At campus breakfast, town-gown ties top the menu

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, speaking at what he called “one of my absolute favorite events” — Wednesday’s annual Community Leaders Breakfast, an occasion for cementing and celebrating ties between UC Berkeley and its off-campus friends and neighbors — noted that Nicholas Dirks was “my third chancellor” during 11 years as the city’s top elected official.

Tom Bates, Chancellor Dirks

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, left, and Chancellor Dirks share a moment before taking the microphone at Wednesday’s gathering of community leaders. (Barry Bergman/ NewsCenter photo)

Dirks, who assumed the chancellorship last June, joked that Bates is “my first mayor,” but added, in all seriousness, that he’s “thrilled to be working with him.”

In his previous positions at the University of Michigan and, most recently, Columbia University — which has a history of friction with its New York City neighbors — “I saw in all kinds of ways the importance of a good town-gown relationship,” Dirks said.

“I come here with a keen appreciation for the record of partnership between the University of California at Berkeley and the town of Berkeley,” added the chancellor. “And my intention is just to build on that, and to try to make it stronger. And indeed to reach out and make our relationships with the entire East Bay community stronger as well.”

The two-hour gathering, held in the Haas Pavilion’s Club Room, served as both a networking opportunity for East Bay leaders — including Nancy Skinner, who represents the city and campus in the state Assembly, leaders in business and law enforcement and staff and volunteers from a broad cross-section of community-minded nonprofits — and evidence of the bonds between town and gown, in the form of presentations from several groups supported in part by the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund.

Dirks with Alex Wang and Ryan Sin of the Berkeley Project

The chancellor poses with Alex Wang (center) and Ryan Sin, representing the Berkeley Project. (Photo by Keegan Houser)

Those who’d attended previous breakfasts knew of initiatives like BUILD (Berkeley Unified in Literacy Development), which pairs UC Berkeley students with Berkeley public-school students for one-on-one tutoring in reading skills, and Skydeck, a campus-city partnership that fosters the growth of startups with roots at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

They may have been less familiar, though, with student-oriented groups like Y-Plan, in which local high-schoolers work side-by-side with UC Berkeley mentors on community-development projects, or the Berkeley Project, which each year mobilizes a thousand or more Berkeley students for a day of community service. Both groups made presentations at Wednesday’s breakfast.

Some 8,000 Berkeley students, in fact, engage in some form of community service, Dirks said.

“It seems to be hard-wired into the student DNA at this university, and it’s one of the things that makes coming here so meaningful for me,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a university where this kind of ethos — to connect with, to serve, to engage, and to try to make better the community in which one lives — is so deeply embedded in the student experience.”