‘Do they make fun of my eyebrows?’: Dirks learns of meme status in final days as chancellor

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On Saturday, almost a year after announcing his resignation, Nicholas Dirks officially stepped down from the position of chancellor.

His four years were contentious and challenging as he struggled with a staggering $150 million deficit and a series of notably mishandled sexual harassment cases involving campus faculty. Dirks’ reputation took so many hits that it became the subject of hilarity: campus Facebook page UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens served as a venting ground for students.

Dirks was unaware of his meme status until his sitdown with The Daily Californian.

Dirks faced an “avalanche” of offline challenges as well, according to former executive vice chancellor and provost Claude Steele. Dirks said he initially did not know the extent of the campus deficit.

“I thought with the proposed tuition increases that had been approved by the regents, that we were on track to be in a better financial position than we actually were,” Dirks said.

After the hefty price tag of $321 million for the seismic retrofitting of Memorial Stadium under his predecessor Robert Birgeneau, along with the state’s decrease in funding and increases in student enrollment, much of Dirks’ work had to be dedicated to balancing the deficient budget.

Despite Dirks’ focus on the budget, he also helped the campus strengthen the undergraduate experience, according to Steele, with projects such as the Undergraduate Initiative, as well as the expansion of data science education.

Nils Gilman, associate chancellor and Dirks’ chief of staff, emphasized Dirks’ focus on the globalization of the campus, including partnerships with Cambridge University and the National University of Singapore.

His administration made notable accomplishments in private fundraising during his tenure, raising record amounts of money by implementing a new, more centralized structure, according to Dirks. He added that the campus is on track to have the deficit down from $150 million to $110 million.

Some, such as campus English professor Celeste Langan, however, criticized Dirks for focusing too much on private fundraising and hiking student fees to generate revenue, rather than trying to influence state legislators to increase funding for UC campuses.

Dirks said coming from Columbia University, a private institution rather than a public one, may have played a role in the difficulties his administration faced.

“I had a steep learning curve about some of the kinds of issues around governance at this institution,” Dirks said. “In retrospect, I suppose, I feel like I might have been able to do a better job in learning what those constraints would be.”

By the start of 2016, scandals had begun to plague Dirks’ administration. Perhaps most prominent was when former dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law Sujit Choudhry was sued by his former executive assistant Tyann Sorrell for sexual harassment. Steele’s punishment for Choudhry was a 10 percent reduction in salary for one year and instruction to write a letter of apology to Sorrell.

“A big problem with (Dirks’) tenure was that he didn’t address sexual assault very well,” said campus student Cristofer Holobetz.

Steele resigned in April 2016, amid growing controversy when it came to light that Choudhry recommended him to be appointed to the UC Berkeley School of Law faculty while the sexual harassment investigation was still underway, although Steele says his decision to step down was due to his late wife’s worsening health.

Steele expressed his regrets about the handling of the sexual assault allegations in a letter published in the Daily Cal. He saw it, however, as a learning experience.

“I hope all the parties feel that there was some justice, and I think they should feel some pride in the fact that it really did deepen the university’s commitment to these issues,” Steele said.

In 2016, Dirks was also accused of misusing public funds — from allegations of failing to pay for a campus gym membership and personal training sessions, to building a $9,000 “escape hatch” near his office in California Hall, allegedly to allow an easy escape route from student protesters.

Of the hatch, Dirks said, “Would you like to see the escape hatch? We can show it to you. It’s a door.” Dirks denied knowledge of the door even being built, saying that it was built at the request of the staff who were “concerned about a hostile work environment.”

Dirks felt other scandals had been blown out of proportion as well, such as the nearly $700,000 fence built around his home in May 2016. He stated that before, the property was under 24/7 police protection, and that the investment of the fence would pay off in two years.

“People … (saw) these to be symbolic ways to undermine the administration,” Gilman said.

Regardless, these scandals added to the perception that Dirks was inaccessible to students.

Many members of the campus community have shared a concern that Dirks was out of touch with his students and faculty.

Despite this, Dirks insisted that he has had “more students in (his) house than any previous chancellor.” He said he walks his dogs around campus, and has probably taken “3,000 selfies” with students in the last two years.

“I just love working with students,” Dirks said. He looks forward to getting back to teaching again after stepping down from the chancellor position, and encourages students to come take his classes.

Although formerly unaware of his popularity as a meme, Dirks will eventually return to campus as a professor — with students and professors both fully aware of the online history between them.

“How do I check (UCBMFET) out?” he asked. “Do they make fun of my eyebrows?”

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof was not aware of Dirks’ meme status, either.

“Better memeified than mummified,” joked Mogulof.

Contact Madeline Wells at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @madwellsdc.

Due to misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that former Chancellor Dirks had never attended an ASUC meeting until 2017. In fact, Dirks attended at least two ASUC meetings before 2017, including in May 2013 and February 2014.