Steele, Breslauer share keys to the provost’s office

As Claude Steele prepares to take the reins as UC Berkeley’s senior academic official, deans and department chairs from across the campus gathered Thursday at Alumni House for an informal changing of the guard in the office of the executive vice chancellor and provost.

Breslauer, Steele

George Breslauer, left, and Claude Steele field a question at Alumni House.

Seated beside his predecessor, George Breslauer, in the Toll Room, Steele, a Stanford dean who served as Columbia University’s provost from 2009 to 2011, fielded questions on topics ranging from leadership styles, budgeting and the importance of public universities to his own research on stereotypes. The 50-minute session, part of a mid-year retreat for deans and chairs, took the form of a conversation between the outgoing and incoming provosts, followed by questions posed directly by those in attendance.

As for dealing with student stereotypes, “I don’t think that higher education as an enterprise has really figured these things out well,” said Steele, a social psychologist known for his groundbreaking scholarship on stereotypes and identity. But he declared himself “optimistic” that Berkeley, as a public institution sensitive to such issues, could be a leader in making change.

“One place to start might be to have all of our lower-division students read your book Whistling Vivaldi,” suggested Breslauer, who called the popular work “a consciousness-raiser.”

“For our undergraduates to have read it, and to understand how others’ perceptions of their abilities affect their performance — or how their perceptions of others’ abilities affect their performance — would be a great basis for a continuing conversation on campus.”

The notion of “a continuing conversation” set the tone for the session, in fact. Steele stressed that while executives are required to lead — “you do need the trains to run on time,” he said — he’d found that “top-down” leadership strategies were less effective than those based on building relationships with people throughout the institution.

“The word ‘understanding’ is kind of critical to me,” he said. “You want to understand what’s going on, and you want to communicate with people, and learn in the process of leadership… So that’s where I would begin.”

Breslauer, who joined the Berkeley faculty in 1971 and has served as provost since 2006, announced his retirement last year. Steele’s first day in his new role is March 31.