Former UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks finds new chancellorship in international school system

Whittle School and Studios/Courtesy

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Almost a year after stepping down as chancellor of UC Berkeley, Nicholas Dirks will be joining Whittle School & Studios in July as chancellor and vice chairman of the school system’s Global Education Design Committee.

Dirks will oversee educational design and serve as an adviser to Whittle School & Studios as its expands globally, including in India and Southeast Asia, areas in which he has long conducted research. He said he is hoping to set up an affiliated nonprofit research organization that will look at educational reform in a global context.

Whittle School & Studios is the brainchild of chairman and CEO Chris Whittle, who has spent the past 30 years in educational reform. Whittle and Dirks first met in fall 2017, at which point Dirks was “struck” by the originality of Whittle’s idea.

The school system’s first two campuses will open in Washington, D.C. and Shenzhen, China in fall 2019, and Whittle said he hopes to have opened schools in 36 different cities by 2026.

Dirks’ academic career, which includes administrative experience as well as decades of research in history, makes him an attractive choice for the school system’s chancellor, according to Whittle.

“Nick’s experience in India, China and the United States are all important and appealing to us,” Whittle said. “He has a lot of connections with universities in China and a lot of on-the-ground experience in India.”

Self-dubbed as the first “truly modern school” system, Whittle School & Studios will serve ages three to 18. The school is designed to bring learning from the “industrial era” into the “innovation age” by moving away from teaching groups of children toward an individualized learning process, according to the school system’s “Launch Book.”

Although the Whittle schools will be a K-12 system and Dirks’ experience is exclusively at the university level, Dirks said he believes he will bring a useful perspective to the table.

“I know what universities and colleges are looking for, (in the U.S. and) also in places like China,” said Dirks. “More than anything else, I’m going to be encouraging really smart people in the K-12 educational space that will come up with new ideas that will be tested globally.”

Dirks said the project he is most excited about is the school system’s “Centers of Excellence.” Each campus will house a center with a theme unique to its city. The Washington, D.C. center, for example, will be focused on international cooperation and diplomacy.

Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, global head of the Centers of Excellence, said the centers are modeled on liberal arts colleges and research universities. The centers will be institutes within the schools where students can do both research and regular coursework.

Working alongside Dirks will be another former UC Berkeley chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, who will be serving as a member of the Global Advisory Board. Dirks, who worked with Birgeneau during the transition between their chancellorships, was enthusiastic about Birgeneau’s involvement.

“I think it’s great (Birgeneau) is involved in this,” Dirks said. “They’ll have to put bears somewhere in the school.”

Contact Alexandra Stassinopoulos at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AE_Stass.