Memo to the next chancellor

The Devil's Advocate


Dear Nicholas Dirks,

Congratulations on your selection as UC Berkeley’s next chancellor. Your reputation will rise or fall depending on your ability to navigate an unpredictable and sometimes explosive political environment, win the trust of students who are notoriously wary of authority and guide the world’s leading public university through a period of fiscal uncertainty and upheaval in higher education. In other words, as I’m sure you are aware, this is likely to be the most difficult job of your life. I urge you to consider the following three suggestions to strengthen your prospects for a successful tenure.

First, cut your salary. I’m sure that UC President Mark Yudof offered you a handsome salary to lure you to the West Coast from your comfortable perch as executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Columbia University. (Current chancellor Robert Birgeneau made about $445,000 last year, according to The Sacramento Bee.) You’ll have very few living expenses because you get to live for free in the University House — a spectacular mansion with 2.6 acres of manicured land. You won’t exactly be starving.

You ought to voluntarily — and publicly — give up 10 percent of your annual salary and direct it instead to financial aid for low-income students. This would, of course, have a trivial effect on the campus’s ability to provide financial aid — but it would be a powerful gesture. Cutting your own salary would show that you take the university’s financial woes seriously, earn you some goodwill among faculty and students and give you more credibility if and when you are forced to cut other parts of Berkeley’s budget.

Second, be smart about protests. Your predecessor’s reputation took a beating (no pun intended) for his response to last year’s Occupy Cal protests. One professor wrote in a Daily Californian op-ed at the time that “as MIT’s Dean of Science, (Birgeneau) used to command universal adoration and respect. Sadly, today’s Chancellor Birgeneau appears largely divorced from the Dean Birgeneau that I once admired while a graduate student at MIT” because of his mishandling of the Occupy drama.

How can you prevent that from happening to you? To the extent that you can, keep the riot police off campus. The threat of overwhelming force doesn’t calm protests at Berkeley; it tends to escalate them. And it should go without saying that should you need to call in the police, it would be almost suicidally crazy to allow them to use batons against nonviolent protesters. That would be the most effective way to unite the campus against you, as your predecessor learned the hard way.

Also, focus on your PR. Make sure everyone knows that you are a champion of public higher education — and that responsibility for the university’s fiscal woes lies with Sacramento legislators, not your administration. That said, be aware that some protesters are more interested in tearing the place down than actually articulating grievances. They will vilify you no matter what you do. Don’t take it personally.

Third, protect free speech on campus. American university administrations have increasingly been restricting free speech rights to try to enforce “civility” — a term that has sometimes become code for political correctness. A few years ago, New York University threatened to shut down a panel on Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad if the images were displayed. In 2009, Yale University barred students from making a shirt with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quotation, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” Earlier this month, the president of Fordham University excoriated (or, arguably, intimidated) the campus’s college Republicans after they invited the controversial pundit Ann Coulter to speak — prompting the group to disinvite her.

UC Berkeley has a strong commitment to equity and inclusion. This commitment is admirable, but it also makes the campus more vulnerable to the types of trends I just described. In 2011, Birgeneau issued a statement claiming that the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was precipitated by Arizona’s controversial immigration law and an environment where “hateful speech is tolerated.” The chancellor’s statement had a chilling effect on speech by implying that opponents of progressive immigration policy were somehow complicit in an attack, which, as it turns out, was carried out by a psychotic person. It’s not always the administration that threatens free speech: When the Berkeley College Republicans held an affirmative action bake sale, the student government threatened to revoke the group’s funding.

One of your most important missions as chancellor, in my view, must be to ensure that UC Berkeley is able to sustain its reputation as an incubator of dissent and free expression, even as other universities restrict speech rights. I wish you the best of luck.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @jawillick.

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  • iPosit

    In general, protests at Berkeley are done without goals, or are done in areas where the people who are in charge of such decisions do not reside. This is not to criticize them, they are often done in respectful and progressive sentiments for the sake of essentially popular goals, but in some regards they lack a sincere call-to-action that most protests ought include.

    Dirks should be able to delineate between the two. The clear difference between protesting against tuition increases or against budget cuts – one is done by the group who controls the UC budget, but that group is often motivated by the other group that controls the general funding the first group needs to then decide the budget. I feel that protests are often done without noticing this glaring omission of actor responsibility and a call to action. So, personally, I’d implore Dirks to be weary about saying where the responsibility truly lies, and not to misrepresent the limits of his authority as our Chancellor.

