Transcript of video conversation with Nicholas Dirks

DAN MOGULOF: I’m Dan Mogulof from the UC Berkeley Office of Public Affairs, and today it is my distinct honor and pleasure to introduce Berkeley’s next chancellor, Professor Nicholas Dirks. Professor Dirks is currently at Columbia University where he teaches in the departments of history and anthropology. In addition, he serves as the executive vice president of arts and sciences, and also is the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. Professor Dirks, welcome.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Thank you, Dan. Great to talk to you.

DM: So tell me, how does it feel to be introduced as Berkeley’s next chancellor?

ND: Well, I haven’t quite yet experienced it, but I am deeply honored by the opportunity to serve in this leadership capacity for such a great university. Berkeley has been one of the great institutions of higher learning ever since it was established, over 100 years ago, and to have the chancellorship of that great university now attached to my name — still, of course, in a designate role — is just a huge honor for me.

DM: Professor Dirks, you’ve had a long distinguished career in academia starting at the California Institute of Technology in 1978, and from there onto Michigan, arriving at Columbia in 1997. Talk to me a little bit about what you’ve picked up along the way that’s prepared you to become the next chancellor of UC Berkeley.

ND: Well, one of the great things about being at Cal Tech was the opportunity to interact with some of the great minds of science. I was able to get to know Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Feynman, Max Delbruck and, indeed, scores of scholars in the sciences from engineering to theoretical physics, whose work clearly was at the cutting edge of some of the most important issues in 20th century science. It was a wonderful 10-year period of my life. Going to Michigan, though, was going into a much larger domain of higher education, of public higher education. It was a time not just of great exploration and interdisciplinary social science, but it was also an opportunity to learn about how a great public research institution can both provide the very best kind of education, and indeed, the very best kinds of resources for faculty to engage in research, and to have a direct public mission and a sense that what it was doing as a university spoke to the needs of both the local community, the state at large and, indeed, the nation in an even larger sense. And I learned a great deal about the kinds of opportunities that were available in a great public university.

At the same time, when I got a call to come to Columbia and this was in 1996 — I moved there in 1997 — I couldn’t say no. I was being asked to go and chair the first department of anthropology in the United States, a department that had been established by Franz Boaz in 1896 and a department that was absolutely foundational for the importance of anthropology in the United States throughout the 20th century.

DM: So it sounds, just listening to you, that the academic culture of that environment is something that you deeply love and feel deeply connected to. There’s a lot of passion when I hear you talk about that.

ND: I think that the university, in some ways, is the last great utopian institution that we have in our society. And one of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed doing all the things that I’d done, whether chairing a department, setting up a program, working with students in some kind of new way or, for that matter, becoming the executive vice president of the arts and sciences at Columbia has given me an opportunity to try to engage at every level both the challenges but also the enormous opportunities that these institutions, these great institutions of both teaching and research, have afforded so many people in our society.

DM: So you brought up one of the positions you hold at Columbia, executive vice president of arts and sciences. In addition, you’re also the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. Neither of those positions have an exact corollary at UC Berkeley, so talk to me a little bit about what exactly your responsibilities are, what you’re involved in, and what your day job looks like.

ND: Well, it is a job that I think doesn’t exist at any other institution, private or public. And the arts and sciences was created effectively as a separate entity within the university-at-large. The arts and sciences consists of Columbia College, of the graduate school of arts and sciences, of the School of General Studies, of the School of the Arts, the School of International and Public Affairs and, most recently, the School for Continuing Education. So it’s had six schools. I, therefore, as executive vice president, have six deans who report to me. I also have 28 departments with 28 chairs around 25 institutes and centers that range across from nanoscience to the Institute for Israel and Jewish studies.

It’s an enormous range, an enormous job, but it comes effectively with a kind of responsibility for this unit that, as it’s organized at Columbia, is a separate financial as well as educational unit. The budget now is roughly $650 million. And it’s our responsibility in my office to make sure that we balance that budget, but that we also manage to do as much and realize as many of the aspirations of the university at large with the resources that we have on hand.

DM: So you’ve had, it sounds like, this wonderful preparation for where you’re now headed, California Hall. Talk to me a little bit about where do you want to lead Berkeley?

ND: Well, it’s a very exciting thing to think about, first of all. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be contemplating this move across the country to California and to California Hall. One of the things that struck me when I first started reading about the University of California, Berkeley and this opportunity was the extent to which these two goals of the university for excellence and access were organized in a way that did not put them as competing priorities, but made them, in fact, roughly the same aspiration for the university from start to finish.

