In Dirks’ first back-to-school briefing, undergrads grab the spotlight

In Monday’s annual back-to-school briefing, his first as UC Berkeley’s 10th chancellor, Nicholas Dirks emphasized his firm commitment to preserving the public nature of the campus’s mission, and the campus’s ever-strengthening commitment to enhancing the undergraduate student experience, both in and out of the classroom.

Video excerpts of the chancellor’s’ remarks at his first back-to-school briefing.

“This is, for me, a very special moment,” said Dirks, referring to the start of the fall semester at Berkeley. The chancellor, who took office in June, noted that all his efforts since his appointment last November have been “preparation for the moment when students come back to campus.”

At the afternoon briefing in Haas Pavilion’s Club Room, Dirks and a battery of campus leaders unveiled an array of programs and initiatives to benefit the undergraduate population, from easing access to high-demand entry-level courses to providing new services for student health and well-being.

“We try here in this university not just to keep things going,” observed Dirks, “but constantly to innovate.”

Dirks: Striving “not just to keep things going, but constantly to innovate.” (Cathy Cockrell photo)

Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor for student affairs, described how the $223 million renovation of Lower Sproul Plaza will “overhaul what we would call the campus living room,” and outlined a number of changes – from a new online health portal to a new dance space – that promise to improve students’ “outside-the-classroom experience.”

As for undergrads’ educational experience, Vice Provost Catherine Koshland pointed to Berkeley’s expansion of its Common Good courses initiative, a partnership between faculty and staff designed to make it easier for undergrads to get into the courses they need to graduate in four years. And she offered a brief outline of Berkeley 4.0, a suite of programs meant to transform undergraduate education at Berkeley via innovations in mentoring, teaching and learning, and academic support.

She praised one of those programs, Berkeley Connect, as “one of the most creative and innovative activities any research institution has undertaken” to make the university more approachable for students.

Maura Nolan, an associate professor of English and the director of Berkeley Connect, said the initiative “brings together the influential firepower of a large research university” with “the kind of close personal attention and supportive academic community found at small liberal arts colleges.” Berkeley Connect, which began as a pilot program in the English department, will be in 10 more departments in 2013-14. It has three key objectives, Nolan said: to increase “meaningful interaction” between students and faculty, to help undergrads succeed in their chosen majors and to guide students in making the most of university resources, such as the Bancroft Library and Berkeley Art Museum.   

“The key concept at the heart of this program is ‘connect,'” said Nolan. Berkeley, she added, “is at the forefront of a national conversation about mentoring in higher education.”

Anne De Luca, associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment, described a new online portal, CalCentral, aimed at streamlining the vast array of information, services and resources students may need to navigate, whether they’re looking for help with financial aid or trying to enroll in classes. She also noted the introduction of a new financial-education counseling series of workshops and peer-training sessions designed to help students and their families make better decisions about financial matters.

As for the state of the campus’s finances, John Wilton, vice chancellor for administration and finance, said that while California’s cutbacks to higher education may have finally ended – instead of another decrease, Berkeley expects to receive an increase in state funds of roughly 0 .6 percent of its total revenue this year, a sum of about $20 million – the campus continues to look for ways to compensate for the loss of $250 million in state appropriations over an eight-year stretch.

“We will have to continually adapt and evolve,” he said, adding that the challenges ahead “won’t be any less, they’re just going to be very different.”

Dirks, wearing a blue necktie festooned with gold bears, acknowledged that when he was first contacted about the possibility of leaving Columbia University for Berkeley, he found the prospect daunting, “given the kinds of turmoil that had taken place in California after 2008” and the dramatic funding cutbacks. He was “extremely gratified,” however, to find that Berkeley “was not just alive and well but it was, in fact, prospering.”

The state’s economic recovery, combined with voters’ “vote of confidence” in approving new tax increases for education, led, he said, to “a stabilization of funding” and “a sense of a new beginning.”

“I’m thrilled to be here,” Dirks said. “Coming to Berkeley is like coming to Mecca.”