University News

Q&A: Jerry Kang, UCLA’s new vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion

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Jerry Kang a 2015
Christelle Nahas

The new vice chancellor says his vision is to “rebrand questions of equity, diversity and inclusion as less about political orthodoxy and more about grand intellectual challenges.”

Following an extensive national search, Professor Jerry Kang has been selected as UCLA’s inaugural vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion. Kang, who holds faculty appointments in law and Asian American studies, spoke with UCLA Newsroom’s Eric Greene about his background and vision for this critical new endeavor.

What is your vision for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion?

A university should be about thinking, learning and self-criticism. But issues such as diversity are often viewed as just exercises in political correctness. That’s a fundamental mistake, especially at a university.

My vision is to rebrand questions of equity, diversity and inclusion as less about political orthodoxy and more about grand intellectual challenges. I want to leverage the smarts that we already have at UCLA among faculty and students to examine how to make this a more fundamentally fair place. My ambition is to pull together a world-class team — including mind scientists, social psychologists, behavioral economists, sociologists, experts in ethnic studies and the professions, and humanists — to drive evidence-based interventions that provide concrete benefits to equity, diversity and inclusion.

What do you think are UCLA’s greatest challenges related to equity, diversity and inclusion?

We have many challenges, so let me mention just a few.

For faculty, there’s a fundamental question about procedural due process. Many faculty have a gnawing suspicion that they’re not given a fair shake because of who they are — female, a person of color, gay or disabled. One central challenge is to reform our procedures and policies such that all faculty are assessed and treated more fairly.

For students, we’ve confronted climate questions that are incredibly hard. They are sometimes exacerbated by lack of critical mass. Sometimes, they stem from larger political questions, which can prompt people literally to kill each other in other parts of the world. We should not be shocked that such political questions manifest here. Passion means people care, and we need people to care.

That said, we must build an environment where those passions produce engagement and resilience, not bullying or isolation.  

To what extent is UCLA experiencing unique diversity and campus climate problems?

UCLA has seen its fair share of high-profile issues, such as those documented in the Moreno Report. But it would be a mistake to think there’s something peculiarly bad about UCLA. The challenges of bias, discrimination and belonging vex all of society, including police departments, higher education and Silicon Valley.

If we can use all our smarts and goodwill to figure out better ways to interact, assess and work with each other — if we can solve those problems here — then there’s no reason we can’t translate and transmit those best practices to the rest of the world. 

What expertise do you bring to your new position?

Professionally, I’ve been working on race and equity issues for two decades. I am a leading scholar on implicit bias, stereotype threat and the law. My collaboration with mind scientists gives me cutting-edge insights on how to counter the biases we all tend to have.

► View Kang’s 2013 TEDx talk on explicit and implicit bias

Complementing that scientific approach is my work in critical race theory, which makes me attuned to structures, hidden assumptions, complacency, power and the need to unmask. I have also done extensive work on Asian-Americans, including how to think about their role in affirmative action debates. As a scholar of the Japanese-American internment, I’m also sensitive to a post-9/11 world that fears certain groups demarcated by race and religion. It also helps that I regularly give talks outside the ivory tower — to lawyers, judges, community organizations and corporations.

Personally, I have always viewed myself as an outsider. I came to the United States when I was 6. I didn’t speak a lick of English, didn’t know anything about American culture. My parents are working class. Economic security was never something I took for granted. I’m also a racial minority and identify myself as a person of color. I have skin in the game. I care passionately. As an immigrant, I love this country for the opportunity it gave me but know that it can do better. As a racial minority who grew up working class, I empathize with those who feel they are on the fringes. Both the passion and empathy will, I hope, serve me well as vice chancellor.

You’ve voiced support for the College’s diversity requirement, which faculty are voting on this week and next. Why is that so important?

The requirement is meant to push us out of our comfort zones, to push us to think with intellectual rigor about the differences that divide us. And so many things divide us. Think about Ferguson, about when Los Angeles burned in 1992.

By confronting these issues as serious intellectual and social challenges, we will become more responsible members of an increasingly diverse polity. As faculty, we have no choice but to be mindful curators of the undergraduate experience. Shouldn’t a world-class public university, at the vanguard of demographic change and pluralism, include serious study of diversity within that experience?

How are you going to measure success?
Measuring is critically important. It’s too easy to assume that good-faith effort is all that’s necessary. We need to challenge ourselves, be skeptical and measure tangible results.

But measure what precisely? Well, you often get the most powerful reforms by altering default structures. So I’d keep a tally of what structures, in the form of practices, procedures and policies, we’ve changed each year. I also want to take baseline measures of climate and procedural due process, and see whether we’ve moved the dial, year in and year out. Broadly speaking, I’m keen on increasing accountability, and one way to do so is by counting. Even though metrics are imperfect and not everything that’s important can be counted, they’re a great place to start.

The campus Title IX officer and the discrimination prevention officers, who all are lawyers, will report to you. How will this be an asset to your mission?

Lawyers are really good at holding people accountable. Lawyers hold judges accountable; lawyers hold presidents accountable. Now, we won’t be acting as lawyers per se because we don’t work in the office of legal counsel, which has a different mission. That said, a team of legally trained professionals will be able to ask the hard questions, provide deliverables, advocate for solutions and solve real-world problems. Lawyers know how to champion causes. For us, these will be the causes of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Is there anything you want to add about your approach to this work?

I know enough to know how little I know. I have a huge amount to learn, and I’m committed to listening and learning from faculty, staff, students and alumni. I already engage folks from many different political circles, methodological inclinations and age groups. And I want to signal my willingness to continue bridging gaps, learning from different lived experiences and pushing myself outside my comfort zones.

I also realize that I’m deeply fallible. But knowing that I will inevitably stumble and fall allows me to take necessary risks. Everyone should know that I’m entirely uninterested in cosmetic compliance. I mean to make a difference. 

► Read the news release about Kang’s appointment

► Read the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost’s announcement

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