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Berkeley Global Campus: a new, bolder vision for Richmond Bay

Chancellor Dirks laid out an “unabashedly bold” new vision for UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station on Wednesday, telling faculty members of plans to remake the site as a global campus and “living laboratory” in partnership with public universities from around the world, as well as with private industry.

Berkeley Global Campus
Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay

The shoreline site of the proposed 134-acre Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks laid out an “unabashedly bold” new vision for UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station on Wednesday, telling faculty members of plans to remake the site as a global campus and “living laboratory” in partnership with public universities from around the world, as well as with private industry.

In a presentation to the Academic Senate, Dirks unveiled the outlines of the proposed Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay, a reimagining of what was originally planned as a joint “second campus” for Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley. In 2013, the Lab lost expected U.S. Department of Energy funding in the wake of federal budget sequestration, leaving development plans for the Richmond Field Station in limbo.

But it also opened the door to the Berkeley Global Campus, or BGC, which Dirks on Wednesday called “a transformational model for expansion of our educational and research activities in a global context.”

“We have the opportunity to become the first American university to establish an international campus in the United States, right here in the East Bay,” he said. Instead of planting the UC Berkeley flag in a foreign country — the standard “export model” for global universities — BGC would be “a new form of international hub where an exclusive group of some of the world’s leading universities and high-tech companies will work side-by-side with us in a campus setting.”

Along with its research mission — similar to that previously envisioned for the Richmond Bay Campus — BGC will have a strong educational component as well, with both undergraduate and graduate-level academic programs for U.S. and international students. Programs would be aimed at giving students the tools “to tackle global challenges through a curriculum centered on global governance, ethics and political economy, cultural and international relations,” as well as “direct involvement in special projects with global implications and applications.”

And despite the new vision, “One thing that hasn’t changed regarding plans for the Richmond campus is our commitment to the community,” added Dirks, vowing to make BGC “a catalyst for developing the city’s south shoreline into a vibrant mixture of high-intensity light industrial, commercial and residential uses.”

‘Back to the drawing board’

In his California Hall office, Dirks recalled how “we had to go back to the drawing board” when federal funding fell through as he was arriving on campus to take over as chancellor. With UC Berkeley taking over leadership of the project from LBNL, he set up a high-level committee to explore other options, which led back to an idea he’d highlighted in his inaugural address: that of a global campus.

But joint campuses in other countries are subject to limits on academic freedom, both for faculty and for students, Dirks said, which is one important reason to have a branch 10 miles — as opposed to 10,000 miles — from the main Berkeley campus.

Chancellor Dirks’ full presentation to the Academic Senate (as prepared)

In other parts of the world, for instance, “If you have academic freedom on campus, does that you mean you have it in a classroom, in office hours, in a seminar?” he asked. “What if you go and have coffee with your professor off-campus? Is that ‘off-campus,’ or is it an extension of the campus experience? Do you have complete access to the Internet? Does it mean everything you post on the Internet — even if the Internet is a controlled platform for exchanges between and among the members of a classroom — is protected? What kinds of things could you potentially advocate for?

“We talk about a branch campus affording a ‘safe harbor,’” said Dirks, noting that U.S. universities with beachheads in mainland Asia and the Middle East experience “considerable anxiety” when presenting themselves as islands of academic freedom. “Well, this is a safe harbor in a safe harbor.”

Secondly, Dirks said, the proximity to Berkeley “allows real interaction, collaboration, participation — in both directions — for faculty, students and even staff to develop things that don’t require the first conversation always to be, Who’s going to get the airfare?”

The third key reason for BGC is “location, location, location,” he said, drawing an analogy to “the New York experience,” in which then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg enticed a stellar group of research institutions to compete for the chance to build an engineering campus on Roosevelt Island, which lies just off Manhattan in the East River.

BGC is “not a collaboration with the city, but with the university,” Dirks said, “but it’s in a location that’s attractive to people both nationally and globally.”

Global vision, community benefits

Yet even as he stressed the lure for academic and corporate partners, Dirks reaffirmed the central importance of the project to the local community, as laid out in a joint letter of commitment he and LBNL director Paul Alivisatos issued in April. The ongoing nature of that local partnership was reflected in comments by two prominent Richmond leaders, both of whom serve on a diverse working group comprising leaders from the City of Richmond, advocacy groups, business, labor and education.

“As a member of the working group established to advise the university on this new project,” said Jim Becker, president and CEO of the Richmond Community Foundation, “I know that many civic and community leaders are ready to partner with Chancellor Dirks to bring the community benefits in the Joint Statement of Commitment to Richmond to life.”

Bill Lindsay, Richmond’s city manager, lauded Berkeley’s continuing interest in developing “an internationally respected campus on Richmond’s southern shoreline,” as well as its “commitment to partner with Richmond to bring broad economic and social benefits to the community.”

“We look forward,” Lindsay said, “to Richmond, Calif., becoming an international hub for education, collaboration and global citizenship through one of the most respected universities in the world.”

One thing that hasn’t changed… is our commitment to the community.

– Chancellor Dirks

Dirks said “active and serious discussions” are taking place with potential partners and investors.

“Since we began to develop this new plan after the May regents meeting — and that’s really when it started — we’ve already experienced the growth of phenomenal interest in being part of this,” he said. Expressing confidence that “this will happen,” he likened the process to UCSF’s Mission Bay project in San Francisco, which only got rolling after a settlement with the biotech company Genentech provided $50 million toward the construction of its first building.

Terezia Nemeth, BGC’s development manager, played a pivotal role in bringing Mission Bay to life, first as a special assistant to then-San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and later as a vice president with Catellus, that project’s commercial developer. She agreed the Berkeley project could follow a similar pattern, albeit with one important difference.

“If we had the kind of money that UCSF had at the time — if we had the ability to get money, say, from a donor or from the state to build a building — we could start creating the Berkeley Global Campus right now,” Nemeth said. “The problem is that we don’t have access to that capital, so we need to depend on partners to help us with bringing capital to the table.

“We have the land, we have the entitlements, and we have the intellectual wherewithal, the brain trust. But we need investment,” she said. “So, really, we’re down to the money. We just need that initial source of funding to get it started.”

Dirks, for his part, emphasized the potential returns — academic, economic, cultural and otherwise — from what is still an evolving vision for the Berkeley Global Campus.

“It’s not just the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s going to bring huge opportunities to the campus, and to Northern California. It’s going to make real a global connectivity, and it’s going to make it real for our students and our faculty. It’s going to bring resources to campus, and it’s going to open up global resources to people from our campus in ways that no other model, I think, would stand a chance of coming close to replicating.

“We’re not getting money from the state to build a campus,” Dirks said. “So we’re finding new ways to raise money for activity that’s going to permeate the campus.”