    Mostly, however, I’d expect his e-mails to be incredibly flowery and well-written. I want them to be full of language nostalgic of French egalitarianism and the equality sought by 19th century activists in proffering education to women and separating religion from the issue of expanding one’s mind. I want him to be aware of the situation he is in: this is an institution starting to become public merely by namesake. Cost with increase with its exclusivity and the original mission of the UC’s founders (to provide free public higher education to all Californians) will be a dream that will beget merely a giggle from those who shed pounds of flesh to the end of paying their tuition. Loans upon loans, rates that mean calls, and obligations to be well-equipped in entering a market as difficult as ever creates a level of student anxiety that should be clearly seen in the desire to protest. Maybe there isn’t much that Dirks can do, but there should be enough that he can say to at least be loved as a leader, instead of spurned as a representative of imaginary forces students claim to rebel against, demanding gifts of forward progress for an expression of our discontent.

  • veryoldperson

    Well done, Mr. Willick’s column is an important reminder, of how well the system works for the ‘select group’, Unfortunately, UC worker bees who make much less, are recipients of the same scathing chastisement by individuals who don’t understand the UC caste system.

  • queTico

    Does anyone know if Jason read the article about how the Regents are engaging in debt swaps that costs us millions of dollars while raising salaries and giving out bonuses… They are most CERTAINLY part of the problem and the new chancellor needs to respond to that!! He should be keeping the Regents, admin, and management of this university system accountable because he has oversight, power and visibility. Letting him off the hook on that shows how ignorant you are and how you don’t understand the dynamics of campus. You need to learn a bit about campus leadership positions and the influence they have statewide, within the UC, and in the face of the Regents. You also seem to forget the scandal WITHIN OUR ADMINISTRATION where jobs and favors were given illegally, not to mention the blossoming of administrative hiring. Do you htink that we should be hiring 5 admin to every 1 faculty? If so then I guess you are right, nothing is wrong at the UC at all, thats why we’re paying over 75million dollars for consultation by a company we send our graduates to! WE CANT EVEN HELP OURSELVES.

    No one came to campus hating Birgeneau, he did it to himself AS YOU SAID IN YOUR OWN ARTICE!!! You ask the Chancellor to protect and ignore these protestor, more of those paradoxes you (and apparently the Daily Cal) seem to love!!!

    Berkeley is no long and incubator of dissent, students from the last 4 years have made sure it will stay that way. Please show me some dissent that is not Occupy related or coming from the select group of agitators you mentioned earlier Mr. Paradox (Israel-Palestine doesn’t count since that would happen regardless of UC)!

  • UCB alum

    I love Jason’s articles, and I think the accusation of plagiarism was entirely unfounded. When you are relating facts you need to use words, and for the same facts sometimes the same words are used! Jason is someone who clearly thinks very hard about the issues, and while he is a democrat he is not a knee jerk liberal. It is people like him who will help move this country forward, by really listening and thinking deeply.

    • I_h8_disqus

      They deleted your comment, because it breaks the rule about unreasonable attack. If you wouldn’t have made up a really poor plagiarism attack, then your comment wouldn’t have been deleted.

  • Say What??

    Is this clown SERIOUS?? Dude, time to call the Registrar’s office and demand a refund of your tuition money because you didn’t learn a damned thing at this school. We suggest less Fox News and a whole lot more classroom attendance.

    So how, one wonders does a writer move from this article criticizing the craziness of the Right Wing mind in April 2012

    to THIS current love song to those very same crazies? Apparently this guy is NOW a big fan of the crazy talk side of the GOP; complete with defending racist “bake sales”, pining for Coultergeist (though what such has to do with Cal is uncertain) and being aghast that a campus employee would think Arizona’s racist immigration laws were actually — you know — racist. “Confused” would be the charitable summary of this writer. “Disturbed” might be another.

    Hiding potential weapons — knives, forks, guns, the random explosive — when this character is around couldn’t hurt. Better yet, just keep your distance from this apparent psycho.

    All in all, the Daily Cal ain’t what it used to be in terms of its standards. Nor, evidently, is the Cal admissions policy.

    • Guest

      From Jason’s Twitter:

      “Listening to political debates in Berkeley makes me tempted to be a Republican…”

      He must have become a Republican over time.

