UC Berkeley

Interview: UC Berkeley’s new Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. Photo: Lance Knobel
A casual chancellor Nicholas Dirks in his office. Photo: Lance Knobel

The second floor of California Hall is bright and airy, with a hushed air of importance. As Berkeleyside ascended the staircase last week, Dan Mogulof, UC Berkeley’s head of communications, alerted us to prepare for a shock: The new chancellor was wearing jeans.

When Nicholas Dirks greeted us in his office, he was indeed in jeans, with a pressed pale pink shirt (he made an unnecessary excuse for the jeans: “It’s the middle of August.”). The tall bookcases in the office were filled with scholarly texts, as well as popular fiction and nonfiction. For a man who oversees the well-being of 36,000 students, more than 1,500 faculty members, 8,477 staff, 130 academic departments, and a $2.2 billion budget, Dirks’ desk was remarkably clutter-free. A large Apple display was crowded with email messages.

Dirks, 62, the former executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Columbia University, officially took office on June 1 but spent six weeks flying back and forth between New York City and the Bay Area. He moved into the chancellor’s home on campus in mid-July with his wife, Janaki Bakhle, an associate professor of history, and their 14-year-old son, who will be off to boarding school at the end of August (Dirks’ daughter from his first marriage works as a reporter at KPBS public radio in San Diego).

Dirks has longstanding ties to California. His parents moved to Santa Cruz in the 1970s when his father, J. Edward Dirks, was appointed the vice chancellor and dean for humanities at UC Santa Cruz. Dirks visited them regularly. He taught at Cal Tech in Pasadena for nine years before moving to the University of Michigan and then to head the department of anthropology at Columbia in 1997. Dirks specializes in South India, particularly the caste system and the impact of British colonial rule on the subcontinent.


Dirks hasn’t had a great deal of time to explore Berkeley yet, but a few things already stand out. A fitness enthusiast, he and his wife have taken their two dogs on walks in Tilden Park (although he hasn’t made it to dog-friendly Point Isabel in Richmond yet). Dirks said his wife, who was born in Mumbai,  has wanted to move to Berkeley “ever since she drove up University Avenue and realized you can buy saris down the street and you can get dosi up the street.” One of the first places they ate was at Vik’s Chaat on Fourth Street, which Dirks pronounced “very good.”

Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel and Lance Knobel spoke to Dirks about his impressions of Berkeley, his perspective as a new chancellor, and his initial views on some areas of university/city relations. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Berkeleyside: What do you think of Berkeley so far?

Dirks: I haven’t really spent that much time at Berkeley. For me, Berkeley has mostly been both the extraordinary, iconic history of the city and the university and then [the time I spent] as an academic who has come here periodically to give talks and to be part of conferences and workshops and the like. In a way, I’m still discovering Berkeley.

Berkeleyside: Your academic background in anthropology and history seems out of the norm for where universities choose their chancellors or presidents. They’re often economists or lawyers or scientists because of the perception that that’s the way the world is going. Does that give you a different perspective?


Dirks: That’s an interesting question. I’ve been asked it in various ways a few times. I don’t know if I have a consistent response to it. I’ll just say that I effectively began my academic career writing about Gandhi. The truth is that in writing about Gandhi and then in teaching about Gandhi over the years I’ve thought a lot about civil disobedience and I’ve thought a lot about the need to understand, respect, and certainly evaluate in a historical way the issues that are part of the fabric of life in this campus. In part, the understanding that I had when I came here that I’m going to have to engage these issues is almost, for me, an ethnographic interest and seeing what it is like to be involved in these issues from the point of view of administration, management, and so on. I’m even engaging my job in that sense, if you will, both historically and ethnographically.

“In writing about Gandhi and then in teaching about Gandhi over the years I’ve thought a lot about civil disobedience”

Berkeleyside: So this floor is the Raj?

Dirks: That’s the contradiction, right? My last book was a fairly critical evaluation of British imperial rule in India in the 18th century. It’s less uncommon for somebody with my kind of academic background to be in administration or a university president in the Ivy League than it has been in public universities and certainly in the University of California at large.

I actually didn’t think it was so strange until I came here and, obviously, both succeeded a physicist and also observed that most of the leaders in the University of California system were from the sciences or engineering.

