Chancellor Nicholas Dirks discusses college rankings, importance of public university

Kore Chan/Senior Staff

With Chancellor Nicholas Dirks entering his third year in the position, the Daily Californian’s Senior Editorial Board sat down with Dirks and campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof to discuss recently released college rankings and the importance of a public university.

Editor’s note: This interview, which has been edited for space and clarity, is the first in a two-part series. The second half of the interview will run in Tuesday’s paper.

The Senior Editorial Board: I was wondering if you could delve a little deeper into how those metrics (such as U.S. News and World Report) put us in a different class than privates.

Nicholas Dirks: We have the separate rankings of the public universities because basically if you don’t, then you start really finding it hard to identify many of those in the top 40 or 50. … But to the metrics, one of the metrics is selectivity. And as you know, we are very selective. We’re all great students, by definition. But we admit 17 percent of the students who apply. We actually don’t try to whip up the numbers of applications in an unreasonable way. We don’t do massive amounts of advertising and massive amounts of outreach into high schools, especially outside of California. A lot of the privates do that. So I don’t want to say that Stanford isn’t a good university. I would never say that. But I think it’s 5.2 percent is their selectivity index. … It’s a lot of the buzz around Stanford that has been whipping up applications so that they perform well on that particular metric.

So in a way, privates by definition are going to do better in a metric that doesn’t really do anything except tell you about how popular the place is. It’s not going to tell you anything about what happens when you get there.

Second criterion that is of relevance in U.S. News and World Report is money per student. So basically that’s endowment. … Now, would we like more money? Of course. But on the other hand, we’d have a huge amount more money if we charged $52,000 per year for tuition.

So those are just two metrics that actually already are handicaps of a sort that will keep most of the publics from being in the top 20. … But they have huge effects, because that’s what families look at. … I fear that even the college scorecard is going to, again, increase applications for Ivy League and elite privates because their income levels — I mean, their income levels after graduation would be high even if they did nothing at all during the four years of college, because their income levels are higher to begin with.

When you have a third of your students on Pell Grants coming from families making less than $45,000, there are lots of other reasons why income levels may not be as high going forward. And we would like to think of ourselves as a major engine of not just social mobility but of social transformation, but you know at the end of the day we’re a university and we can only do so much.

SEB: I was curious, too, about the effects of rankings — if there was any concrete correlation between years when we’re slipping in the rankings and the number of applicants.

Dan Mogulof: The problem is we haven’t really slipped. We’ve been in a steady state.

ND: We’re doing fine, but a number of publics are really being stressed and of course the worry is … there could be a time, if continued disinvestment, continued denigration of the public university takes place, that there begins to be a real slippage. And that’s what you never want to have happen.

I’ve spent time at privates and I’ve spent time at publics. As a member of faculty, it doesn’t matter that much. But as somebody who is thinking of the broad landscape of higher education, it matters hugely. It’s one of the reasons my dad … went to Santa Cruz — he got an offer to be the dean of humanities at (UC) Santa Cruz and he went out there (because) he just felt like it was so much more important than being at Yale, and here I am, following in my dad’s footsteps and feeling the same thing.

SEB: What would you say is the biggest obstacle we face in convincing the state legislature and just the state public, the California public, that UC Berkeley and the University of California are important to invest in?

DM: It’s the $250 million question.

ND: Actually, a little higher than that, because the overall drop-off in funding is even higher. I think about this all the time. … You know, California is remarkable. They have universities that are every bit as good as the privates on the East Coast. They are, however, public, and many more students can take advantage of it, and the citizens of California, residents of California must be just extraordinarily proud of this accomplishment.

But when I talk to people in the public, … they think we waste money, that we pay faculty and administrators too much and make them work too little. They think we’re … not held accountable to the public. They know that most of their kids are not getting into places like (UC) Berkeley or UCLA, and they feel a high degree of resentment about that. They don’t buy the argument about the public good if their kids don’t get in. … So that’s one set of problems. Another set of problems is that I don’t think “research” is a really significant word anymore. I don’t think it really signifies something that people feel like … their taxpayer dollars should support.

It’s easiest to make the argument when you’re talking about medical research, because then, everybody knows that sooner or later, they’re going to get sick, and somebody in their family’s been sick. So it’s easier to raise money for Alzheimer’s research or ALS research. … And there, people understand it because it could (be) a public good. But the idea that someone might have a new interpretation of Chaucer or, even more dangerously, a different analysis of the way money works in American politics, and (people) think, “Well, clearly that’s being motivated by left-wing faculty who are basically out there trying to cause a socialist revolution.” And they don’t want to support it, right? And then you hear stories about how faculty teach only two or sometimes, if they’re scientists, one course a semester, and they look at that compared to teaching loads and workloads and so on, and they think — you know, you’ve heard it all. So my question, really, for you is: What could we do differently to make a better case? … What could we do better at telling our story? Because yesterday at the football game … I had three legislators in the box, and I spent a lot of time talking to two of them on higher education committees. And, of course, there we were — Memorial Stadium, free hot dogs. It didn’t look like we were in trouble.

