Nicholas Dirks: ‘We are all in this together’

Greetings. I’m Nick Dirks, UC Berkeley’s new chancellor and member of the faculty in the departments of history and anthropology.  I’m thrilled finally to be here, settling into this beautiful community and campus. And I am deeply honored to take on this role at UC Berkeley, not just one of the finest universities in the world, but an institution that serves as a beacon for all that public education can be. The students we educate, the research we conduct, the intellectual work we do, the public services we perform – all leave an indelible mark on our state, our nation and our world. We are rightly known for our comprehensive excellence and for the way we reimagine the world by constantly challenging conventional thinking. Berkeley has unique depth, range and diversity, pushing out the frontiers of knowledge, expanding the boundaries of our commitment to the public good.

As I have moved from New York to California to join you here, I see before me a university in the midst of a transition that extends well beyond the chancellor’s office. Thanks to the exemplary leadership of my predecessor, Robert Birgeneau, Berkeley refuted the predictors of doom and did more than merely weather the financial storm and public disinvestment of recent years. The quality of both undergraduate and graduate education has not wavered. We are recruiting and retaining exceptional faculty. We have expanded financial aid for the middle class, and we are enrolling more low-income students than ever, with 40 percent of our undergraduates paying no tuition at all. We are expanding our research enterprise in areas ranging from computer science to big data, from neuroscience to nanoscience, from global poverty to global climate change. But we are doing this in a markedly changed financial environment. Although state support is on an upward trajectory at long last, the proportion of our budget supported by the state is dramatically lower than ever before.

I am, however, unreservedly enthusiastic about our future. I believe that now is the time for us not just to preserve and protect Berkeley’s past record of accomplishment, but to work together to strive to do more. I plan to engage our community in a collective effort to imagine new futures for the university. We will do even more to ensure the quality and centrality of undergraduate education here at Berkeley. We will do even more to sustain our vanguard position in graduate and professional education. We will do even more to connect our research work to the public good. We will find new ways to welcome, promote and support the diversity and the differences – in background, identity, orientation and perspective – that make this university so vital. And as we adjust to a new financial model we will invent new ways to embody what it means to be a public university.

As we debate, develop and implement new and ever bigger ideas for our future, I know that we can only realize the full promise of our potential if the members of our community share a common purpose – a belief that we are all in this together. Such a cultural foundation can only be achieved through constant engagement, dialogue and, yes, disputation – though always with respect for and recognition of the constitutive differences that animate and enrich our community. Since my appointment last fall I have been meeting and corresponding with Berkeley students, faculty, staff and alumni, here in Berkeley, in New York and around the globe, and I have been deeply impressed. I have realized that the greatest endowment of this institution is precisely the passion and commitment of our community. I know that we have the intellectual capital and the collective will to find new ways to define and enhance the position and stature of the university in our changing world.

How else will we succeed in countering the disinvestment in higher education without giving up on our commitment to the highest levels of academic excellence? How else will we embrace the new opportunities of technology and globalization while celebrating and enhancing the transformative experience of college, the magic of the classroom, the fundamental necessity of the liberal arts and sciences? We must all work together to make clear the value of what we do, not just for our lives – as affirming as this is, and not just for knowledge – as critical as that remains.

We must champion the foundational role Berkeley plays in building a California that continues to chart the contours of our nation’s social and cultural future, and that remains a center of innovation, discovery, growth and sustainability.

I look forward to meeting many more of you in the months ahead. As I find my feet and steadily learn more about this great institution and community, I will solicit your ideas, perspectives, opinions and arguments. You will be hearing from me on a regular basis, and – this being Berkeley – I fully expect to hear from you. Go Bears!