Only three weeks after being selected as UC Berkeley’s next chancellor, Nicholas Dirks received a less-than-welcome introduction from Gov. Jerry Brown.
Brown decried Dirks’ $50,000 salary increase over that of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at a time of fiscal austerity for the university.
The public spat — emblematic of the troubled relationship between the state and university — appeared to set an uneasy tone for the start of Dirks’ tenure.
But when Dirks assumes office on June 1, he may find an unlikely ally in Brown at a time in which state funding has fallen to constitute just above 10 percent of UC Berkeley’s budget.
Dirks and Brown have quickly developed a close friendship. Privately, the two call each other, dine with their wives together and have long conversations about the history of the Indian caste system.
“We like talking to each other,” Dirks said of Brown in a recent interview with The Daily Californian.
Both Brown and Dirks have been called “big-idea” leaders. Both have followed in their fathers’ footsteps and entered public service. Both have spent time studying Asian cultures — Brown having studied Zen Buddhism and Dirks being an expert on Indian history and culture.
“Nick is a very interesting man in himself,” said Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies at Columbia University. “Like Brown, he really is an idea man. I think that Brown will get a kick out of that.”
Dirks’ arrival coincides with a critical time for the university in its relationship with the state.
“Nick is a very
interesting man in himself.
Like Brown, he really
is an idea man.” – Peter Awn, Dean
of the School of General Studies
at Columbia University
Both the passage of Proposition 30 and the flurry of new legislation related to higher education being introduced in Sacramento hint at the potential for a reset in recent trends.
For Dirks, Brown represents an opportunity to bridge unstable ties between the university and the state. For Brown, Dirks is a leader who shares his steadfast commitment to cost efficiency as a solution for the university’s problems.
At January’s UC Board of Regents meeting, Brown — who has become markedly more involved in the state’s higher education system — called for the university to cut back on what he deemed excessive spending.
The governor voiced the need for limitations on executive pay, student unit caps and a move toward expanding the university’s online program in the name of cost-saving.
“Teaching costs have to be brought down,” Brown said at the meeting. “I won’t tell you how to do that, but you need to figure it out.”
According to Gareth Lacy, a spokesperson for the governor, Brown remains “absolutely committed” to holding the line on tuition hikes.
“Students should not be the default financiers of higher education in California,” Lacy said.
Brown’s recommendation follows his deep cuts to social services, including millions of dollars of reductions to programs such as state child care and college scholarships.
Brown could not be directly reached for comment.
Like Brown — who famously chose to sleep on a bare mattress on the floor of his simple apartment during his first term as governor rather than in the governor’s mansion — Dirks has developed a reputation as an administrator dedicated to cost efficiency even in the face of public concern.
At Columbia, where he served as the executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Dirks helped push forward an administrative restructuring of the faculty of arts and sciences. In 2011, the consulting group McKinsey & Company, which was hired by Dirks and Columbia President Lee Bollinger, made recommendations about how to implement this structural streamlining.
“His goal administratively was to increase efficiencies, quicken decisions and to try to build more collaborative relationships among the various deans,” Awn said.
But the program drew significant criticism from both students and administrators. In 2011, the former dean of the undergraduate Columbia College, Michele Moody-Adams, resigned abruptly. Both The New York Times and the Columbia Spectator reported that her decision to step down was related to her concerns regarding the administrative overhaul.
“Dirks is thought of as positive in some ways, but he’s also seen by some undergraduates as someone who is centralizing power and taking it away from individual schools, especially the undergraduate school,” said Jared Odessky, an elected student representative on the Columbia University Senate. “The problem is, when allocating financial resources, a lot has gone to the top.”
Dirks’ management of the program was in part facilitated by the administrative flexibility afforded to him by the private nature of Columbia — a comfort he will no longer benefit from at UC Berkeley.
“One thing I’ll say about University of California is there’s a high level of transparency,” Dirks said. “I’ve never had transparency like this in my life.”
“I’ve never had transparency
like this in my life.”
-Chancellor-designate Nicholas Dirks
While administrators at private schools like Columbia have more maneuvering room, by virtue of being at a public school like UC Berkeley, administrators are required to be more cautious, according to Director of the campus Center for Studies in Higher Education C. Judson King.
“I’m fine with the transparency and the open records, but sometimes it makes it more difficult to make decisions,” said UC President Mark Yudof. “Of course it may be easier to make a decision at somewhere like Harvard than Berkeley, but at the end of the day, we have a public university with a public mission.”
Still, Dirks hopes to spark dialogue with the campus’s active community. He said he plans on holding regular fireside chats and meetings with student groups during his visit to the campus in May.
“I like that professor Dirks is really engaged with students — he’s very open-minded, intelligent and trustworthy,” said Graduate Assembly President Bahar Navab, who sat on the chancellor search committee.
Both Dirks and Brown have a history of looking for outside partners to help finance state and university programs.
Recently, Brown secured a deal with a China-based investor to help pay for a $1.5 billion development deal in Oakland. During a trade mission last week in Beijing, Brown also sought support from China for the state’s recently approved high-speed rail project.
As the senior administrator working on the development of global outreach, Dirks was a fundamental force in seeking international support for Columbia, according to Kathy Okun, vice president for university development at Columbia. Under his leadership, the university established five global offices to represent it.
“It is critical to engage Berkeley’s global community — and in order to do just that, I recently completed a tour of Asia, where I met with the Berkeley Clubs in Mumbai, Delhi, Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore,” Dirks said.
Over the last decade, UC Berkeley has put increased emphasis on garnering private support through different campaigns, initiatives and a shift in alumni relations. Haas School of Business development efforts, such as the thank-you letter event, are among the many programmatic efforts toward closing this gap through a cultural push toward philanthropy, said David Blinder, former associate vice chancellor for university relations.
“Ironically, we need more private money to sustain our public character,” Birgeneau said.
“Ironically, we need more private money
to sustain our public character.”
– Chancellor Robert Birgeneau
In 1987, the state funded 54 percent of the university’s budget. In 2012, the state supplied only 11 percent. Over the last eight years, total yearly private giving has increased by around $80 billion.
Although UC Berkeley still lags behind its private peers, with an endowment about half the size of Columbia’s, the university’s efforts have significantly increased in recent years, said Vice Chancellor of University Relations Scott Biddy.
“We are not simply wringing our hands,” he said. “We are working hard to sustain our excellence … and to ensure that Berkeley competes academically at the very top tier on the global stage — one of the ways we do this is by raising private gifts.”
The new chancellor’s history of engaging with alumni and donor communities comes to the University of California at a time of heightened stakes. His experience as a fundraiser at Columbia may be key in Brown’s advocacy for the university to seek a larger degree of financial independence from the state.
As vice president, dean and primary fundraiser of Columbia’s faculty of the arts and sciences, Dirks raised more than $900 million of the $5 billion Columbia Campaign — the largest campaign in Columbia’s history.
“In order to have successful philanthropy, you need two things: big ideas and people who make those big ideas happen,” Okun said. Dirks has both, she said.
Like both state and university administrators, Dirks agrees that the university needs to search for new sources of revenue. But he remains reluctant to embrace Brown’s leading proposal that the university take on a more expansive online education program.
In January, Brown proposed a budget that allocated $10 million for the development of online education, calling for the university to take advantage of new forms of technology to improve graduation rates and increase access to the university.
Although Dirks helped create online extension programs at Columbia, he has come down against the use of such programs as a one-stop solution to the university’s financial problems.
“The emphasis of online education should be on enhancing the learning experience, not thinking of it as some great fantasy for revenue production, which is completely untried and untested at this point,” Dirks said.
As both Brown and Dirks move forward, they will have to negotiate what in recent years has been a testy relationship between their two institutions.
“Although the state is only (about) 10 percent of our budget, our relationship with the state is important,” Birgeneau said. “We need to keep it straight.”
Between their shared history of controversial efforts toward fiscal discipline and their search to find more sustainable sources of revenue for the university, the brewing friendship between Dirks and Brown comes at a true inflection point for the university.
“Governor Brown and I are having so much fun talking that we haven’t had the chance to think about the next Prop. 30,” Dirks said. “But we will.”
Contact Alex Berryhill and Shirin Ghaffary at [email protected].