SEB: Who would you say that the onus is on when it comes to the decline of state funding? Should the UC have had more lobbyists in Sacramento? On kind of a real level, it’s certainly not the UC’s fault, but is there something —

ND: Were we asleep at the switch or something?… I’m sure we could have done a lot better, but I’m still not sure if it would have made all the difference … It’s almost a problem that’s bigger than us because it’s also about the general degrading of the idea of the public (university).

We always are thinking about going to the state — now it’s thinking in additionally going to the state, we want to go to the business sector generally to see if there are ways in which they could help support us in a more generic way perhaps than the way they have done in the past.  

SEB: Another big moment in the future is the Berkeley Global Campus. … This conception of a global campus is so contingent on an ongoing collaborative relationship between UC Berkeley and other international universities … What is the current state of these talks, and how close are you to reaching an agreement with another international university in the near future?

ND: We just got a grant from the Department of Energy to do some collaborative work between Berkeley and China on energy and water issues related to climate, but we’ve been talking with the University of Beijing about collaborating with them on a climate institute that could potentially be announced in the Paris Review this fall. … But we’re hoping to use both the science and the policy capabilities of Berkeley to help inform us as to what the issues would be that would have to be worked through in order to have genuine agreements with China about everything from reduction of carbon emission to how we begin to prepare for a different kind of future. … We also are talking with a number of universities about a kind of global network, which would involve both things at the Berkeley Global Campus but also things on other campuses around the world that would open up spaces for students and faculty to spend some time … at Berkeley, some in Richmond, in, potentially, Singapore, somewhere in the UK or Germany or China or any number of other places.

SEB: What do you think it is about it being a global campus that really gives it its significance as opposed to implanting a satellite campus in different places?

ND: Partly, it comes out of my own background. I spent a lot of time in India, when I was both younger and also when I was doing my scholarship. My wife is from India. One of the things I realized, the longer I spent in South Asia, is that things that we take for granted here from an American point of view tend to be seen very differently elsewhere.

And so it’s very easy for Americans to say, “We’re going to be global,” which is a way of translating, “We can travel a lot,” “We can go to this conference or that conference,” or “We can even set up a campus somewhere.” Which feels a little neo-imperial to me. So I thought, as I was imagining what this campus might be, if we could create some different structure for it, then perhaps it would be different enough so that that kind of concern wouldn’t continue to hover around the project. It’s not that there won’t be other concerns, but that one would be the wrong thing for Berkeley to engage in.

Another thing that gave me real hope for this was when I was talking to someone in Beijing. And they said, “Our faculty would love to spend some time in the Richmond campus because they wouldn’t have to worry about academic freedom issues.” And it turns out academic freedom issues are not just about critiques of the Chinese state, or right now, its economy, but even imagining questions around what decisions might be made concerning climate change. Because fundamentally, these are huge economic decisions as to what type of growth rate can be tolerated, what does this mean for levels of inequality and how is it going to be reflected in political change and pressure on the state. So I think that the assumption that some of these climate discussions could better be had here, than in Beijing, was something that made me feel like, “That’s a big step forward.”

DM: I also think the global campus is part of the answer to a question, which is, what is a university with a public mission, what does that look like in an era of globalized challenges and opportunities? And is this part of an evolution of our public mission and acknowledgment of that? And can you even say that you’re a public constituent to a public mission if your interests and your mission are largely parochial, much less neo-imperial, as Nick suggested?

ND: The hope is that we’ll get some huge gift to fund some postgraduate fellowships (for) people from around the world, including from Berkeley. … You’d be working on this in a team that would have some of the best and the brightest from places as far away as Ghana and Kazakhstan together with you. You’d be devising the curriculum along with fellow students and faculty from different institutions and create a different kind of institutional space with them in which to imagine what the global might mean.

By the same token, … there’s obviously the concerns that have been expressed around what that will mean for the community of Richmond. On the one hand, we know the mayor and the city manager and various others in the Richmond city government are very, very supportive of what we’re doing, but we also know that a lot of people are concerned that it’s going to lead to gentrification and other kinds of issues that they’re obviously justifiably concerned about. We had a very good meeting with a community working group in August that actually made a huge advance over some of the previous meetings, partly because some of the groups that had been most involved in protests actually came to the table. Again, there are disagreements there. And one of the problems is that we don’t have money yet, so we can’t make commitments up front. … They’re going to come out with recommendations (for legally binding agreements) in November, is what our hope is. 

We’re sort of prohibited from signing a comprehensive community benefits agreement, but we can actually sign agreements that would together constitute the equivalent. ... But I think we can end up making certain kinds of agreements that will commit us to local hiring, to use union labor (and) … in addition to that, seed money for things that the community could, as a percentage of every project that we engage in, be used for things. … For example, in terms of a benefit, we’re working with UCSF, and maybe it would be possible to set up a community health clinic that could really provide much needed health care in the area. … We can’t predict right now what it would be, but … both in the domain of health and in education, we might be able to do some things that are really helpful to the community.

Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.