Jerry Kang remembers the moment vividly. It was the fall of 2015, and he had just arrived at Meyerhoff Park for an Afrikan Student Union protest. A fraternity party had generated anger over its racial overtones, and he could hear chants of “Black Bruins matter!”
“Seeing the tremendous pain and anger our African American students were experiencing broke my heart,” recalls Kang, a distinguished professor of law and Asian American studies, who had just months before taken on the inaugural role of vice chancellor for UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). In a heartfelt impromptu speech, he addressed the crowd: “I’m a tenured professor and hold an administrative role, but none of that actually matters if individually I do not feel pain or you don’t understand that Black Bruins matter for me as well.”
UCLA’s Office of EDI was created in 2015 in response to an independent committee’s investigation into accusations of racial bias at UCLA. The report found that UCLA’s policies and procedures for addressing discrimination among faculty were inadequate.
During his time as vice chancellor, Kang has helped make the campus more equitable for people of color, new immigrants, people of various religious, gender and sexual identities and expressions, people with both visible and invisible disabilities, and other underrepresented populations.
Below, we take a look at what the EDI office and Kang, who steps down from his role in July, have been able to tackle in the first five years.
“In some ways, our entire society’s attitude toward diversity and inclusion has radically changed since 2015,” Kang says. He cites how in fall 2015, after a summer of bloodshed, Black Lives Matter became a civil rights movement; in fall 2016, there was an unexpected presidential election result; and in fall 2017, the #MeToo movement was in full stride.
In addition to overseeing the rapid growth of the Discrimination Prevention Office and the Title IX Office, Kang elevated diversity and inclusion work to the next level, establishing new systems of investigating faculty, implementing bold new sexual harassment policies and exploring new ways to hold people accountable.
All eyes on us
In the past, especially when it came to sexual harassment or racial discrimination, the general practice had been to lock up a settlement with strict confidentiality terms. Kang aggressively advocated for sharing information more publicly. Investigation statistics and sometimes even details, including penalties, are now published on EDI’s website under Public Accountability.
“This office was created to force people to recognize that what used to be good enough won’t be good enough going forward,” Kang says. “Powerful people who might misbehave will see there are consequences that are being shared publicly.”
Data, not good intentions
Another brainchild of Kang’s is BruinX, the data-driven, evidence-based research arm of EDI that operates like a campus think tank. It formalizes protocols that don’t just rely on well-intentioned people to make good decisions regarding faculty hires. All search committees now must be trained using evidence-based information. Also, EDI’s implicit bias videos have been viewed more than 200,000 times and are recommended by more than 55 institutions. And BruinX dashboards provide data-driven campus demographics, and a BruinXperience app captures students’ real-time feelings about inclusion.
Ears on the ground
Josh Tran ’17, who identifies as a queer first-generation Vietnamese American, has been part of the EDI Student Advisory Board (SAB) since it was established in 2016, when he was an undergrad. Now a law student, Tran especially appreciated the live chats that Kang held to address controversial topics, such as police brutality against African Americans and First Amendment issues. “There needs to be an even more intentional channel to make sure marginalized students feel visible, appreciated and empowered,” he says. “This stuff takes time, and what VC Kang has done in terms of sowing the seeds is really important.”
SAB member Olivia Shearin adds, “There’s a lot of unintentional, hurtful rhetoric in the academic setting.” She says strongly gendered language can make nonbinary students feel unwelcome. Working with a life sciences professor, Shearin helped make a lecture gender-inclusive. But she and fellow SAB member Kaumron Eidgahy hope to see more change. “Making the hiring process more equitable has made a difference,” says Eidgahy, who identifies as a queer second-generation Iranian American. “But the vast majority of campus faculty is still white and male, so I know there is more work to do there.”
A long journey
“I’ve experienced discrimination, prejudice and bigotry my entire life,” says Isaiah Njoku ’19, who identifies as African American, Nigerian (second generation), straight and cisgender. At UCLA, Njoku experienced subtler racism, known as microaggressions, such as not being offered a flyer on Bruin Walk or being assumed to be an athlete. As chair of the Afrikan Student Union, he worked with the EDI office to improve the experience of Black Bruins at the university. The recent opening of the Black Community Center is a step in the right direction, Njoku says. “However, the journey toward equity is a continual battle.”
Read All Things [Not] Being Equal to learn about the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because the EDI office was created for the specific mission of holding faculty accountable, much of Kang’s focus has been behind the scenes, building policies and procedures. Daily Bruin articles tell the story of students who feel unheard and an office that has worked hard but is sometimes accused of forgetting a key constituency: the students. As groups such as students with disabilities feel overlooked and request funding for more accessibility projects, he understands their frustrations. Conversations about anti-Semitism and religious sensitivities, especially in light of difficult debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also demand thoughtful attention.
“Students who question whether the university cares enough about their particular concerns would have appreciated more direct interaction with me and my office,” Kang says. “I want to own that it was challenging.”
“VC Kang has built an office that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before,” says Johnathan Perkins, special assistant to the vice chancellor for EDI, as well as an attorney and an expert on diversity issues. The breadth of matters that come through the office is enormous, he says, but we can always do better. “The problems are infinite, and there is an infinite amount of solutions and adjustments to get to a more equitable place. We need to come at this from a place of love and care for one another.”
The task of leading UCLA’s efforts to get to a more equitable place will now be taken up by a new head of EDI, as Kang returns to the UCLA School of Law faculty full time. That task will be given new urgency by the national outcry for racial justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. No doubt, Kang will have some good advice for his successor.
Moving forward, Kang says, trust is the fundamental key. “We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt that we all belong here. We are all trying in good faith to figure things out,” he says.