A deep love of UC Berkeley, combined with an unwavering commitment to public education and to research and educational excellence, is what Ben Hermalin, Berkeley’s newly chosen executive vice chancellor and provost, says he’ll bring to his new post, which was announced today (Tuesday, Jan. 11) and will begin on July 1.
But Hermalin, vice provost for the faculty for the past five years, added that his most valuable attribute in the campus’s No. 2 job is his belief that “the best life is one dedicated to being empathetic, lifting people up, treating them with kindness and respect, and bettering the world; there is no greater accolade than to be called a mensch.”
Campus leaders were quick to list additional distinctions, including Hermalin’s skills as a listener, communicator and innovator.
“I have enormous respect for his successful efforts to maintain the excellence of Berkeley, and he has been a consistent source of wise counsel and strong leadership,” said Chancellor Carol Christ. “His dedication to our university, our mission and our values is evident and extraordinary.”
“Ben’s an extremely hard worker, commits to the successful completion of any task he takes on, and is well known for his outstanding integrity,” added Lisa Alvarez-Cohen, vice provost for academic planning. “I believe he is the most qualified and best-suited person to take on the complex and challenging EVCP role; he’ll do a terrific job from day one.”
Hermalin’s “abiding love for Berkeley, thoughtfulness, his deep belief in issues of equity and inclusion, his ability to solve seemingly intractable problems, and his incredible capacity for hard work mark everything he does,” said Raka Ray, dean of the Division of Social Sciences, “and I know these qualities will shape his tenure as provost.”
Hermalin — who, as vice provost, has read thousands of academic personnel files from every discipline on campus — was praised by Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education Catherine Koshland, who since last July has served as interim executive vice chancellor and provost, for understanding what research excellence means in every field on campus.
“I don’t think anyone has the deep knowledge of the faculty that Ben does, and he really can embrace the entire intellectual enterprise and be enthusiastic about what happens in the disciplines we engage in,” she said. “That — to me and to the campus’s deans and chairs — is invaluable.”
She added that Hermalin “is someone who can amplify the vision set by the chancellor, can contribute to it and can provide sage advice, guidance.”
With Christ as, essentially, the campus’s chief executive officer, Hermalin will be its chief operating officer, as well as its chief academic officer — someone, he explained, who “tries to set a vision for all things academic, to manage all things academic, to maintain the great academic prestige of the university and to advance that excellence.”
His broad experience at Berkeley has primed him for handling such vision and responsibility. His previous campus posts include serving as interim dean at Berkeley Haas (2002), chair of Berkeley Economics (2005-2008), chair of the campus’s Budget Committee (2011-2012), chair of the Berkeley Academic Senate (2015-2016) and vice provost for the faculty (2016-2022).
Committed to a welcoming campus that’s accessible to all
Hermalin said he “fell in love” with Berkeley upon his arrival 33 years ago, in 1988, as an assistant professor of economics and business. From the window of his airport shuttle, he admired the campus’s landscape against the lush green East Bay hills, but soon came to treasure his brilliant and fascinating colleagues, students from all walks of life, Berkeley as an engine of social mobility, and the intensity and breadth of the school’s public mission.
“People stay at Berkeley not only because it’s beautiful and prestigious, but because it gives them a sense of meaning in life,” said Hermalin, who also is the Thomas and Alison Schneider Distinguished Professor of Finance at Berkeley Haas and a professor at Berkeley Economics. “I believe most people really need to have meaning in their lives. Berkeley provides the meaning. You feel what you’re doing here is valuable to the world, that you’re going beyond — not just doing things for yourself, but to really benefit people. You can make a difference here and benefit people in many ways.”
Making a difference, for Hermalin, includes making sure the campus is a friendly and beneficial environment for all who work and study here. He said he credits his upbringing in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan, for experiences that “have made me treasure diversity’s benefits.
In Ann Arbor, he attended the city’s public schools, which he called “remarkably integrated, both in terms of students and in terms of faculty, particularly for the Midwest.” His mother was a fundraiser at U-M’s music school. His father was a professor of sociology and demography who introduced his son to many visiting scholars and dignitaries from around the world, with their array of cultures and ideas.
“I especially came to appreciate my good fortune when, as an undergraduate at Princeton, I met classmates who had grown up without diversity: They had little understanding of and even less concern for people different from themselves,” said Hermalin. “Their minds were closed to new ideas; in short, they were impoverished.”
