Students check out incoming chancellor

Nicholas Dirks introduced himself and fielded questions at a conversational meet-up, not unlike a first date, Thursday afternoon between UC Berkeley students and the campus’s next chancellor.

One of the “first of a long series of conversations with you,” as Dirks called it, was organized by the Graduate Assembly and the ASUC and held at the newly renovated Alumnae Hall. For many of the roughly 100 people who found their way to the Southside venue, it was to take the measure of the man.

Nicholas Dirks

Nicholas Dirks (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photo)

Political-science major Shane Courtney came to hear Dirks’ plan for increasing private fundraising, which the Berkeley junior considers essential for competing with peer institutions for top students.

“I have an obligation to check this guy out,” said second-generation Berkeley alum Mark Desmond.

The incoming chancellor, who takes the reins at the beginning of June, has been visiting campus this spring for transitional meetings with members of the UC community. Four organized events with students were on the agenda this time. (See sidebar below for coverage of a meeting with “Fiat Lux Remix” contest winners.)

On Thursday afternoon, students led off by questioning Dirks on the nature of public education and how he envisions keeping Berkeley both excellent and accessible.

“The public character of this institution is palpable” in many ways, Dirks said — from the “striking” number of seniors joining Teach for America to Berkeley alums’ consistent praise for students’ activism and faculty members’ commitment to public service.

Dirks expressed hope that, despite deep cuts in state funding for public higher education and a resulting “crisis in confidence” at UC, Berkeley would become “even more public” in nature — “a destination,” among other things, for students who might not otherwise even have considered college, much less a top institution. He called out, in particular, low African American representation in the post-Proposition 209 era, saying that investment in outreach would be key to changing that picture.

Chancellors see Berkeley’s future through students’ eyes

“It’s very hard to know what language to use to reconstitute a sense of the public good that is in accord with what we’re doing at this institution. In a way you’re all dealing with this,” Nicholas Dirks told a small group of students on Thursday. “There’s something special about this place, and we have to be able to communicate that.”…

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“I’d like to think Berkeley becomes even more of a symbol” of public-mindedness, he said — a place that “constantly asks” the important questions: “‘Is this research or technology going to advance a better society? Is this kind of knowledge going to contribute to the well-being of our society and our planet?'”

The undergraduate experience, fundraising, out-of-state students, the regents, athletics, student protest and affordable student housing were other issues Dirks addressed, in response to students’ questions.

“I’m happy to meet him,” a public-health doctoral student said as the forum wrapped up and students flocked to greet the new guy. “It means a lot to me that he sees public education the way he does.”

“I liked that he took time to address some of the concerns that students have about the university,” said first-year student Amadaere Okoro. “This was a good first step for building a bridge, making him more accessible. It makes it seem he’s here for us.”