Chancellor for change: Examining the role of campus’s top leadership

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Derek Remsburg/Senior Staff

Last year it was revealed that UC Berkeley had spent $270,000 on a private consulting firm to bolster Chancellor Nicholas Dirk’s public image, spurring community debate surrounding his legitimacy as campus’s the most visible leader. In the wake of Dirks’ resignation shortly before the fall semester began, and as administrative efforts to replace him are well underway, we as a campus community are left wondering what role can be reasonably expected from the chancellor. Is a chancellor primarily a figurehead for the university, meant to raise funds and generally promote the school? Or is it within their administrative capacity to not only listen to students and faculty, but actually enact change?

According to Michael Burawoy, UC Berkeley sociology professor and co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, a chancellor should do both. “I don’t think Dirks was successful really in either,” Burawoy said, while acknowledging that it has become increasingly difficult to fulfill both of these roles. Nonetheless, Burawoy feels that we should expect our chancellor to be able to be both a strong promoter and fundraiser for the campus, as well as someone who is actively involved and in touch with the students and faculty. Regarding Dirks’ employment of a public relations firm to bolster his personal image, Burawoy asserted that any chancellor of “the best public university in the world” simply should not require this kind of help. “The chancellor here should be quite enough to establish oneself, and in networks that will bring on the one hand money, on the other hand prestige,” he said. “It should be a person that can do that in a matter-of-course.”

In my experience, it is rare to have a discussion about Dirks’ accountability as chancellor without hearing about the decision to build a fence around his home or the purported “escape-hatch” in his office in California Hall. These decisions to quite literally close himself off from the campus that he was meant to be leading spurred contention about whether Dirks was as connected with the school as he should have been, or if he even had the desire to cultivate this connection. “He was in retreat. There is no reason why he should be in retreat,” said Burawoy.

ASUC President Will Morrow also expressed that the next chancellor needs to be someone who is ready to immediately engage with the students and listen to their needs. “We need a chancellor who is ready and willing to embrace being a leader, being a visionary, being somebody who will cooperate and work with multiple stakeholders, including students,” he said. “Not someone who necessarily hides in an ivory tower.”

Last year it was announced that UC Berkeley faced a $150 million structural deficit. An alleged misuse of funds is always cited as one of the primary reasons for Dirks’ resignation, a blanket statement so broad that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which funds to which it is referring. You almost get the sense that he’s banking on the fact that we’re all too busy with our UC Berkeley workloads to research exactly which funds were allegedly misused and how.

People were clearer, however, with their frustrations surrounding Dirks’ handling of The Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay project. Dirks had plans to develop this global campus, on land owned by the UC, as a “living laboratory” which would partner with public universities from around the world, as well as private industry. Since then, the Chancellor has announced on the project’s website that “UC Berkeley is indefinitely suspending plans to build the Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay.”

According to community organizer with Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and recent Richmond City Council member-elect Melvin Willis, the people of Richmond were generally excited about the potential benefits that the Berkeley Global Campus could bring to their city, and they found it “disenchanting” when the plans were suspended because of a lack of funds.

“Now that it’s not happening, people are just trying to figure out, well what now?” Willis said. After the Richmond Community Working Group had been working for almost two years to create a plan to ensure that the Berkeley Global Campus would be mutually beneficial to the city of Richmond and the university, being told that its work would essentially be wasted since the project did not have funding certainly did not positively influence Dirks’ image. Not only could it be seen as concerning that Dirks was looking to accomplish something so big outside of our own campus, but the indefinite suspension of this project makes it seem like an empty promise that should have never been made in the first place. Clearly Dirks bit off more than he could chew, and while his ambition is admirable, there is plenty of work the chancellor should have been doing right here on campus.

The first time I began to really wonder about how much we should expect from our chancellor was when I attended a Panhellenic meeting at which the Panhellenic Executive Council and delegates from each sorority chapter had a discussion about what we wanted to see in the next chancellor. I was expecting to hear general requests, such as better communication, more transparency and dedication to the students. And while these requests were mentioned, I was surprised by the passionate and specific responses that every woman shared. I walked away from the meeting wondering why I felt that these requests were all very nice in theory, but would probably never actually be a priority of our chancellor. Then I thought, well, that really says it all, doesn’t it?

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e shouldn’t feel that asking the chancellor for better lighting on an around campus is too trivial, and we absolutely should not feel that demanding a greater focus on preventing sexual assault, as well as properly helping survivors and punishing perpetrators, is too much to ask. The fact that I felt that all of these demands would never be carried out was an unsettling reminder of how detrimentally disconnected Dirks was from us students.

Several women at the Panhellenic meeting brought up the issue of Chancellor Dirks’ mishandling of sexual misconduct cases. UC President Janet Napolitano asked Dirks to ban former UC Berkeley School of Law dean Sujit Choudhry from campus after a former employee sued him for sexual harassment, but Dirks never implemented the ban. “I think that people need a chancellor who is prepared to respect the laws that already exist supporting survivors and supporting anti-violence on campus,” said Allyn Benintendi, peer educator for Greeks Against Sexual Assault and Panhellenic vice president of risk management. “I don’t understand the concept that certain individuals on campus are above the law.” Benintendi expressed that Dirks’ lack of commitment to supporting survivors of sexual assault while chancellor has “hurt students.”

Concerns about campus climate are frequently mentioned when discussing students’ hopes for the next chancellor. Rachel Marcus, vice president of the Jewish Student Union, feels that we need a chancellor who is better at responding to incidents of prejudice on campus. “Especially with the political turmoil that’s happening right now with (Donald) Trump becoming president, a lot of underrepresented groups on campus, including Jewish students who are commonly left out of the dialogue, don’t feel safe, and the new chancellor should make us feel safe on this campus,” Marcus said.

The role of chancellor is by no means simple, and the sheer number of voices chiming in to campus discussion is undoubtedly daunting — but each of these voices deserves to be heard. This is an exciting time for UC Berkeley, at the brink of change, when the potential for improvement is right in front of us.

“Our university has a lot that needs changing,” Morrow said. “Our university has to adapt to changing realities of new enrollment numbers, of diminishing state budgets, of new political climates, of changing academic disciplines, et cetera.” We are not wrong for expecting a chancellor that can bring change to our campus, and our school deserves a chancellor who is up to the task.

Burawoy expressed that he feels that the political climate of the next four years makes it all the more important that we have a strong leader, as UC Berkeley will, in his opinion, become “a very important space for the defense of civil rights, protection of minorities and for presenting alternative programs to the ones that are going to be coming from the federal government.”

I am excited for the future of our school and look forward to what our next chancellor will bring. It is my hope that our next leader will be worthy of the wow-factor that UC Berkeley carries, because students and faculty deserve to be just as proud of their chancellor as they are of their school.

Jordyn Asakowicz is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]