Together, our school can continue to lead

2.21.14.illustration.opinion
Joy Lin/Staff

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A few years ago, the university conducted research in order to understand how UC Berkeley is perceived. It was a reality check of sorts — an effort to see if the way we, in the administration, thought about the institution bore any resemblance to the perceptions of our extended campus community, as well as interested external parties, such as leaders of peer institutions and from the private sector. What came back from a large and diverse group of respondents was a remarkably consistent appraisal and understanding of our unique and defining attributes. In addition to a widely shared appreciation for our excellence, access and diversity, what emerged from the data was a compelling description of our institutional personality that can be distilled into a simple, compelling statement: We reimagine the world by constantly challenging conventional thinking in order to shape the future and make the world a better place. Suffice it to say that since becoming chancellor, I have seen these findings continuously validated, whether at a fireside chat with students about campus sustainability policies, in discussions with faculty about undergraduate education, in alumni reports about what they learned from and most cherish about UC Berkeley, or in the course of conversations with researchers about how we can best support discovery and innovation in the public interest.

I am convinced that if we are, in fact, bound together by a shared dissatisfaction with the status quo and a commitment to the greater good, that ethos must be applied directly to the university itself, just as it is to the world around us. With the drive to ask critical questions and embrace new challenges, we can and must reflect deeply about our institutional identity, role and aspirations. While we must protect the astonishing accomplishments and treasured traditions of this great university, we must also be prepared not just to adapt but also to lead in our changing world.

The three “pillars” I first discussed in my inaugural speech —undergraduate education; innovation in research; expansion of our global engagement — each connect to the three long-standing elements of our mission: teaching, research and public service. At the same time, however, each pillar embodies a commitment to reimagine and redefine the current understanding of those elements in a manner commensurate with the enormous changes and challenges around us. In addition, even with (especially with) the loss of such significant amounts of funding from the state, we need to ensure that we continue to serve our public mission while reimagining that public mission as well. What follows is an update on how we are progressing in each of these three, vital areas.

In the coming weeks, a new work group will begin to formulate the goals, scope and charge that will guide the efforts of a broadly representative Undergraduate Education Task Force. My intention is to ask participants to take a holistic approach as they develop ideas for the evolution of our undergraduate curriculum, expanding opportunities for participation in research, improving the student experience and fostering beneficial connections between undergraduates and the full range of intellectual opportunities on this campus, each other, faculty, graduate students and alumni. At the most fundamental level I want to create a signature Berkeley experience for our undergraduates that provides the support and resources they need to realize their full potential, as individuals and contributors to the public good. I do not accept the conventional wisdom that casts large research universities as incapable of providing a high-quality and “high-touch” collegiate experience to their students, and I am convinced that, together, we can establish a new paradigm for higher education.

I am also intent on finding ways to more deeply engage all of our undergraduates, no matter their major, with the liberal arts and sciences; a goal that also represents an expansion of how we conceive of our public mission. The capacity for critical thinking and effective writing, as well as deep engagement with fundamental human debates, dilemmas and discourses, is what provides students with the necessary tools to fully participate in addressing the collective challenges we face as a society, a nation and a world. While we must never underestimate the significance of the private and individual benefits of sustained engagement with the liberal arts, I also believe that there is important, and necessary, public benefit when institutions like UC Berkeley not only provide the tools for cutting edge research, dynamic innovation and practical pursuits but also the intellectual grounding of a broadly conceived and morally anchored educational experience. At the same time, our students require new kinds of skills and training that will allow them to use their undergraduate education as productively as possible in a world that is being transformed by new technology, expanding globalization, changing social and economic structures and dangerous environmental trends.

When it comes to research, we are not only seeking to encourage and sustain the extraordinary inventiveness that comes from cross-disciplinary collaboration and exchange but also embarking on a quest to build a new ecosystem in and around the campus. This ecosystem, already developing through the space afforded by SkyDeck and support from initiatives like the Bakar Fellows Program, will propel innovation, entrepreneurial activity, economic growth and the rapid translation of our research discoveries into goods and services that directly benefit the public. A foundational element of that effort is the coming development of our Richmond Bay Campus. In order to realize our development and programmatic goals for the Richmond Bay Campus, I have formed a new executive committee to advance and oversee a project that will facilitate research ventures, both public and private, in areas such as energy, the environment, health and the global economy. The focus on translational endeavors, combined with the extent to which the Richmond Bay Campus will generate new economic activity and benefits for surrounding communities, are part and parcel of our efforts to embrace new challenges and opportunities in the public realm.

