Chancellor Dirks on student activism

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Hannah Lee/File

Fall 2014 was a semester that started and ended in a celebration of free speech, a right students at UC Berkeley hold particularly dear. Events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement began Aug. 21, with a workshop on the movement and its legacies for international students. So began months of events, speakers and exhibits reflecting on the power of the movement and those who were its leaders. Of course, UC Berkeley is an inherently active campus, and to commemorate such a legacy by beginning a new one just seems to go with the territory.

Now, nearly four months after celebrations in honor of the Free Speech Movement began, the campus finds itself at the end of a semester that has been most recently marked by protests against tuition increases and nonindictments in the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases. In both instances, students have vocally exercised their collective right to free speech.

“Of course, there’s an interesting connection,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks said. “The Free Speech Movement developed out of the civil rights movement, and now there is a resurgence of that.” Dirks expressed his belief that the resurgence of the Free Speech Movement serves as a bookend for the semester. While most people tend to separate the two movements in their minds, he suggests that they are not quite as different as many believe.

“Maybe we have not come as far as we’ve thought as a country. There’s a lot of justifiable anger and concern around the continuing racial divide and relationship between these two decisions,” Dirks said.

While the immediate aftermath of the protests against police brutality and tuition increases remains uncertain, Dirks has kept sight of his top priorities throughout the semester — one of which includes engaging in dialogue with students.

“I understand the reactions, and I understand that they’re complicated,” Dirks said of his decision to come to California Hall to meet with students involved in the Occupy Wheeler movement in November. “We need to move beyond the ‘I don’t want tuition to go up’ and look at what is really happening around the funding for higher education. What surrounds these issues is not as easy to put into slogans. I find it distressing, but I think it’s important to talk about in a really serious way.” 

Dirks invites students and politicians alike to view these protests as an invitation to have the difficult conversations about public education that the state has been avoiding. It is time to address “how important the university is to the health of the state as a whole,” according to Dirks. Keeping this in mind, he hopes to work with the state in order to gain the support needed to ensure that public education and research remain public goods.