Making a difference in 4 years at UC Berkeley

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I always find the days leading up to graduation to be a time of excitement and joy — even as I know that, for many, they’re also a period of uncertainty about a new future, tinged with the sadness that comes from leaving an extraordinary place, group of friends and set of experiences behind.

This year, I not only sense the impact of these conflicting feelings across campus but feel some of them myself as I, in a way, join the class of 2017. As I contemplate stepping down from the role of chancellor July 1 to become a member of the UC Berkeley faculty, it seems a fitting moment to reflect on my own time here.

When I was named the 10th chancellor of UC Berkeley in November 2012, I was both honored and thrilled to be asked to lead this great institution, the jewel in the crown of the UC system. Thinking that the storm clouds of financial difficulty had passed along with California Proposition 30 — which boosted funding for the state’s public services — I began to consider the ways in which I could make a positive difference in Berkeley, further building on its core strengths while expanding them at the same time.

I chose to focus in the first instance on the undergraduate experience, knowing this was a great place to go to college but recognizing the challenges faced by students in a large school with a focus on research and graduate training. Early in my tenure, I appointed professor Cathy Koshland as UC Berkeley’s first vice chancellor for undergraduate education and tasked her with enhancing advising and student support, renovating campuswide instructional and learning facilities and improving extracurricular and residential life. Over the years, her and others’ work has led to the expansion of our signature academic mentoring program, Berkeley Connect; an immensely popular new undergraduate data science curriculum; new academic and housing facilities (with others in the works); a marked improvement in the academic success of student-athletes and better integration of intercollegiate athletics into campus life; the launch of a major initiative in arts and design (aimed largely at undergraduates); and much more.

I also chose to focus on expanding support for cross-disciplinary research. The new Division of Data Science is a signal example of an effort that brings together an eclectic mix of faculty to explore new territory in big data, artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, manufacturing and 3-D printing. Even beyond Berkeley’s borders, we joined interdisciplinary alliances with the likes of Stanford University and UCSF, with whom we’re collaborating closely to cure, control and manage all major diseases through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Similarly, we established the Innovative Genomics Initiative, also in partnership with UCSF, to support the extraordinary work made possible by professor Jennifer Doudna’s invention of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique in addition to our efforts to find cures for genetically transmitted diseases and develop more sustainable crops.

A third area of focus was on the globalization of the university. Accordingly, my administration established an array of new international research, teaching and exchange partnerships, for example with Tsinghua University through the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute and with Cambridge University and the National University of Singapore through the creation of a new “Global Alliance.” In a time of rising xenophobia and political nationalism, it is essential that UC Berkeley remains committed to a vision of cosmopolitan global integration on the basis of the free exchange of ideas and worldviews.

While I’ve been proud of these contributions, there can be no doubt that the campus still faces significant headwinds. We continue to combat sexual violence and sexual assault; after conducting a thorough campuswide review, we have launched new procedures and invested major resources in improving care and advocacy on the one side, and investigations and sanctioning on the other. We are grappling with the pressures that spiking Bay Area housing costs have put on UC Berkeley students by setting the groundwork for more on-campus housing. We are working to make the campus more welcoming and inclusive for all communities and identities — at a time when some national trends make this more difficult and yet more important than ever.

We are also still trying to figure out how we can host lectures and debates representing our commitment to free speech — not riots or circuses. We have to make clear that we are genuinely open to differing political opinions, that we welcome debate from sharply opposed positions and that we see college as a place of engagement with the world of ideas — not a shelter from them.

Perhaps the greatest specter UC Berkeley faces, however, is one that has been growing for the past 25 years, and one I may not have realized the extent of back in November 2012: namely, the relative decline in state funding. The numbers by now are numbingly familiar: Whereas in the 1980s nearly two-thirds of the campus’s costs were paid for by the state and tuition could be kept cheap, state support fell to less than one-third by the early 2000s and was then slashed precipitously in the aftermath of the financial crisis, such that UC Berkeley today gets only about 12 percent of its funding from the state. While we have broken records in our fundraising, we have to increase this even further and establish other revenue streams to sustain our commitment to excellence and access.

And yet, with plans now in place, we are on our way to a financially secure future. We still have difficult decisions ahead, including deciding what we can support — and, by implication, what we cannot — but by acknowledging that as a campus we must rely as much on our own resourcefulness as we do on the state, we are better positioned to maintain our status as a shining example of high-quality and accessible public education. We can still be the institution that represents the genuine democratization of knowledge and opportunity. Even in this new and sometimes daunting world, we can still be utopians, “together, here, now,” as I said when I first arrived here four years ago.
Congratulations to the class of 2017.  Please keep UC Berkeley, and what it stands for, close to you. I know I will.

Nicholas Dirks is the chancellor of UC Berkeley.

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