Design Degrees for Social Justice

UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design launches new pilot graduate fellowship program providing free tuition to students pursuing social justice-oriented careers.

June 10, 2021
 
Courtesy of UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design
Wurster Hall, home to the University of California, Berkeley's College of Environmental Design

Graduate architecture and planning students who commit to working in social justice-related positions for at least three years after they graduate will be eligible to apply for full-tuition fellowships at the University of California, Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design through a new donor-funded four-year pilot program.

Programs to incentivize students to go into public interest work are well established in education, law and medicine and are typically done through student debt forgiveness programs. But the program at Berkeley is far more unusual, and possibly unique, in the world of architecture and design.

“What we’ve found in recent years with tuition increases is that student debt burden has been a real barrier to people doing the kind of radical, transformational kind of social justice work that they want to do,” said Vishaan Chakrabarti, the William W. Wurster Dean of the College of Environmental Design. “This really enables them to do that. It gives them the freedom to not have to worry about student debt and instead focus on how can they return to communities of color and other marginalized communities and have a social impact.”

Chakrabarti said the college expects to provide full-tuition fellowships to approximately 27 graduate students per year for the course of the four-year pilot. Eligible students can come from any of the college’s graduate programs, which include programs in architecture, city and regional planning, landscape architecture and environmental planning, and real estate development and design.

The Arcus Social Justice Corps fellowship program is funded by a $5.3 million gift from Jon Stryker, the billionaire heir to the Stryker Corp., a medical equipment company, and an architect who earned his graduate degree from Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

“My goal in making this gift is simple -- to empower these bright, talented students to live the idealism that attracted them to Berkeley in the first place,” Stryker said in a written statement. “Their professional fulfillment will have a multiplier effect that will benefit diverse communities large and small by removing financial barriers that often exist to those pursuing social justice careers.”

Chakrabarti said the commitment to work in social justice-related roles after graduating is nonbinding, and the program will not include a verification mechanism. But he said he is not worried about students following through.

“We know our students, and this is what most of them want to do regardless of this program,” Chakrabarti said. He added that he expects the experience of a student going through the program and making connections with other students committed to social justice will serve to reinforce their own commitment.

“This is a cohort model, so those 27 students are coming from all these different programs,” Chakrabarti said. “They’re meeting periodically with a program coordinator who’s doing lectures and course work about social impact practice. Those 27 students are all getting to know each other over time.”

Karen Chapple, professor and chair of the city and regional planning program, echoed the idea that most students coming to Berkeley are already motivated to pursue social justice-related goals in their careers.

“I would say 80 percent of our students go out and work in some way for the social good,” she said. “The issue, though, is we have students taking on enormous amounts of debt once they come to grad school, and that means that some of the most talented students aren’t able to go out and get the job of their dreams. In particular, it hurts the ones who had intended to go into the nonprofit sector.”

Chapple said, for example, that jobs at nonprofits focused on housing affordability in cities like New York City, San Francisco or Washington, D.C., tend to be highly desirable but lower paying. Other employment options for graduates who studied planning would include positions in government or higher-paid positions at private engineering or architecture firms.

Renee Chow, chair of Berkeley’s architecture department, said the establishment of the fellowship coincides “with the huge transformation that I think all schools of architecture are engaging in right now.”

“Everyone recognizes that much of the way that architecture’s taught is actually predicated on a very Western canon of understanding of the ways in which people live, and that’s a very narrow perspective, and then a lot of things grow out of that,” Chow said. “I think if you look at the website at almost every school of architecture, there are statements that have emerged about what all the different schools are picking up now as part of a mission to increase diversity within our schools and our profession.”

"I think in general it signals a sea change for architectural education," Chow said, "and this investment is certainly going to make a huge difference for what our profession, our discipline is going to be doing in the future."

Michael J. Monti, executive director of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, said he is not aware of any similar programs in architecture that tie fellowship awards to the pursuit of social justice-related work after graduation.

The choice of framing the fellowship in the language of social justice matters, Monti said. "It positions the people who work in design as being advocates, not this sense of condescension of bringing in experts to the underprivileged. Architecture in particular doesn’t have a great history of using the tools of the profession to help advocate for justice or equity."

Berkeley College of Environmental Design faculty members also hope the fellowship program will help the public university compete with the financial aid and scholarship packages offered by private universities for top architecture and design students and attract more diverse students.

Chakrabarti said the college's graduate population lags behind its undergraduate population in terms of diversity.

“At undergraduate we’re about a third underrepresented minority, about 41 percent first-generation college students, but our grad students, it’s only about 15 percent underrepresented minority,” he said. “We’d like to see that number go up or at a minimum see that 15 percent better supported. To the extent we can by law, we are going to target this to a diverse population.”

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