Coleman, a star bioengineering professor, is leaving UCSD for Stanford.
(UC San Diego)

The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic slump also are delaying the hiring of faculty at schools like UCSD, which just lost one of its star professors, Black bioengineer Todd Coleman, to Stanford.

“We are very aware that if minority candidates do not see enough people like themselves, it can be very difficult to recruit them,” said Al Pisano, dean of UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering.

UCSD recently introduced the Chancellor’s 21-Day Anti-Racism Challenge, a series of webinars on race. It was unveiled during one of the quietest periods of the year of UCSD.

The BSU did an eye roll.

“The history of anti-Blackness on this campus and the current toxic racial climate will not disappear with the implementation of a 21-day anti-racism challenge but with a real commitment to acknowledge the voices, concerns and demands of the Black community at UCSD,” the BSU said in a statement.

There’s a feeling among Black students that the university is doing little more than signaling concerns.

“They call out terms to sound like they care — like Black Lives Matter,” said Jamilah Bellinger, a Black political-science major. “It’s platitudes. Empty platitudes.”

Journey Whitfield, an international-studies major, said she wants basic respect from everyone.

While being photographed by The San Diego Union-Tribune, Whitfield had a request: “If you identify me as a Black student, will you capitalize the B?”

The U-T began capitalizing the word June 13. ◆