He said those experiences have propelled him to work for a Berkeley that has “a broad spectrum of people and ideas, that is open to all, inclusive and equitable; that fosters a sense of belonging and that is just.”
As associate dean of academic affairs at Berkeley Haas from 1999-2002, Hermalin said he “went up against some very senior faculty members who were notorious for bullying staff, students and junior colleagues” and successfully improved the school’s climate. Later, early in his tenure as Berkeley’s vice provost for the faculty, he established the campus’s first anti-bullying guidelines for the faculty.
Alvarez-Cohen said Hermalin has been a strong advocate for initiatives that address gender and demographic equity in faculty salaries and merit advancements; for cluster hires that help change the face of the faculty and expand areas of inquiry to address social issues that had previously received little attention; and for an overhaul of how job searches are performed, to ensure that they exhibit broad outreach and are inclusive.
During the coronavirus pandemic, said Koshland, Hermalin’s cognizance of faculty members struggling to adapt their teaching to an online format, to cope with field research stalled by travel and safety restrictions, and to juggle childcare while working from home led him to create policies to accommodate and support them.
“He’s been an amazing champion for the faculty, articulating to deans and chairs the impact (of the pandemic) on their work and productivity and asking them to be generous during this highly disruptive time,” she said.
As vice provost for the faculty, Hermalin also initiated monthly Zoom town hall meetings so that junior faculty were kept informed and reassured as COVID-19 disrupted regular campus operations.
He said his advising and problem-solving skills received a memorable compliment when an established dean at Berkeley once quipped to a new dean that, to be successful, she must memorize “the hotline number: 1-800-CALL-BEN.” He believes his ability to support and empower others is why he tended to be the adviser to whom less-confident Ph.D. students gravitated, and he noted with pride that many of them went on to positions at places like Columbia, Harvard and Yale universities.
Future-oriented, to preserve Berkeley’s excellence
“Aiming ahead” to keep Berkeley a center of excellence is a priority for Hermalin, who pledges to work with deans, department chairs and others to plan for sustaining and enhancing what makes Berkeley a standout from its peers.
In the next few years, Berkeley’s faculty will experience waves of retirements, providing the chance to reimagine a faculty that reflects the changing landscape of higher education, he said, one that is “more multidisciplinary and less siloed,” that is diverse in its demography and its scholarship, that translates basic research into application, that draws on all fields of inquiry to address world crises, and that ensures, via technology and better use of resources, that all students can access the programs and courses they want and need.
“To advance boldly across this landscape,” he added, “we must think strategically about how we hire faculty,” including through interdisciplinary cluster hires. Already underway is hiring for five such clusters — Native American and Indigenous Peoples, Anti-Black Racism and Social Inclusion, Latinx and Democracy, Artificial Intelligence and Inequality, and Understanding (Non) Citizenship. A sixth cluster is complete: Climate Equity and Environmental Justice.
With regard to improving the student experience, Hermalin said he will seek to change “a stressful, Darwinian environment at odds with our goal of seeing students thrive, learn to collaborate and enjoy a sense of belonging,” an environment that overrelies on grades for determining access to courses and majors. He said he wants to work with the faculty to build a Berkeley that “invests in the success of every student and makes every student feel they belong here.”
He stressed the need for Berkeley to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution to advance the goal of having a student body that better reflects the demographics of California. He currently meets monthly with the leadership of the Latinx Faculty Association.
So that Berkeley can preserve its core excellence, Hermalin said he’ll work with deans to ensure they have the resources, time and support to be effective at fundraising, and that he’ll push for a system where “funds flow where needed, Berkeley’s comprehensive excellence is guaranteed, and incentives are provided to generate and utilize funds wisely.”
Additional plans he cited include increasing the size of the faculty to keep up with the growing student population; addressing maintenance needs so that Berkeley’s facilities will not only accommodate such growth, but be world-class; and keeping staff levels high enough to avoid staff burnout and inadequate support for students and faculty.
The campus’s current challenges are daunting, admitted Hermalin. But he emphasized that, after first holding conversations with members of the campus community to solidify priorities, “I’ll work tirelessly to meet those, and to seize opportunities in ways that make Berkeley stronger, that keep Berkeley Berkeley, in terms of ethos, eminence and excellence.”