To your question, I think that one thing I’ve had to learn over the years is how to listen to people from very different kinds of backgrounds. That’s partly what one did when one went to India in the 1970s and ’80s before the telecommunication revolution and information revolution. You spent long periods of time in villages trying to understand the caste system through listening to people talk from different perspectives that were both culturally unfamiliar but also sometimes politically even offensive.


Has this helped me in administration? I suspect so. I’m sure people from all sorts of disciplines have all sorts of ways to get whatever sensitivity might be helpful in doing these jobs, but certainly it was hardwired for me in that kind of background.

When I first went to India I was a kid and then I went back in years when it was hard to get a telephone call to come back to talk to my parents. Now university presidents are lining up to go to China and India and everybody is talking about the global university and it is a different age in terms of both the world we’re educating students for and the kinds of constituencies that we engage in every part of the university.

In that sense, having a background and having spent a lot of my life in Asia I think is helpful.

Berkeleyside: Do you think there are things you want to bring to Cal and experiences you want to offer Cal students to make it a more global university?

Dirks: I was encouraged when I went to one of the student orientation sessions earlier this summer. The Dean of Students said two things which I thought were terrific. One was you’re coming to a research university and what that means is you should do research. That doesn’t mean you’re just coming to attend a research university, it means you’re coming to do research. The second thing he said was that you’re coming to a place that really, really values the importance of study abroad, experiences abroad, and if not study abroad opportunities that might, through internships or other kinds of roles, take you somewhere in the globe outside of this area. I was working at Columbia for years to try to increase the opportunities for students to do different kinds of things that would take them off campus and into an unfamiliar part of the world.

It really is a different world. In fact, my most recent research has been on the history of area studies in the US during World War II and then the immediate period afterwards, because before World War II, there were very few experts about parts of the world outside of North America and Europe on most American campuses. Then, World War II happened, FDR brought in William C. Donovan to run the Office of Strategic Services and he brought in academics from all over.

But much of what they did was to try to find smart young people to begin to engage the issues that the US was confronting in places like Southeast Asia and Japan and China, South Asia and the Middle East. Out of that, interestingly enough, came the beginning of a kind of development of expertise that led to the creation of area studies in the US. Quite literally, that is to say, a lot of the people who were drafted into the OSS [Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA] to write background reports and do research on parts of the world went off to universities, set up the first centers for Russian studies at Columbia, for example, or East Asian studies at Harvard or whatever.

But now, it’s a very different moment, so how do universities respond to this? What do you do to think about both our teaching obligations and the kind of expertise that is needed to engage in a different kind of global world? We haven’t even begun to think this through, partly it’s because as long as you think of globalization as a discrete thing that might be studied in one or two departments, you’re not getting the extent of the transformation, I think.

“What do you do to think about both our teaching obligations and the kind of expertise that is needed to engage in a different kind of global world?”

There’s almost a kind of need to think about the global ecosystem within which the university is situated that will have to be, at every level, rethought, I think, in this coming century.

What I mean by ecosystem, in part, is if you’re going to be availing yourself of global expertise you have to think differently about how people are hired, how people are appointed in faculty positions, how courses are taught. We have all sorts of ways to evaluate scholarship on the basis of publication in few key journals. If it’s a global marketplace, what does that mean in terms of recognizing and evaluating what may be the new most interesting and exciting work that’s being done outside of the institutional circuitry that is part of how American higher education has established itself.

Nicholas Dirks. Photo: UC Berkeley
Dirks in a video taken shortly after his appointment as chancellor. Photo: UC Berkeley

Berkeleyside: Where do you place the role of teaching in this vision of the university?

Dirks: I think there is no essential opposition between teaching and research. I think for too long those of us who have been committed to maintaining the importance of the research university haven’t thought enough about how teaching and research, in fact, need to be joined in every level, in every conversation about research.

One of the things I’m going to be focusing on here is the character of the undergraduate experience, not just because there are a lot of undergraduates and we have a huge obligation to make sure that experience is productive in all sorts of ways, but also because I think it will actually help shape the future articulation of the research enterprise on campus. I think Berkeley is a better place to do that than a lot of other places, in part because of the overall commitment on part of the community to issues of the public good, whether it’s in terms of clean energy or in terms of social justice.

