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UC Berkeley chancellor under investigation for alleged misuse of public funds, personal use of campus fitness trainer

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks is under university investigation for the alleged misuse of public funds for travel and the personal use of a campus fitness trainer without payment, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

A whistleblower complaint alleged that Dirks had failed to pay for use of the campus Recreational Sports Facility and its professional services, and that he used public funds to pay for travel with a recreational sports employee on non-university business, according to an April 11 letter to Dirks from Rachael Nava, the University of California’s chief operating officer.

The allegations, if proven, would constitute ‘improper governmental activities,” Nava said in the letter, which was obtained by The Times.

Dirks said through a spokesman that he would withhold comment until the investigation was concluded. 

But Mike Weinberger, who served as director of the recreational facility until his retirement in February, said he approved the free personal training and did not believe it was a violation of university policy. He noted that free tickets to football games and other sports events are routinely given to supporters. 

He said the trainer, Devin Wicks, told him that Dirks approached him about fitness training shortly after becoming chancellor in 2013. Weinberger said he suggested offering free sessions for Dirks to boost the standing of the recreational sports department — which often operates in the shadows of the athletic department, with its big-time sports teams. 

Weinberger said he did not know how many hours of free training Wicks provided. Wicks has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation. 

“To have a chancellor in the building seeing how many students we serve — I was thrilled,” Weinberger said. “It was a strategic political decision by me to enhance our standing on campus. If there was a policy issue I don’t think any of us were aware of it.”

The allegations of improper travel involved a trip to India in January by Wicks and Dirks’ wife, Janaki Bakhle, an associate history professor at Berkeley. Dirks did not travel with Wicks and never has, a university source said.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because commenting on an ongoing investigation is not allowed, said the trip was paid for by the Berkeley Alumni Assn., not public university dollars. Weinberger said he approved Wicks’ request to use his personal vacation days for the trip.

Reports of the investigation have been buzzing on the campus for weeks, adding to concern about Dirks’ leadership. 

The embattled chancellor has also been accused of mishandling sexual abuse complaints. He and Claude Steele, his handpicked provost who resigned earlier this year, were sharply criticized for imposing weak sanctions on three high-powered faculty members who violated UC’s sexual harassment policy, although Steele says he was only involved in one case. Dirks has since unveiled a plan to combat sexual misconduct. 

But the chancellor has lost  the confidence of many faculty members, who allege he has failed to adequately consult them on plans to close a $150-million budget deficit and reorganize academic departments.  

Faculty members were close to calling for a vote of no confidence earlier this year and may revive the effort in the fall, one senior member said.

“Sadly, the extensive record of indecisiveness, unforced errors and poor decision-making by our top administrator on several critical fronts has seriously undermined [faculty] trust,” Mara Loveman, sociology department chair, said at an Academic Senate meeting in May, according to a transcript. 

Bob Jacobsen, a physics professor, said Dirks had brought positive changes to the campus, including shoring up undergraduate education with $4 million extra this year to hire new instructors to accommodate an additional 1,000 students. He said faculty concerns about Dirks’ leadership were legitimate, but that he believed in working them out together.

“The most important thing is to find ways for us to work together as a campus,” he said. “Some of these attacks exist for the purpose of tearing things down, and I’m more interested in building them up.”

Dirks has also been criticized for spending $700,000 at a time of a campus budget crisis to erect a 7-foot-tall security fence around his residence to keep out student protesters. A university spokesman said the fence was recommended by Berkeley campus police and would save $360,000 annually in security costs.

He is also being accused by the former manager of the chancellor’s residence, called the University House, of firing in retaliation of her objecting to her work conditions. The former employee, Alice McNeil, alleged that Dirks and Bakhle asked her to perform personal chores on UC time and was angered when she fully reported the value of the work, which is taxable, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Dirks told the Chronicle that he paid taxes on the hours and “there is no issue there.” A copy of some of the 2014 accounting documents obtained by The Times showed that both McNeil and Dirks signed off on the hours, which amounted to 1% or less of her UC time. UC policy allows the staff of chancellors and presidents to spend up to 25% of university time on personal tasks, but the value of the hours is taxable.

Dirks did not respond to questions about whether he would resign. In a statement emailed to The Times on Tuesday, he said the campus has made “great strides” in reducing a structural budget deficit and boosting fundraising in the last two years. 

“I will continue to meet with faculty, staff and students in order to hear and understand their concerns; to explain how these concerns are being addressed; and to build consensus and support for promoting Berkeley’s long-term aspirations,” he said in a statement.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

11:53 a.m., July 13: This article has been updated with additional details.

This article was originally published at 7:15 p.m., July 12.

 

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