My goal to enhance the global stature and engagement of our campus is in some respects the most significant departure from the status quo. Until now, the public mission of universities such as UC Berkeley has been conceptualized primarily in the context of the particular region or state where a university is located. Yet, today, the salient challenges and opportunities humanity faces are global in scale, whether in the form of poverty, climate change, the quest for sustainable sources of energy, sustainable and more equal economic growth, global health issues, cultural and social movements and new levels of international conflict. Successfully confronting these challenges requires collaboration and cooperation that reaches beyond the governmental level to institutions of higher education that have the means and the motivation to marshal the necessary intellectual resources for developing solutions and strategies. In fact, world-class public research universities — among which we at UC Berkeley remain preeminent — are uniquely suited to helping us address challenges that know no national borders or academic boundaries. During recent trips to Europe and Asia, I have been discussing UC Berkeley’s global aspirations with public and private sector leaders. Reactions have been very positive, and as a result, I organized and convened a summit this past week that brought faculty and administrators from across campus to evaluate whether both our university and the common good stand to benefit from an expanded global presence. Among other things, I asked participants to focus on how consular-type liaison offices overseas might support and expand upon our core mission elements and help establish UC Berkeley as a leader in the creation of a new, international academic framework focused on the public good. The summit began what promises to be a fruitful and productive conversation across campus that will continue in the coming months.

Closer to home, we are moving ahead with efforts to improve the social, cultural and intellectual quality of life on campus. With the results of the recent Campus Climate Survey in hand, I will, in the near future, be describing a new roadmap for addressing issues identified in the survey so we can, together, continue to foster and sustain a climate that is welcoming and engaging for every single member of our community. Our long-standing commitment to diversity of every sort cannot be fully realized when individuals are marginalized due to their origins, outlooks and orientations. I have also begun a strategic planning process for an Arts Initiative, which is being led by our dean of arts and humanities, Anthony Cascardi. Working in concert with the campus Arts Council and members of the administration, he has been tasked with formulating a plan to enhance and expand student, staff and faculty participation in the arts; our collaboration with community arts organizations; arts-related engagement with local schools; as well as the improvement of facilities available to support teaching, research, collaboration and creative activities in the arts at UC Berkeley. I believe deeply that exposure to and engagement with the arts helps to support a strong democracy, builds our individual and collective creative capacity, spurs innovation and connects us with so much of what makes California uniquely vibrant.

What I have described above is only a start, and I am well aware that progress on all of these fronts will require collaboration, cooperation and engagement with students, faculty, staff and alumni, as well as the private and public sectors. While I will be expanding my engagement with members of the campus community in the months ahead, we will also be stepping up our advocacy efforts beyond Berkeley. The fact is that after years of dramatic state disinvestment, there is still much work to be done to create a sustainable financial model for the campus. While the passage of Proposition 30 certainly helped to stabilize our finances by avoiding additional cuts to the university, the proposition itself did not provide any additional funding for higher education. The additional revenue we received as a result of Gov. Jerry Brown’s multiyear budget plan to incrementally increase funds for higher education accounts for a mere 0.6 percent of uC Berkeley’s budget and was barely equal to an increase in pension contribution costs. In the meantime, costs beyond our control continue to rise and our financial forecasts show a growing gap between projected expenses and revenues in the years ahead.

Few people outside the university realize the extent to which we, as a campus community, have been doing extraordinary work to adjust our financial model and structural organization to contain our costs while maintaining our excellence. We remain on the path to cut $75 million a year out of our operating expenses through new efficiencies and the centralization of shared services — savings that will be used to support our academic mission. Our generous alumni and other external supporters continue to provide the university with substantial philanthropy, and we are approaching a stunningly successful conclusion of an unprecedented $3 billion fundraising campaign. And, I am well aware that you, UC Berkeley’s students, by virtue of recent tuition hikes, have become the leading revenue source for the campus. Despite our sustained commitment to financial aid for low- and middle-income students, the burdens of funding education have steadily shifted from public to private sources.

Given that state governments receive a remarkable return on investment in higher education — as much as seven dollars back on every dollar allocated — I have been working to convince our state leaders that they need to invest more in our collective future. Given the extent to which universities like ours generate jobs, launch entrepreneurs and educate the future leaders of our workforce, I have been calling for the private sector to step up to do far more in its advocacy of and support for public higher education. The future of our state, and our nation, will likely depend on the extent to which private and public sectors come to recognize the extraordinary centrality of great public research universities. In the months ahead, I will seek out opportunities to address leaders in government, in the nonprofit sector, in business, as well as broader public audiences, in an effort to reinstall a sense of urgency about the need to enhance levels of support and to increase general appreciation for our educational, research, and service mission.

At UC Berkeley, and in institutions of public higher education across the country, we have the means and the motivation to do so much more in support of the greater good. I believe we also have the intellectual resources and the vision to chart new paths for what education can mean in the decades ahead and how vital research universities are for our future. We are limited neither by our imagination nor our capacity but rather by the diminished resources available to fuel our ambitions. Here too we must, together, confront and refute the new and increasingly insidious conventional wisdom that casts doubt on the efficacy of all public institutions and promotes the notion that an education is and should be solely a private good. As I settle into my role as chancellor of this great university, I will be a relentless advocate in California, Washington and beyond for a new educational compact, a different kind of “Master Plan for the 21st Century” that will enable UC Berkeley to fully realize our potential contributions to the lives of our students and society at large.

Nicholas Dirks is the Chancellor of UC Berkeley.

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