Berkeleyside: Let’s turn to some of the issues between the university and the City of Berkeley. How do you approach the town/gown relationship? In particular, there is a lot of concern about university expansion and taking properties off the tax rolls.

Dirks: I have been working for some years at a university that has had historically difficult relationships with its local community and with, indeed, the city at large going back, more or less, to some of the same flash point dates that inhabit the history of this university.

I think I come here with a fairly high level of sensitivity to how these kinds of issues can play out badly and how they can be made better. That’s not to say that some of the same issues don’t exist about tax rolls, about how the university is seen to pay for issues of infrastructure and local services of various kinds. By the same token, I’m also aware that by sitting down and working together and trying to demonstrate the general economic impact of certain kinds of initiatives, projects, and developments, you can see how there are win/win scenarios that cannot just be planned and sketched out, that actually work through together.

I’ve been through very contentious discussions and it’s not all smooth. It wasn’t all smooth, by any means.

“I have been working for some years at a university that has had historically difficult relationships with its local community”

I think there are lots of different ways to address it. On the one side, the university has been in dire financial shape over the last five, seven years. It has had to make decisions whether you could go forward and do anything and continue to find space for some of the exciting activities going on here or simply not be able to do so.

Capital budgets went down and now state support has disappeared completely for any campus in the University of California system with the exception of Merced.

We are totally dependent on private support or support from federal projects for any kind of capital project, and that includes seismic renovation. When a choice seems to be a neutral choice between putting a building up on land that we own and acquiring a property that is significantly less expensive, what do you do when you confront those choices?

I understand that, historically, there have been these kinds of tradeoffs. Maybe two years from now you’ll come and say, “You said this and you were clearly paying lip service,” but I think there’s certain ways in which we can be much more transparent to leadership in the city about plans we might have before we actually buy a property. [University head of local and regional government relations] Julie [Sinai] and I had breakfast with [Berkeley Mayor] Tom Bates last March and we talked about some of these issues.

He was very direct about it but it was extremely cordial. He was very welcoming. He said these are things that we can do better. We can be clearer about our concerns and if you were clearer about your needs that would help us at least have those discussions ahead of time. We talked about the Telegraph Avenue issues and we even talked about People’s Park.

Berkeleyside: You mentioned when you had breakfast with Mayor Tom Bates that you talked about Telegraph. Have you begun to form a view of the relationship between the university and its southern entrance and what that means for both the university community and the city?

Dirks: I’ll just start with what Tom said. He’s obviously been focused quite a bit on that corridor, which is very different than the corridor that I got to know best when I was flying in and staying at the Shattuck Hotel and walking up here and to other meetings on campus, let alone the corridor I see now when I go out the back door of the house I’m living in and see the north side.

He’s obviously investing a lot in trying to figure out ways to make it more hospitable to different kinds of businesses and I guess to help clean it up and make it feel safer and certainly generate more commercial activity. Again, I’ve been learning about the history of this community in relationship to everything from chain stores to certain kinds of business enterprises and start‑ups. We talked about everything from the Sky Deck to People’s Park. I think it’s interesting to talk to somebody who’s had a long political career in this community who, along with the times, has changed, perhaps, in some of his notions about what this community not only can accommodate but what it needs to learn how to engage in somewhat different ways, perhaps, than it has historically.

Berkeleyside: Was there an envelope on your desk when you became chancellor that said don’t touch People’s Park?

Dirks: There was a set of recommendations that came out of a deans’ and chairs’ meeting that George Breslauer, the provost, had convened. He asked them to come up with a few suggestions for quick wins and a few suggestions for things I shouldn’t do. At the top of the list of things I shouldn’t do is touch People’s Park. [laughs] That was actually on the list.

“At the top of the list of things I shouldn’t do is touch People’s Park.”

Berkeleyside: Is that because it’s just too intractable or is it because there’s too much history?

Dirks: No, I think that it was a way of saying, “Don’t just look at the park and think that there isn’t a long history that would potentially constrain what you might do.” The truth is that when I talked to Tom about this I asked, “Is it impossible to consider a different avenue?” He said, “No. In fact, this is something that we need to talk about again.”

I know that there have been various efforts to bring people together to come up with alternative plans and that at the last minute, for various reasons, financial and/or political, they haven’t proceeded. [I am] committing myself to… talking with the mayor and with people in the community and on campus.

