Berkeley after Birgeneau

CAMPUS ISSUES: Nicholas Dirks, who is likely to become UC Berkeley’s next chancellor, needs to be more visible on campus than his predecessor.

UC Berkeley’s next chancellor is tasked with navigating the campus through a particularly tumultuous and precarious moment in its history.

Though the passage of Proposition 30 offers some respite, as the University of California no longer faces a midyear budget cut, it is only a glimmer of hope on an otherwise bleak horizon. State funds still constitute just 11 percent of the campus budget, the university struggles to build a diverse student body and the cost of a UC education remains out of reach for many middle- and lower-income Californians. Nicholas Dirks, who is set to become UC Berkeley’s 10th chancellor in June, will hopefully become the leader the campus needs to overcome these obstacles.

To be effective, Dirks, currently Columbia University’s executive vice chancellor and dean of the faculty for arts and sciences, must be more visible to students than outgoing Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. While Birgeneau has achieved many outstanding accomplishments during his tenure, he has also been notably distant, as evinced by his handling of last year’s Occupy Cal protests. Dirks can do better by being an approachable chancellor with whom most students feel they can connect.

If Dirks wants to do well, he will recognize that being more present within the campus community will enable him to perform better in all his duties. For example, he will be ultimately responsible for ensuring the effectiveness of Operational Excellence, a cost-cutting initiative the campus launched in 2009 that has been met with resistance due to layoffs and other controversial methods of improving efficiency. The initiative does not have to be seen as an obscure, predatory process; however, changing this understanding will require Dirks to prove that he comprehends student, faculty and staff concerns.

The necessity to relate well with students and other stakeholders at UC Berkeley is especially relevant given the campus’ storied history of political activism. Being able to empathize with the sentiments of student demonstrators will make Dirks a much better manager of large-scale demonstrations than Birgeneau has been. Students should be able to trust that exercising their free speech rights will not result in a beating from the campus police.

Yet while Dirks can be an improvement from his predecessor in several ways, he can also build upon Birgeneau’s notable successes. Under Birgeneau’s leadership, the campus created a visionary financial aid plan for middle class families and established a scholarship for undocumented students. The campus has remained competitive with private universities, retaining a strong faculty, fostering a robust academic environment and utilizing alternate sources of funding to deal with declining state support.

Coping with the dearth of state funding will continue to be a top priority for the next chancellor, at least for the foreseeable future. But he cannot adequately lead this campus if he does not immerse himself in the UC Berkeley community. Maintaining diversity, access and affordability are equally important areas for the chancellor to work on. And everything we know about Dirks so far suggests that he is up to the task.