We all know about the excellence of Berkeley. But it also is a university that by virtue of its being public, by virtue of recent decisions that have stressed diversity, that have built in the middle-class access program, that have — absolutely — took onboard the need to have as, to recruit as many Pell Grant students as possible — has a public mission that is completely in concert with its research and scholarly excellence. So the first thing I want to do is help to celebrate and preserve those aspirations. And to be as committed as I possibly can to advancing both the excellence and the commitment to access that is part of the DNA of the University of California, Berkeley.

Of course, there are lots of things to be done. On the one hand, I think that the new ventures that I’ve been reading about and talking to new colleagues about are extremely exciting. The Blum Center for Developing Economies is one of them; the new initiative in nanoscience actually is something that we’ve been working on very hard at Columbia, but in which Berkeley is doing great things in; the new grant for an initiative in big data; and, of course, the new support for computing science. These are just a few of the many things that are taking place and a few of the many things that I would like to be able to help provide additional resources for.

So I join with the people of the state to celebrate what the University of California is, but also to commit myself not just to preserving the university in all of its excellence but also in trying to find new ways to make the university relevant to the kinds of problems we face as a society.

DM: So traditionally, the chancellor at Berkeley, by virtue of his office and the position that he holds in the context of American higher education, has been a powerful and prominent voice for public education. Is that something that you look forward to taking advantage of, and have you thought about what kind of messages you want to convey and how you want to use that access to the public?

ND: This is one of the great attractions of this role. And I can think of few roles in higher education that actually afford the same level of authority, but also of responsibility to make clear how important the investment not just of states, but indeed of the general public in the future of higher education in America is. This is a time we all know when there are lots of questions being asked. Tuition goes up both in privates and in publics.

The cost of higher education, of course, seems to be exploding far faster than any other cost, at a time when inflation is so low and unemployment so high, and there are many questions that are being asked about, even the character of the education that we offer our students. Recent studies have questioned whether students learn as much as we claim when they take a liberal arts education. I look forward to the opportunity to use this position to not just explain what it is the university does, but to ensure that we do the kinds of things that are necessary in order to persuade our publics that this kind of investment is not just necessary but important for them and important indeed for a much broader cross-section than the actual people who simply participate in the education that we provide. So for me, this opportunity, which has so many exciting components, I think has best of all an opportunity to preach about what I care most about — and that is the importance, not just of education, but of this kind of excellence in education for the public good.

DM: When the search process got underway for Berkeley’s next chancellor, we had open forums on campus, places where students, faculty, staff, alumni could come and express opinions about what they hoped to see. And one of the things that we heard from students a lot was they wanted to know how candidates had in their professional past demonstrated respect for students and for their perspectives, and I’m wondering if there’s a broader philosophy that will inform your approach to students in their perspective when you become Berkeley’s chancellor.

ND: Well, I would always hope that whatever I do, I can convey the sense of deep respect I have for the kinds of issues that make students feel so engaged and so passionate. I am always struck by the extent to which students, when they get interested in these kinds of issues and when they become active, are taking seriously the ideas and the talk that we engage in about values and about truth and about justice and about all the big issues that are part of our liberal arts curriculum — that they’re taking these things seriously in their, in their lives as students.

I also know that as students confront issues that are important in their own personal and political lives, they are trying to ensure that the institution that they’re attending, the institution that they’re identified with, the institution that will be part of their affiliation for the rest of their lives, takes them seriously as they engage in these kinds of issues. So for me, in part, it’s about walking the walk. It’s about taking seriously what we teach in the classroom. At Columbia, we’ve had serious controversies around issues having to do not just with Middle East politics, but in fact with the teaching of Middle East studies. And so the first and most important thing that I bring to these kinds of occasions is the need to accord every participant the maximum respect possible, but then, of course, to try to find ways to establish the grounds of dialogue. At the same time that we always are seeking to make sure that students feel safe, that they feel that they aren’t being personally attacked. They feel they aren’t being attacked on the basis of their religion or their ethnicity, their identity in any — form — it might be relevant. And so the first thing that we need to do is to make respect the foundation of the way we engage issues, whether with faculty or with staff and most of all the students. I hope that my commitment to dialogue, to negotiation, to talking with students and, indeed, to openness about everything that we do will perhaps be helpful in situations at Berkeley where there are sometimes passions and even tempers that can grow at a pace with the needs that we have as an institution to bring communities together and resolve our differences and our disagreements in an amicable way.

You just brought up the Middle East and the extent to which it’s been a source of controversy and some confrontation and conflict in Columbia. The same has been true, to some extent, at Berkeley. It’s obviously an issue that people feel very strongly about.