It’s clearly an issue for Telegraph Avenue itself as well as for the university. To leave it in the condition that it is currently, in my view, doesn’t provide an appropriate way to memorialize the history of the park. It ill serves the history of the place and it certainly ill serves the needs of the community.

Berkeleyside: Former Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was a big proponent of the Dream Act. The selection of Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano as president of the UC system has made people very nervous. I’m wondering if you can talk at all about your feelings about Dream Act students and what the university can do for them and whether the university will stand behind these undocumented students like it did previously?

Dirks: It’s going to continue to do that.  I made clear to Bob that I completely endorsed what he had done last year. I was delighted when we got the gift to further support through scholarships undocumented students on campus. I’ve told both students and some of our key alums  that there will be absolutely no change in terms of university policy in this regard. My first official Regents meeting was when Janet Napolitano was appointed and confirmed. I could not help but notice that many of the students who were most vocal in their concern about the appointment came from Berkeley. These are very, very live issues here.

It’s important to reaffirm the chancellor’s support for the Dream Act and for supporting these students. The appointment itself raises a lot of interesting questions, not only this one. I think that it is inappropriate to judge Janet Napolitano’s views on the basis of what she’s done as Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security.

Berkeleyside: Protests are inevitable here. You’re going to have people outside California Hall, you’re going to have people on Sproul Plaza. Students protest. They sit‑in. They express anger. Could you talk about how you balance the anger and the passion of young students versus the way it interrupts the university? How are you’re going to approach it when people are sitting outside trying to block your entrance to this hall?

Dirks: It is a given that [protests] will happen in my time here as chancellor. I guess I was made aware of that when so many of the questions that the search committee posed had to do both with my experience in dealing with student protests and also what my general sense of these things was.

It’s a one hand, other hand answer, inevitably. On the one hand, I do not only respect but I, in some sense, am in sympathy with students who are deeply engaged in issues of our time and want to make clear the strong feelings they have vis‑à‑vis issues, whether on campus, or in the community, or nationally, or even globally. I think it is a natural byproduct of the commitment and engagement of Berkeley students that you have a lot of activity on campus that falls under the category of protesting, whether it takes the form of a sit‑in or an occupation or a demonstration or whatever.

Each one of those, of course, then produces, in turn, different kinds of issues on campus having to do both with the need to ensure that students who wish to can continue to go to classes and get their work done and take examinations and do what they came to Berkeley to do and indeed that other things that are critical can continue unimpeded. That, of course, is precisely the balance that is so difficult to enact in practice.

Berkeleyside: In your previous position at Columbia, were you ever in a position to tell the police, “OK, let’s go in, it’s time to stop this,” anything like that?

Dirks: No, we didn’t ever get to that point. There was a hunger strike on behalf of ethnic studies that took place in 2006 that I dealt with. That was where students basically were encamped on a lawn in the center of campus but they weren’t impeding access to any building or classroom or research site. There, the issues really had to do with the safety of the students and our concerns about health. In two instances I had to be the person to request a student to leave campus. We just could no longer take responsibility for their medical condition and they left. There was no question of having a forcible expulsion take place.

If there is one lesson that Columbia learned in 1968 it is that you call in the police only with the knowledge that it’s going to have potential repercussions that you will have to pay for for a very long time. I’ve not been in a situation where I had the phone on the desk and requested from the local campus police to call in NYPD.

“If there is one lesson that Columbia learned in 1968 it is that you call in the police only with the knowledge that it’s going to have potential repercussions that you will have to pay for for a very long time.”

I can only imagine the difficulties of having to adjudicate those kinds of crises when they occur. I will say that I’m committed to trying to maintain as open a set of channels of communication as possible to students. I intend to go and talk to students when and if there are such kind of issues on campus.

I realize I inhabit a symbolic role vis‑à‑vis the institution as a whole and, therefore, whatever I do will have symbolic implications and messages and so I will enact that as best I can to ensure that students see I am ready and willing to listen, to discuss, and potentially to find paths towards agreement or be clear about disagreement. I know that sounds like a general lip service but I am deeply committed to trying to find modes of engagement in situations like this.

Related:
UC Berkeley names Columbia dean as new chancellor (11.08.12)

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks will be speaking at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas. Uncharted is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Read all about it, be part of it. Register on the Uncharted website.