Since taking office June 1, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has begun to tackle many of the challenges facing our campus. From his listening sessions with students to his bold remarks recently to the Washington Post on Obama’s education plan, Dirks is on track to have accomplished a significant amount by his inauguration ceremony this Friday.
Before he took office, Dirks pledged to hold “fireside chats” with students as a way of demonstrating his commitment to understanding student needs and ensuring that various student interests were represented. On Sept. 16, he held his first chat with students of color representing the Multicultural Resource Center, and just last week, he met with undocumented students and their allies to discuss problems such as the undocumented community’s high rate of food insecurity and lack of access to affordable housing.
Putting the recruitment, retention and particular needs of students of color front and center, Dirks has signaled that he recognizes UC Berkeley’s public mandate to be a university of all Californians, and this begins with making sure the campus student body resembles the diversity of the state.
Evidently, Dirks recognizes that what’s happening at UC Berkeley is perhaps even bigger than California.
When he spoke with the Post, Dirks criticized the Obama administration’s proposal to have graduates’ earnings affect a college’s affordability rating as part of the education initiative the president outlined in his most recent State of the Union. “No. No prevarication. Just N-O,” he told the Post when asked about the measure.
It may seem like a minor point, but it’s an important one, as graduate earnings can be highly misleading in calculating a college’s affordability. Take UC Berkeley, for example; the campus caters to many students committed to public service — we produced more than 80 Peace Corps volunteers last year alone, one of highest numbers in the country — meaning that many of our graduates forgo entering the workforce immediately. Additionally, UC Berkeley’s public character means that many of our students come from backgrounds that lack the connections to easily score a high-paying job after college.
It’s this latter point that Dirks appears to have homed in on.
In an era characterized by gross austerity designed to scale down some of our most important public institutions — including our universities and research spaces — UC Berkeley is often held high as one of the few remaining examples of a place devoted to serving the public.
Dirks seems to be interested in making sure UC Berkeley stays that way, perhaps while the rest of the country heads in a different direction.