So I want to come right at another issue. Floating around on the Internet is a — is a claim that at some point in your past, you know, you signed a petition calling for Columbia to divest in all things Israel, and I want to give you an opportunity to let us know exactly what happened there, what your role was and what your sort of philosophy is about divestment-type efforts insofar as the Middle East or any other place in the world is concerned.

ND: Right. Well, when that particular petition was being circulated, I was chair of the Department of Anthropology and in fact, at some point, saw my name on a list and asked it to be removed. Truth is, I do not support divestment as a strategy for the university. I don’t support divestment with respect to Israel. At the same time, many of my colleagues felt very strongly about this and many of them signed a petition. And it circulated widely at the time which was 2002. And there were, after that, all sorts of other controversies that developed about the climate for Jewish students on Columbia’s campus, about the nature of instruction and the department of Middle East studies, and indeed about the general atmosphere at Columbia more generally.

We felt that we needed to make very clear that we were committed to a classroom environment in which students felt that they could think anything they wanted to think about political issues that might come up in their instruction. We have students from all kinds of backgrounds for whom we have to be deeply concerned about their experience on campus. We’ve had students who have been concerned, for example, about the fact that as Muslims they haven’t had open access to prayer rooms for the kind of regular daily prayer that is part of their religious observance. So the question of respect that you asked me about before is a question that has to run deep in terms of our relationships with students from all backgrounds. And we have to be attentive, also, to the larger context within which the kinds of things that students experience sometimes get magnified on a college campus, where there are pressures, obviously, on some communities more than on others, and some groups more than others. So we’ve worked very hard to be as open as we could possibly be and as responsive as we could be.

DM: I talked to a number of students last week. I said, “What should I ask the new guy about?” And I was struck by how many said, “Ask where he stands on diversity.” How do you think about diversity in the context of the college campus?

ND: Well, I think in the first instance the diversity of people is probably the most important thing. One of the great things about many American universities, certainly the University of California, indisputably, the University of California, Berkeley, is the mix of people who are there as students, as staff, as faculty, and indeed the mix that’s represented in the vast alumni body of the university.

And it’s that mix that works to ensure the kind of open debate and the kind of encounters with difference that are absolutely fundamental to the kind of education that we seek to impart in our universities and indeed at Berkeley. Having said that, I think diversity is important at every level. And it’s something about which one can never actually say, “Okay, we’ve done this. We’ve had a diversity initiative. We have these statistics in terms of our student body. We have this kind of representation in terms of our faculty,” and think that’s enough. It’s not. At Columbia, we have engaged in a number of different diversity initiatives. We now have more students of color than any other institution in the Ivy League. And we have more under-represented minorities. We did so in terms of the faculty after 2004, when I began my role as executive vice president; the president and the provost and the trustees made available certain resources, and we were able within three to four years to double the number of under-represented minorities on the faculty.

We were able to increase dramatically the number of women in STEM fields. But we also knew that as much progress as we made, we had just started. One of the things that I hope to be able to do is sponsor a continuous diversity initiative in relationship to faculty, in relationship to students, and in relationship to staff at University of California, Berkeley.

DM: So you just brought up staff. We’ve been talking about students for a while. What’s your leadership philosophy as a manager? What kind of manager are you? I think people would like to hear a little bit from you about what your approach and how you view the role that staff play at a great research university like Berkeley or Columbia?

ND: Sure. Well, often times staff are the unsung heroes of the university. They’re the ones who come to work every day. They don’t get sabbaticals. They don’t get summer vacations. They show up, day after day after day. And indeed, both at Berkeley and indeed at my institution, their compensation has lagged far behind that of faculty and indeed, often times, of staff at other universities, where there are more resources to go around.

And this can create huge morale issues that, combined with the recognition of the role that they play, can undermine the fabric of the way in which staff approach their work in the university. At Columbia, it’s been one of the great things about being in my job to get to know some of the staff, who I used to just sort of see from a distance and more or less take for granted. Staff in my office probably think that I’m a soft touch. And I don’t want that to get out too widely. But the truth is, I love my interactions with staff. I realize how incredibly important it is that we make the university a place where the staff actually feel recognized and, of course, where they feel adequately rewarded for the unbelievably important work they do.

DM: You know, you referred to staff as unsung heroes, and I couldn’t agree more. But there’s another group which are the sung heroes, if there is such an expression, rightfully so, and that’s the faculty at UC Berkeley, world-class in every way. And I think one of the defining attributes of Berkeley is this idea of shared governance, that faculty should have a hand, a role, a voice, a meaningful voice and role in terms of the operations and management of the university. Is that something that sounds foreign to you, coming from a private Ivy League institution?

