Q&A: EVCP Claude Steele offers impressions of Berkeley and ideas for the future

Halfway through his first year as UC Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost, Claude Steele – who spent more than forty years as a prolific social psychologist, in addition to holding senior administrative positions at Columbia and Stanford – has been eagerly getting up to speed on how Berkeley operates as well as laying the groundwork for new and bold ideas.

The NewsCenter sat down with Steele, who in his role as EVCP serves as deputy to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks as well as the leader of the academic side of UC Berkeley, to hear his impressions of the university thus far, get his take on some of the pressing issues facing the school, and hear more about major campus initiatives in the works.

You’ve been here for just about nine months. Have you wrapped your head around this place? What has proved to be the most surprising?

It would be a bit early to say I’ve entirely wrapped my head around this place. I’m still working through my listening tour of Berkeley student, faculty, and staff groups, and a significant portion of my time is focused on just keeping the trains running on the academic side of the house and in representing that perspective throughout university decision-making. I’m getting there, but I’m still learning new things every day.

What I’ve found most striking – though perhaps not surprising – has been the greatness of the institution and the talented, energetic, and diverse student body. Students here have excellence in common, but beyond that possess an incredible diversity of perspectives and points of view, built around a culture that encourages the expression of those points of view.

What’s the value of having all of those various perspectives together on the Berkeley campus?

One of the best ways to learn about the world is to hear directly from people who possess a different view of the world. And when you have a diversity of people, you’re going to learn a lot more than you would if you had a narrow range of them. Berkeley has this diversity along several important lines – socioeconomic, ethnic, geographic, and many more.

This kind of diversity is additionally important in an academic environment because it allows us to conduct our scholarship more effectively. The economist Jacob Viner used to tell his students, “There is no limit to the amount of nonsense you can think, if you think too long alone.” When you ask a group of people to solve a problem, you can use each other as sounding boards for ideas. Each person will approach that problem in a different way, and each person will understand specific aspects of that issue better than others.

In my own life, when I felt I had hit a rut in my research, I stopped simply directing my graduate students and started listening to them – what they thought, who they were, where they came from, and how they approached or reacted to our work. Some of the most important and fascinating research I conducted came out of those conversations.

What do you see as the fundamental challenges facing Berkeley?

Much of the prestige and academic power of an institution rests on the quality of its faculty and students, both graduate and undergraduate. But gaining and retaining top-notch faculty and students is not always cheap, and Berkeley doesn’t have the $36 billion endowment that Harvard has. Whenever we admit an excellent graduate student, that student weighs our financial aid package against the ones he or she receives from other schools. A similar thing happens with new faculty salary offers. And beyond this, private institutions are all the time trying to woo our best professors and researchers away with offers of higher compensation.

There are reasons aside from money that make Berkeley attractive – including its history of dynamic research, its public mission, even its weather – but when we do talk about money, we’re competing with institutions that have a lot more to spend. Addressing that is the chief issue at hand.

Still, I don’t want to make it sound all doom and gloom. You could argue – by the two dimensions of academic excellence and contribution to upward mobility and fairness of opportunity in society – that Berkeley is the best university in the world. Our students, our faculty, and our staff will continue to be incredible – I’ve actually been amazed to see the staff so eager and dedicated to the institution, aware of what is at stake here and working for the larger good and a common mission.

How do you see Berkeley solving this issue? How should we make up the shortfall that has been left by the state’s decision to pull higher education dollars from the budget?

We’re going to have to become more reliant on our community for support. In order not to give up on our public mission – and we won’t – we’re going to have to rely a lot more on our students, our graduates, our alumni, and our donors to support the institution. We’ll continue to cut costs as much as we can without sacrificing the quality of the institution, but we have to do more than that. Even beyond attracting and keeping the best faculty and staff, we would like to complete our deferred maintenance, to offer more classes, and to have a better faculty/student ratio – but we just don’t have enough money at this point.

You’ve mentioned in the past that the deans of Berkeley’s schools and colleges will play a major role in this push.

Yes. While sometimes donors give generally to the university, often donors will only provide this support if they can use their philanthropic dollars to fund educational programs, research, or scholarship in specific ideas or projects or initiatives. They’d like to see their contributions have specific effects in areas they care about.

That’s where our deans can play an incredibly important role: developing and administering to a community of supporters and donors, forming relationships that reveal to donors the kinds of exciting things going on here, and offering donors opportunities to be a part of those amazing things. Bringing that concept more directly into the fore is something we’re moving toward as an institution.

Speaking of deans, you yourself have been a dean at Stanford, and are now tasked with leading the hiring of other deans, say to replace Judith Warren Little at the helm of the Graduate School of Education. Aside from this capacity for fundraising, what other traits make a good dean?

The answer surely has many dimensions. You want a person who has great integrity, who’s seen as fair, who can cultivate a vision for a school and lead towards that goal. And someone who has the energy for it, because it takes a lot of energy.

I think it also takes a willingness to put aside your own work and research, for at least a while, in favor of working on behalf your colleagues and creating an environment in which they can thrive. This can be very hard for an academic to do.

Let’s shift gears slightly and discuss another growing area of focus for Berkeley. Catherine Koshland was recently appointed the university’s first vice chancellor for undergraduate education, leading a new charge in that area. Why does undergraduate education need an overhaul?

It doesn’t need an overhaul, but there are things we could do better. We want to make sure that the undergraduate learning experience at Berkeley is as strong as our offerings at the graduate level.

One of the major ways we’ll do this is by putting a new focus on helping students take advantage of all of Berkeley’s resources. For new students, they see this hugely rich environment with so much in it, but the challenge they run into is: How do I find myself and my direction in life, as well as explore and get everything I can out of this institution?

In the first two years of college, a small liberal arts environment like the one I had at my alma mater, Hiram, was very good for me. But as time went on, I went looking for a broader and deeper set of experiences, and that’s where an institution like Berkeley has a huge amount to offer. We want to make that more accessible; we don’t want to think of people coming to Berkeley, and because of the size and complexity, getting lost and not finding themselves in this environment. We want the size and complexity to be a resource. That’s what we’re aspiring to in the undergraduate initiative.

In your writing, you’ve mentioned the importance to your own development of having mentors throughout life. And it sounds like mentors could help address this need to guide students through Berkeley’s rich but sometimes overwhelming offerings. Why is mentorship so essential?

Mentoring can be important for helping to navigate a place, yes – but in my experience, it’s been most essential for getting through those moments of self-doubt that we all face.

I think that most adults who’ve had successful professional lives can probably go back to some relationship in their line of work where somebody said, “I think you can do this, and I want to see you do it.” You can get that from a professor, you can get it from a roommate, you can get it in a variety of ways and places. But having someone say that, and then scaffolding it with advice about how to do it, about the relationships that are going to be critical, about what you need to study – that combination of things can change the course of a life.

You’ve worked predominantly at larger research institutions, and your own analyses of topics like self-image and addictive behavior have been the driving force of your career. Should conducting research be an important part of the undergraduate experience?

I think it’s something that everyone should have some experience in.

Taking college courses puts you in the position of being a consumer of knowledge. This isn’t always the case, of course, and it’s essential to becoming a knowledgeable person. But conducting research allows you to be a producer of knowledge, which engages a different part of your self. It’s thrilling to get involved in a set of questions that you think are important, and that you realize not a lot of people have explored, and that you can try to answer. This proactive approach to producing knowledge is one of the greatest things about our civilization, and students here are in a school that is one of the best in this regard. You don’t want to leave here without experiencing that.