      • Nunya Beeswax

        I’m not a Republican, and on most issues I’m further to the left than our current President. But I can understand Jason’s feelings. If most lefties at Berkeley are assholes on the order of Say What?? (c’mon, seriously, your ideological opponents are “disturbed” because they have different opinions to yours?), I’d be tempted to switch sides too. If nothing else, I don’t want to be associated with the kind of jerk who sees no irony in shouting “No free speech for fascists!”

        • Guest

          You’re not further to the left on gay marriage on most issues than President Obama, who OPENLY supported it before his reelection. He’s a very courageous man to stand up for the civil rights of the oppressed.

          I strongly disagree with free speech for homophobes. Just look at what happened to Tyler Clementi and all the other gays and lesbians who committed suicide because of homophobes. It Gets Better ONLY if you survive the vitriol and homophobia that gays and lesbians face on a daily basis.

          • Nunya Beeswax

            I support gays and lesbians being able to contract the same civil union as heterosexual couples do. Whether I think of that as being “marriage” in the Christian sense is neither here nor there.

            And thanks for offering, but I’m not interested in giving up any of my rights, including the right to free speech. And you’ll have to do better than pimping a disturbed teen’s suicide to make me think that’s a good idea.

          • Guest

            Wow, you don’t seem too concerned at all about the suicides of gays and lesbians who have been bullied by homophobes. How can you call yourself further to the left than President Obama? That makes NO SENSE at all.

          • Nunya Beeswax

            Look, pal–you’re the one taking an unfortunate suicide and turning it into an excuse to silence people whose opinions you don’t care for. Enjoy your crusade.

          • Guest

            I’m not just talking about Tyler Clementi’s suicide. I’m talking about the suicides of many gays and lesbians who have been bullied by homophobes. Is it worth many lives to let homophobes use a homophobic slur like “fag”?

            Most people on the left would be ashamed you call yourself left of President Obama. Only right-wing homophobes don’t care about gays and lesbians getting bullied by homophobes.

          • Nunya Beeswax

            Right, because making the word “fag” illegal is really going to stop bullying.
            And clearly, the only reason these kids commit suicide is because people call them names. It’s not like the money might be better spent providing comprehensive counseling and support options for teenagers; obviously the way to fix the problem is to criminalize something. Because that always fucking works.

    • another guest

      Thanks for sharing all your favorite left wing talking points. Jason’s certainly not my favorite columnist, but could you at least try to deal with specifics.

    • Nunya Beeswax

      It looks as though he’s serious about the First Amendment, which in my opinion is a good start. Respecting freedom of speech ought to be a primary concern of the academic world. This isn’t a function of left- or right-wing politics, but of American values.

      I don’t want either liberals or conservatives to be silenced. I didn’t read his column as a love song to the right wing, but an indictment of the (mostly left-leaning) campus’ deplorable attitude toward dissident speech.

  • berkeleystudent

    To call this plagiarism is laughable. Jason did not copy any ideas or analysis from the WSJ article. Of course, some of the examples he mentions will be similar to the ones in the WSJ. But that’s because there are only so many famous examples of colleges violating free speech on college campuses and any article that encroaches upon the topic of free speech at colleges is bound to mention them.

    These are just facts. Anyone who keeps up with college news has already heard of all of these incidences. Should someone describing the 3 tallest mountains in the world be accused of plagiarism just because the New York Times has already written a story about them?

    There’s nothing ambiguous or original about any of the examples Jason uses. Again, they are just facts. Should the Wall Street Journal be accused of plagiarism for not citing those three events when hundreds of other publications had already covered them?

    Last, if you compare Jason’s and the WSJ’s language, you’ll see that they are not at all similar. In fact, were they any more different, he would be describing altogether different events.

    It’s really a shame that there are people out there trying to slander this articulate, hard-working Berkeley student. I sure hope you are not another Cal student.

  • N

    This author is such an idiot. That is all.

    • alumnus

      I know, it’s not even worth delving into.

      • Guest

        lol there are supposed to be 18 comments here, but I only count eleven (not including this one).

        These Daily Cal folks sure like censoring opinions they don’t like. No honesty or integrity in the home of the Free Speech Movement. What hypocrites, especially since part of this article is bemoaning the lack of free speech in this country.

      • Guest

        You should read their comment policy on the About page. If you disagree with it, that’s one thing. But the editors are probably just following the guidelines set forth here:

        For this article, accusations of plagiarism clearly “…attack a named or identified person or group unreasonably.”

        The false accusation of plagiarism is not an opinion. It is an intentionally nasty, clearly incorrect statement.