ND: I know that many people will think so. And certainly the kind of commitment that Berkeley has traditionally had to share governances, something I think that the institution is rightly proud of. That being said, a number of years ago I was worried about a deficit faculty governance at Columbia. And so I drove a review and evaluation of our faculty governance, and I brought in an outside committee. The outside committee actually had somebody who’d been very active in the Senate at Berkeley, along with some deans and others.

DM: Who was that?

ND: David Hollinger, a professor of history, who I actually had the privilege of working as a colleague in the history department at Michigan — many years ago. But he, along with his colleagues on the review committee, made some recommendations that we took back to our faculty, that we worked with various committees to both refine and develop, which became the basis for a major reform of faculty governance at Columbia, which is now much more like Berkeley’s shared governance than it was before. And I found it to be really transformative in the way in which my relationship with faculty is conducted on a regular basis and the way in which the business of our office has now become open to both the advice and the regular scrutiny of standing faculty committees, who have the kind of data, the information, the context and background, to participate in the decisions that we make. And it may sometimes, for administrators, seem a rocky experience, but it’s absolutely critical.

DM: So as we take this tour through sort of the major stakeholder groups that a university has — students, staff, faculty — there’s obviously one more extremely important group. And that’s alumni.

ND: Indeed.

DM: And particularly now for Berkeley, where we rely to a greater extent than we ever have on philanthropy, building and sustaining those ties that bind alumni to the campus has become even more important. Talk to me a little bit about your own engagement with that stakeholder group at Columbia, and how you see alumni in the context of the broader campus community in terms of roles and responsibilities.

ND: Indeed. Well, one of the things that I have also enjoyed about the role that I’ve been playing at Columbia has been the extent to which I’ve gotten to know alumni who care deeply about what we do at Columbia. They’ve been thrilled to be participants of the university. And they have shown this sense of investment, literally, by sometimes providing resources for new kinds of programs, for financial aid, for other things that we do, in ways that have been unprecedented.

And I’ve also recognized the extent to which this community of alumni help us think through some of the things that we could do better as an institution. It’s been really, I think, very eye-opening for somebody who came out of the faculty to go into administration to realize that we have partners across the alumni base that are absolutely critical to our capacity to do the things that we hope to do and even to develop a better sense of what we hope to do. So I look forward, as I come to the University of California, Berkeley, to get(ting) to know as many alumni as possible. I do look forward to having as much of an opportunity as possible to connect with different alumni groups, to hear from different alumni voices, to have the opportunity to recruit alumni to a sense of greater participation in the institution, to help us think through the challenges that we face.

DM: I don’t think there is a chief executive in higher education that doesn’t have to get involved in fundraising. Is that something that you see as sort of a task that will have to be tolerated? Or do you have a different perspective on that key role that chancellors have played at Berkeley, as well as presidents and institutions across the country?

ND: We started at Columbia a capital campaign in 2004 in its silent phase and then went public and noisy in 2006. And in this campaign, we have had unprecedented success in raising funds across the institution. We started off with a target, one of the highest targets in the history of American higher education, of $4 billion. We’re now closing in on $6 billion.

And I’ve learned during this whole process that fundraising is an extraordinary opportunity to connect with people and provide opportunities for them to support things about which we share a deep and common commitment. Fundraising is not like getting on the telephone and calling people and disturbing them from dinner and saying, you know, “Will you give something?” and being hung up on. Fundraising is about a relationship. It’s about a relationship with a common commitment to an institution.

DM: I’m struck in our discussion about the extent to which really important values and principles, such as diversity and equality and engagement, participation, equity, access — they’re right there. They’re right there for you. They seem to have informed so much of what you do and what you’ve done. Where does it all come from?

ND: Well, you know, I’m going to revert to my parents. Because I think they played a very big role in shaping me as somebody for whom these are commitments that have been part of my life ever since I really remember having a public position on anything. You know, my father was the son of immigrant Germans who came to this country and homesteaded land in central Iowa. He grew up on a farm unable to speak English until he went to school. And he only left the farm because he had a very bad heart, which meant that he couldn’t be a farmer. He went to college to become a minister. It was the only thing that was understood as a possible thing to do outside of farming at that time.

He went to college. He went to seminary. He went to graduate school. He taught for many years at the Yale Divinity School. And while he was teaching theology, he took me periodically to Battell Chapel at Yale while I listened to the sermons of William Sloane Coffin, who had just returned from Selma, Alabama, who was reflecting the issues of the day, but who himself was deeply committed to questions of social equality, to the end of racial discrimination, to the kinds of questions that, of course, he addressed throughout his long career.

