Campus spends $270,000 to create ‘strategic profile’ for Dirks

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Update 8/19/16: This article has been updated to reflect new information from campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

In light of UC Berkeley’s $150 million annual budget deficit, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks authorized spending more than $270,000 for a consulting firm since last year to improve his reputation to potential donors, among other strategic goals.

Dirks hired Williamsworks, a Seattle consulting firm, and their subcontractor, Rosshirt, to seek out high-profile speaking engagements and partnerships that would “improve the Chancellor’s strategic profile both nationally and internationally,” according to a contract obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Through their partnership, Williamsworks and their subcontractor advised Dirks on appearing at various conferences, arranged private meetings between him and potential donors and provided “high-level staffing” at events he attended, working “to position the Chancellor with key (news) outlets,” the contract stated.

In July Dirks announced that the campus had raised $479.1 million in donations in the 2015-2016 academic year  — a new record in the number of gifts and amount of private support to UC Berkeley.

The $270,000 spent with the firm across multiple contracts came from unrestricted funds, which do not include tuition and student fees, grants or funds given to the campus by the state, and can be spent at the Chancellor’s discretion, according to campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. The funding for the contracts originated from sources including short-term campus investments, administrative overhead returns on ticket sales and media rights, and income from unrestricted corporate partnerships, among many other sources.

Their work, according to Mogulof, led to meetings between Dirks and individuals, foundations, and institutions, “Initiating and deepening relationships the chancellor believes will provide long term benefits and support for the University.”

“In addition, the firm provided strategic counsel in support for the chancellor’s high-priority initiatives for the campus,” Mogulof said in an email.

The latest contract, worth $200,000, began July 1, 2015, and ended June 30 of this year but was not renewed. It was not the first time the campus had contracted Williamsworks for similar work, according to Mogulof.

The campus paid $72,000 as part of an earlier contract with the firm that ran from January to June 2015, Mogulof said in an email. Under that agreement, Williamsworks provided counsel to the chancellor for campus initiatives and facilitated his appearance at the 2015 World Economic Forum in Switzerland. There, Dirks contributed a blog post entitled “How are universities adapting to globalization?”

The firm also helped arrange Dirks’ participation in this year’s World Economic Forum.

The news follows Dirks’ announcement that he would resign once a successor is chosen after growing criticism over his handling of UC Berkeley’s finances. Many faculty members were skeptical of the decision, but some also acknowledged the challenges of overcoming UC Berkeley’s annual deficit in light of reduced state funding and freezes on tuition.

“In principle I don’t think it’s unrealistic to have people managing message, that’s not a problem per se,” said Nancy Wallace, a professor at the Haas School of Business. “I don’t understand why that need happened in the context of other priorities on campus having to do with our financial situation.”

Richard Scalettar, chair of the UC Davis Faculty Association, rejected Dirks’ decision to hire the consultant in light of the recent resignation of Chancellor Linda Katehi, who stepped down after numerous scandals — including an attempt to bury online references to a 2011 pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis during the Occupy movement.

“If there was one clear message concerning the hiring of ‘image consultants’ at (UC Davis) it was that the plan backfired badly,”Scalettar said in an email.

Sociology professor and co-chair of the UC Berkeley Faculty Association Michael Burawoy said he saw the partnership between Dirks and the consulting firm to appeal to donors as a sign of the campus’s movement toward privatization and a corporate model of governorship.

“It seems part and parcel of a whole strategy that is quite normal for an institution that wants to emulate the corporate world,” Burawoy said. “The question is, is imitating the corporate world the best strategy for our campus? Is it the best strategy for a public university?”

Moreover, faculty members questioned the need to enhance the chancellor’s reputation despite being in charge of one of the world’s top universities.

“Berkeley’s reputation does not rest on its executive administrator,” said Celeste Langan, who also co-chairs the UC Berkeley Faculty Association. “The reputation rests on the long history of achievement of faculty and students.”

Alexander Barreira is the university news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @abarreira_dc.