Leadership & Governance

Berkeley’s Dirks Reflects on Tumultuous Tenure

Nicholas B. Dirks, chancellor, U. of California at Berkeley

April 26, 2017

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Nidhi Singh

In nearly four years as chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Nicholas B. Dirks has navigated more high-profile challenges than some college leaders encounter over the course of lengthy careers. During his tenure, fierce debates have come to the fore over free speech, budget cuts, and sexual harassment by faculty members.

Mr. Dirks, who will step down this year, visited The Chronicle's offices on Tuesday to talk about his time as chancellor, public support for higher education, and the free-speech controversy involving Ann Coulter, a conservative provocateur.


JACK STRIPLING: I'm here with Nicholas Dirks, who is chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Dirks, thank you for coming to The Chronicle.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Great to be here.

JACK STRIPLING: So we have some news to talk about, which is great.


JACK STRIPLING: Yeah, we do, we do. You arrived at Berkeley in 2013, and you've probably been at the center of more interesting national challenges than just about any college leader I know about. We've had big debates over free speech, which are still playing out today. We've had budget challenges, which we're dealing with, and concerns about sexual harassment and sexual assault — which are, of course, higher-ed-wide — that you've had to deal with.

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But the latest controversy involves Ann Coulter, the conservative provocateur who was invited to speak in Berkeley. Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding of this is that Berkeley deemed the day she wanted to come, Thursday, to be unsafe. You weren't prepared to provide security for that, you asked to reschedule. She said, I'm coming Thursday anyway.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: That's what we hear.

JACK STRIPLING: So we're at a bit of an impasse. What can you tell me about how the university is planning to respond to this reality?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Well, first of all, just to rehearse how we got here, the Berkeley College Republicans did invite her to come, but they did so without consulting with us about a venue that would be available. I think they assumed that they could do it at night after the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos on February 1st.

And the riot that took place on our campus and the damage that was done to property and the threats to physical safety on the part of many people who were there, we determined — and the police in particular determined — that we could not hold events of this kind that might attract foreign elements of this kind to campus at night.

Problem is, you start looking around during the day, we have classes, we have events that have already been booked in these venues months ago. And so we simply didn't find a venue, and that's why we came back and suggested next week, when it is a little bit easier to find a place on campus. Next week is reading week, and it's a time when students are around and they don't have classes and, in fact, they would have no particular conflicts that would prevent them from going to the talk if they wished to.

But when we proposed that to the Coulter organization, we heard that they refused and rejected it out of hand. We, of course, heard it indirectly. Heard it on Fox News and on Twitter.

JACK STRIPLING: OK. Now universities historically, and Berkeley included, have done a pretty good job of balancing these things, right? Of having controversial speakers, difficult debates, and balancing that with safety and security. I feel like — just as an outside observer — that the game has changed a little bit. With the Milo Yiannopoulos event, you had people who showed that they were capable and willing to use violence as a way of expressing themselves. That's a bit of a different thing that you're having to deal with. Just more broadly for higher ed, are we at a stage where we need to rethink how we create this sort of dialogue?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Yeah, we think this is a new reality. And all the kinds of things that we did in the past and the assumptions we had and the protocols that we used have to be revisited — in effect, at this point, are being revisited.

We were able to stage Louis Farrakhan when he came to campus. I got a lot of blowback when students invited Bill Maher to come to the December commencement in 2015, and I insisted that he come. Students protested his visit by holding up banners and turning around when he spoke, that standard protest at Berkeley. There have been protests when President Napolitano was named, there were protests that were staged there. I've had lots of protests directed at me at my office and at my house and so on.

But they weren't anything like what happened when Milo went out.

JACK STRIPLING: So this is a new reality, and we're still figuring out how to adapt to it —

NICHOLAS DIRKS: We're still figuring it out and, you know, the other thing to say is that we have now very credible threats — and we know they're credible because things have happened like this — both February 1st [and] a week ago Saturday, there was a major riot in Civic Park in Berkeley of a similar kind. Led to 23 arrests. Somebody got stabbed.

So this is new. And we are trying to figure out, as we speak, how to prepare for these kinds of things, how to make sure we can honor our deep commitment to freedom of speech, freedom of expression.