And I felt deeply influenced by both my father and by Coffin, and of course at the same time, by the fact that my mother, who was teaching in a high school and had a much less public life in that respect, was herself somebody who in their everyday life, teaching in inner-city schools in New Haven, Connecticut, teaching home economics to young girls at a time when home economics was still taught in schools, but with an eye towards thinking about their futures, as she thought about her own, as moving beyond the traditional relationships of gendered stereotype. All of that together I think probably made me the person I am. And I will take this opportunity to thank my parents for anything I do that’s right.

DM: Now we’re going venture into up close and personal territory, if you will. We’ve been talking mostly about your professional life, past and present. Tell us a little bit about your family, about the rest of the picture, if you will.

ND: Well, my wife, Janaki Bakhle is an associate professor of history at Columbia. She grew up in Bombay and went to college also in Bombay at Elphinstone College. She came to the United States first to do a graduate career at Temple University, then had a career in fact in academic publishing before returning to graduate school and starting her new career as a historian of South Asia.

We have a son who is 13 years old. He’s been wearing for the last several days only sweatshirts and sweatpants, and t-shirts that have emblazoned CAL on them. He’s a six footer, and I’ve heard that Sandy Barbour is already tracking him as a potential recruit for basketball.

I also have a daughter from my first marriage. She was a graduate of Mills College and then came to Columbia, where she did at degree at the Columbia Journalism School. And she now works for Iowa Public Radio, and can be heard periodically on “ All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition”, as she’s been in Iowa covering recent events with a certain kind of bird’s-eye view that has been unique and wonderful for her.

DM: Sounds like family’s something really important for you?

ND: Well, of course it is, and one of the things about these jobs is you don’t get a lot of off time. So, it’s been very important to be able to carve out some time and space where I can simply hang with my son, talk with my daughter, and be with my wife. We have cherished weekends together where we’ve gone hiking and walking, and biking and sometimes boating. But most of all, where we’ve simply been together, cooking, watching football sometimes, but always just being sustained by each other’s company and love, and support.

DM: What else do you like to do for fun? There’s a rumor going around you’re a bit of a fitness fanatic?

ND: I don’t know how these rumors get started. But it is true that the athletic director at Columbia, Diane Murphy, wonderful, wonderful colleague, has made sure over the eight years that I’ve been in my job that whenever I need to use elliptical number one on the top floor, it’s reserved in my name. No, I do like to go to the gym on a regular basis. I used to like to run until I had to get a new ACL. But even so, I will become a regular member of the Berkeley gym.

DM: You talked about your own participation in sports, and it sort of reminds me that you’re going to have to do some shape shifting in the months ahead, being a Columbia Lion to being a California Golden Bear. And I do know that Columbia has a large and robust intercollegiate athletics program, and obviously so does Cal. What are your thoughts about the appropriate role of an intercollegiate athletics program at a university like Columbia or Berkeley, and the benefits both tangible and intangible that accrue to an institution as a result of the presence of that sort of program?

ND: Yeah. You know, it turns out that Columbia has as many intercollegiate sports teams that it supports as the University of California, Berkeley — 29. It’s exactly the same number. And it turns out, of course, that while Columbia has not always been as good in some rather public sports as some of its peers, it’s had a very robust sports program across the board. And it’s been very important as part of the student experience at Columbia, and indeed as part of the whole alumni experience. We believe at Columbia, and I’m sure that I will join many colleagues who will believe with me at the University of California, Berkeley, that if you’re going to do something you do it well. And if you do something at an excellent university that has the kind of distinction that Berkeley has in areas ranging from science to law, that you also aspire to excellence in your athletic programs.

That is not to say, that you do things that would in any way compromise the academic integrity of the programs, or for that matter, put athletics above academics. But I look forward to joining my new colleagues and alumni, and students with as much enthusiasm as I can muster in supporting the teams at Berkeley, and in helping to support the general program in athletics as well.

DM: I don’t want to put you on the spot Professor Dirks, but we’re going to need to hear a “Go, Bears”!

ND: Go, Bears!

DM: Not bad for a first time out. We’ll work on it, but not bad at all. I really want to thank you for your time. It’s been a fascinating conversation. I know that people who’ve watched this are going to feel that same sense of excitement that I have right now about what lies ahead for the campus, and also a deep sense that we’re going to be in really good hands. So, thank you, and we look forward to your arrival on campus.

ND: Thank you, Dan. Thank you for this conversation. I’ve enjoyed it, too. And I really look forward to joining the whole community at the University of California, Berkeley. Thanks so much.