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Memo to the next chancellor

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NOVEMBER 19, 2012

Dear Nicholas Dirks,

Congratulations on your selection as UC Berkeley’s next chancellor. Your reputation will rise or fall depending on your ability to navigate an unpredictable and sometimes explosive political environment, win the trust of students who are notoriously wary of authority and guide the world’s leading public university through a period of fiscal uncertainty and upheaval in higher education. In other words, as I’m sure you are aware, this is likely to be the most difficult job of your life. I urge you to consider the following three suggestions to strengthen your prospects for a successful tenure.

First, cut your salary. I’m sure that UC President Mark Yudof offered you a handsome salary to lure you to the West Coast from your comfortable perch as executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Columbia University. (Current chancellor Robert Birgeneau made about $445,000 last year, according to The Sacramento Bee.) You’ll have very few living expenses because you get to live for free in the University House — a spectacular mansion with 2.6 acres of manicured land. You won’t exactly be starving.

You ought to voluntarily — and publicly — give up 10 percent of your annual salary and direct it instead to financial aid for low-income students. This would, of course, have a trivial effect on the campus’s ability to provide financial aid — but it would be a powerful gesture. Cutting your own salary would show that you take the university’s financial woes seriously, earn you some goodwill among faculty and students and give you more credibility if and when you are forced to cut other parts of Berkeley’s budget.

Second, be smart about protests. Your predecessor’s reputation took a beating (no pun intended) for his response to last year’s Occupy Cal protests. One professor wrote in a Daily Californian op-ed at the time that “as MIT’s Dean of Science, (Birgeneau) used to command universal adoration and respect. Sadly, today’s Chancellor Birgeneau appears largely divorced from the Dean Birgeneau that I once admired while a graduate student at MIT” because of his mishandling of the Occupy drama.

How can you prevent that from happening to you? To the extent that you can, keep the riot police off campus. The threat of overwhelming force doesn’t calm protests at Berkeley; it tends to escalate them. And it should go without saying that should you need to call in the police, it would be almost suicidally crazy to allow them to use batons against nonviolent protesters. That would be the most effective way to unite the campus against you, as your predecessor learned the hard way.

Also, focus on your PR. Make sure everyone knows that you are a champion of public higher education — and that responsibility for the university’s fiscal woes lies with Sacramento legislators, not your administration. That said, be aware that some protesters are more interested in tearing the place down than actually articulating grievances. They will vilify you no matter what you do. Don’t take it personally.

Third, protect free speech on campus. American university administrations have increasingly been restricting free speech rights to try to enforce “civility” — a term that has sometimes become code for political correctness. A few years ago, New York University threatened to shut down a panel on Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad if the images were displayed. In 2009, Yale University barred students from making a shirt with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quotation, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” Earlier this month, the president of Fordham University excoriated (or, arguably, intimidated) the campus’s college Republicans after they invited the controversial pundit Ann Coulter to speak — prompting the group to disinvite her.

UC Berkeley has a strong commitment to equity and inclusion. This commitment is admirable, but it also makes the campus more vulnerable to the types of trends I just described. In 2011, Birgeneau issued a statement claiming that the shooting of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was precipitated by Arizona’s controversial immigration law and an environment where “hateful speech is tolerated.” The chancellor’s statement had a chilling effect on speech by implying that opponents of progressive immigration policy were somehow complicit in an attack, which, as it turns out, was carried out by a psychotic person. It’s not always the administration that threatens free speech: When the Berkeley College Republicans held an affirmative action bake sale, the student government threatened to revoke the group’s funding.

One of your most important missions as chancellor, in my view, must be to ensure that UC Berkeley is able to sustain its reputation as an incubator of dissent and free expression, even as other universities restrict speech rights. I wish you the best of luck.

Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @jawillick.

NOVEMBER 19, 2012