Former UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks: The American university is 'under growing attack'

Former UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks: The American university is 'under growing attack'
Nicholas Dirks stepped down last year as UC Berkeley chancellor after confronting serial crises in what he calls the hardest job in American higher education. (D. Ross Cameron / Associated Press)

Four years ago, Nicholas Dirks left a top job at Columbia University for the chancellorship of UC Berkeley, the nation’s top public research university. It was not a smooth ride. He faced crisis after crisis: a critical budget deficit, sexual harassment scandals, a free speech riot, personal controversy, declining faculty confidence in his leadership. He stepped down last year. Now the specialist in South Asian studies is writing a book about the history and future of the university and has returned to the classroom to teach an undergraduate seminar on the subject. He also has joined a venture to create an international school system, starting with campuses in the U.S. and China. Dirks spoke to The Times about his bumpy tenure as chancellor and his feeling that universities and the American Dream currently are under assault.

Some say the chancellorship of UC Berkeley is the hardest job in American higher education. Is it?

Yes. It’s a great university and it's competing with private universities at the highest level. But it’s doing so in this kind of governance system and in this public arena that puts many more constraints on one's freedom to maneuver than what is put on ...peers in the private world of higher education. And of course we just have a lot less money and a lot more public scrutiny.

But you took the job, turning down an Ivy League presidency offering more pay. Why?

Most of all, I was just compelled by the public mission — the extraordinary diversity of the student body, the way in which one-third of the students were on Pell grants. But the recession had hit it very hard. All the conversations I had at the time were that … if you could help Berkeley make a transition at this difficult time, you’d be doing something that would be important not just for that institution but for the whole system of public higher education. Without public universities you really would just have an education system for the elite.

What was the hardest transition from a private university to a public one?

At Columbia, I was used to working with our board of trustees, who were just single-mindedly focused on Columbia. The UC Board of Regents is dealing with 10 campuses, and the primary relationship is with the Office of the President. We could not make the decisions around tuition or student enrollment numbers or many other things that at Columbia we had full discretion over as a campus. So … many of the levers that are typically associated with running a campus that looks like it's going to have financial trouble ahead were not available. I was having lunch with [Gov.] Jerry Brown … and he said to somebody who came up, “You know we're not going to raise tuition at the University of California while I’m governor.” So the quick recognition that ... even though the university has autonomy constitutionally it was so tied to the workings and voices in government made me realize this was a very different environment.

You faced serial crises. What were the missteps on the budget deficit?

Our projections were that we would have a $150-million deficit. We began a strategic planning process during the summer of 2013. But we [did not want to] start speaking about the financial problem until we at least had the makings of a plan because we were concerned that we would lower morale on campus, which already had gone through enormous hardships around the cuts after the recession of 2008. If I were to do it over again, I would have certainly tried to open that discussion up more widely sooner.

What about sexual harassment cases?

During my first two years at Berkeley, we developed new procedures and invested in new support for student survivors, adding staff, creating new student advocates and streamlining procedures. I wish I had paid more attention to faculty cases from the start. The procedures in place at the time I came to UCB were to keep the chancellor as the court of last resort, which meant that I was not informed about or involved in adjudicating cases for faculty and deans. However, we changed all this. After the reforms, I was informed immediately, and the final decision now is made either by the chancellor or by the president. I also appointed a campus “lead” to monitor our procedures and oversee all cases, which I wish I had done earlier as well.

What were your proudest moments?

I worked very hard to improve the undergraduate experience at Berkeley. When I first arrived, I discovered there was a very low graduation rate among football and basketball players. So I set up a task force to work on that. Two years later we had a graduation rate for the football team that was on par with every other student at Berkeley. I’m also very proud of bringing UCSF [UC San Francisco] and Berkeley closer together, through initiatives such as the Innovative Genomics Institute and the Chan Zuckerberg BioHub, and beginning a joint conversation about neuroscience. I worked to revamp our fundraising operation and showed that Berkeley can raise more money than ever before.

What is your book’s main message?

While the American university has become the world standard for excellence in teaching and research, it has also been under growing attack. It’s the whole set of headlines from the cost disease, the irresponsibility of administrators, the runaway nature of college sports, the prohibitions on free speech, the coddling of students, the incidents of sexual harassment. … It’s a call to arms for people to step up and … call out the fact that this kind of generalized attack has really been chipping away at any kind of previous consensus that public universities really do provide a significant public good. … A lot of it is a function of our polarized political situation. But I also think it’s because there's a sense that universities like Berkeley are public in name only and they're not really open to the public.

Support our journalism

Please consider subscribing today to support stories like this one. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks. Already a subscriber? Your support makes our work possible. Thank you.

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe