Chancellor Nicholas Dirks welcomed as he begins term at UC Berkeley

J. Hannah Lee/File

J. Hannah Lee/File

J. Hannah Lee/Staff

Dan Mogulof/Courtesy

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Arriving a few minutes early to his first official day on the job, Nicholas Dirks was eager to begin his term as UC Berkeley’s new chancellor.

“We had to kill a little bit of time because I had an inkling there was going to be a musical entry,” Dirks said. The chancellor was greeted by the sound of the marching band’s trumpets as he walked into California Hall Monday morning.

Addressing a room full of approximately 60 administrators in a casual welcome reception, Dirks joked that he looks forward to getting rid of the “designate” part of his title.

“The fact of the matter is that I’m ready to move in and get to work,” Dirks said. The new chancellor has just finished a seven-month transition from his previous position as executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Columbia University.

The transition has been a particularly time-consuming one for Dirks, who has been making monthly trips from his former residence in New York to California, meeting with high-ranking politicians — such as Gov. Jerry Brown — and fundraising for UC Berkeley in a whirlwind trip across Asia. While taking over his administrative duties, Dirks has also been busy watching his son prepare to graduate from middle school and taking care of his family’s 4-month-old puppy, Boo Bear, who was named after the Cal mascot.

As the chancellor socialized with administrative staff, many of whom were meeting him for the first time, he kept a casual tone, asking to be called by his first name, “Nick,” instead of “Chancellor.”

UC Berkeley/Courtesy

“He comes right up to you, shakes your hand and looks you in the eye,” said Jenna Thibodeau, student assistant to the chancellor. She has previously met with Dirks during his trips to Berkeley.

Although Dirks’ hectic bicoastal days are over, he has a busy few weeks ahead of him. In the coming days, Dirks has scheduled meetings with top-ranking administrators, media organizations and politicians. On Tuesday, he filmed a taped video introduction to the campus, in which he laid out his broad goals for the university and paid tribute to the “exemplary leadership” of his predecessor, Robert Birgeneau. On Thursday, Dirks will travel to Sacramento to meet with legislators and the governor.

Back in Berkeley, one of the few changes Dirks plans to make to the chancellor’s office is adding more bookshelves to house his extensive collection of literary works. A distinguished scholar of history and anthropology, Dirks says he hopes to teach a class on Gandhi — but only once the initial rush of his new job dies down. His wife, history scholar Janaki Bakhle, will hold a faculty position in the campus department of history. Dirks will also be finishing his book of essays and will continue advising three graduate students from Columbia University, who will be moving to the UC Berkeley campus to complete their dissertations under his supervision.

While setting up technical office equipment, Dirks revealed his fondness for literature as well as his sense of humor.

“I’d like my first tweet to be a haiku,” he said while being trained on the university’s social media accounts. “Since you only have 140 characters, I heard the two are very similar.”

When summing up his sentiment of the beginning of his term, Dirks cited a refrain from what he says was an influential book on his studies: E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India.”

“Only connect — all I have to do is connect, literally,” he said, with both his new UC Berkeley email login and his new campus of more than 30,000 students.

Shirin Ghaffary is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sghaff.