Academics, athletics, ‘unconventional thinking’

Greetings. As the semester comes to an end, with finals about to begin and the holidays coming soon, I’d like to share a few thoughts and reflections.

I’ve now been your chancellor for six months. This has been one of the most rewarding and thrilling periods of my life. I could not have asked for a more genuine and enthusiastic welcome on the part of colleagues on the faculty and staff, from students in each of our schools, colleges and programs, from alumni I’ve met both here and across the globe, as well as countless others for whom Berkeley is so critically important.  I have been impressed and in truth captivated by your loyalty to this university and what it stands for.  You all share as deep a commitment to our public values as you do to the academic excellence of our campus. You take great satisfaction in celebrating our enormous accomplishments at the same time you have made it clear that you are never complacent. You want us to reimagine our future as we strive to change the university, and the world, for the better. You know that the challenges confronting this university in particular, and public higher education in general, are daunting, and yet you won’t give up on any part of our mission. Given how fully I share these values, commitments and priorities, it is no wonder that I have felt so energized in the course of becoming a part of this community, and so honored by the trust you have placed in me as I seek to guide this institution forward in the months and years ahead.

Most of you are familiar with the priorities I described in detail in my inaugural address. While I offered an admittedly ambitious set of goals — I also know that endeavors requiring big ideas, constructive collaboration and unconventional thinking are exactly what Berkeley does best. With the start of the spring semester we will begin to form representative task forces and working groups that will help transform words into action in the arenas of undergraduate education, research and innovation, our global presence, diversity and the arts.

In one of those areas — undergraduate education — we are already moving ahead with the launch of a promising new program, Berkeley Connect, that will foster mentoring, collaboration and the creation of small, supportive intellectual communities comprised of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and even alumni. Based on a small pilot program in the English department that won rave reviews from participants, Berkeley Connect will, with the start of the spring semester, be available to nearly 1,500 undergrads across 10 departments. And, we are now in the process of raising the funds necessary to further expand and enhance the program… and that’s just the beginning.

I am convinced that an inherent if sometimes ignored part of our public mission — especially at Berkeley — is the responsibility to prepare all of our students not just for professional success, but for the full realization of our personal as well our public lives. At their core, the liberal arts and sciences enable us to fully engage fundamental human debates, dilemmas, and discourses, both as the means to develop critical thinking, and for the purpose of becoming active citizens of our world. As an educator I believe there is no higher calling, and I see no reason why Berkeley should be second to any other institution when it comes to preparing students to lead full and productive lives and contribute to the greater good.

This is both a commitment and a responsibility on my part.  It means not just that we offer the best educational opportunities for all of our students; but that we also ensure that our educational values permeate all that we do, on campus and off, in our classrooms and in our extra-curricular activities. This includes athletics. I intend therefore to work closely with the new task force on the academic performance of our student athletes. I will be guided by the work of this task force in devising new means to ensure that our academic mission informs all we do in our intercollegiate athletic programs. Although some recent press coverage has largely ignored the academic accomplishments of our student athletes as a whole, as well as the significant improvement evident in the football team’s most recent metrics, it is clear that we still have serious work to do. The fact is that we have not always maintained a clear focus on our academic priorities, and we have a shared responsibility to ensure that does not happen again. While I believe that our university benefits greatly from a robust intercollegiate athletics program, I categorically reject the idea that success in athletic and academic arenas are somehow inherently incompatible. I will do whatever is necessary to make sure that our rhetoric is matched by our performance, and I mean here academic performance, without which our athletics accomplishments are hollow.

As always at Berkeley, we have much to celebrate in recent accomplishments that bear witness to the extraordinary vitality and excellence of this campus. Professor Randy Schekman joined the illustrious ranks of our Nobel Prize winners, while professor emeritus Janet Yellen is on her way to becoming the first woman to head the Federal Reserve. During the semester we also launched the Kavli Energy Nanosciences Institute, the Berkeley Institute for Data Science and the university’s first Center for Jewish Studies. I also want to offer two big thumbs-up for our very own double bill: Robert Reich’s Inequality for All and Frederick Wiseman’s must-see documentary, At Berkeley.

And then there are all of the countless and too-often unacknowledged contributions that each of you make, in your own way, to our institution, our community and our mission. The staff members who keep the campus running effectively and efficiently, the faculty who give their all for each class they teach even while engaging in research at the highest levels, the students who dedicate precious free time to public service, and the donors and volunteers who do what they can for the place that they love.

I have also been reflecting on the passing of Nelson Mandela — mourning his loss, even as we celebrate a most extraordinary life that truly changed the world and altered the course of history. As I said in a message to the campus shortly after his death, it was our good fortune to witness all that he accomplished and exemplified. And I will never forget something Nelson Mandela said that goes to the heart of who we are and what we stand for as a university: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” We can truly honor Nelson Mandela only through our ongoing individual and collective efforts to ensure that every man, woman and child reaches the final destination on humanity’s long walk to freedom.

Finally, on a personal note, I want to thank you again for your warm welcome.  All of you in the Berkeley community have made this move from the West Side to the West Coast easier than we could have ever expected.  Thanks to you, we feel fully at home. And, with that, I wish you all the happiest of holiday seasons.