JACK STRIPLING: Let's talk about that. Because Berkeley, of course, has a historic place within the free-speech movement — the center of it, the birthplace of it. That's a big part of your brand, if you will. You might not see it that way. But I do wonder, just from a reputational standpoint in terms of Berkeley's reputation as it relates to free speech, do you think that's better or worse off than it was when you got there? In terms of public perception.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Well, public perception now is being gutted, I think, by a lot of media headlines, and this most recent episode with Ann Coulter's visit has led even people who have always been great defenders of Berkeley, like Willie Brown of the San Francisco Chronicle, to say we're not honoring free speech anymore.

JACK STRIPLING: So the reputation has suffered some.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: So our reputation has suffered. And I fear that there's a new media landscape that affects us, even as it has affected everything from the election to the way in which the levels of political polarization in our country are currently operating.

JACK STRIPLING: And maybe political and public support, which is another thing I want to ask you about. We've, of course, seen a broad erosion of public support for higher education in this country. Berkeley is not immune to this by any means. I think that the deficit is $150 million, something like that?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Well, it was last year.

JACK STRIPLING: It was last year. And counting. I wonder if there's any connective tissue here. Do you think that the criticism of this type of activity on campus, free speech, the way this is moving through our partisan media machine, as you point out, has affected that erosion of public support in any meaningful way? Is that one of the factors that you think may be at play here?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Well I think for a number of years there's been growing public skepticism about higher education and about Berkeley and the University of California, certainly in California itself. There have been real, real concerns about the level of public support for the university. In 2008, of course, everybody went through the same Great Recession and naturally, states had to slash budgets for higher ed — as they had to slash budgets for lots of other things — and private universities were hit by real declines in endowment and endowment payouts.

But private endowments have bounced back, and California state funding has not. Berkeley itself was getting more than $500 million in direct support from the state in 2008. In 2016-17, it's getting still less than $400 million. And of course, costs have gone up and the operation is bigger. We have many more students.

So we worry that the general kind of way in which universities have been targeted, have been criticized, have been represented in relationship either to scandals or to waste or profligacy of one kind or another, the cost curve of higher education, the rising levels of student debt, have all really damaged public support.

JACK STRIPLING: Yeah. And you came to Berkeley from Columbia, a private institution, and a lot of things were probably different to you. But one has to be the level of public disclosure, the level of public scrutiny. You've even got newspapers looking at how much your gym membership costs, right?


JACK STRIPLING: And you're looking very fit, by the way. But I do wonder whether you were prepared for that transition or, in retrospect, did you realize how different that would be, that public-scrutiny element that is so intrinsic to public higher ed and specifically in California?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: It is very different than Columbia. I was aware that there would be public scrutiny, but I didn't — I wasn't really aware of the extent to which this is such a public and political position. I've been an educator and a scholar all my life, and I believe deeply in the public mission.

But there are lots of things in the California public higher-education world that were extremely different than anything I'd seen before, including my time at the University of Michigan, where I taught for 10 years.

JACK STRIPLING: It does — I mean, you're well compensated, but it doesn't always look like a fun job. In the time that you've been there, Berkeley's put a fence around your residence. That's something that was approved before you got there, I think. I think there's some new door that you're allowed to leave if protesters seize on —

NICHOLAS DIRKS: That's not for me.

JACK STRIPLING: That's not for you?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: No. That was called the "escape hatch." It was the most tweeted story about Berkeley last summer. In fact, it was a door that was requested by people who work outside my office, because there had been several occupations, and they were getting very nervous about what that meant for the security of the —

JACK STRIPLING: It's more for people coming in to see you?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Yeah, it was — no, it's for people working in the office. I didn't know about the so-called door, or the so-called "escape hatch" that was a door until I read the story in the Daily

JACK STRIPLING: Well let's take a bigger picture view of this, though. Those things taken together make you seem like a man under siege, and I wonder if you feel that way. I mean, outside of this interview.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Yeah [laughs] You know, I don't really feel under siege, and I live on the campus. There were attacks on the house, there was even a murder in the house and Molotov cocktails thrown through the windows at various points. But no, I live on the campus, I walk all over, I have dogs, I take them around, I meet students, the students want selfies and are delighted to see me. And so my everyday life not about being under siege at all.

I do feel, though, that Berkeley is under siege. And I think some of the stuff I've gone through is a reflection of that — heightened levels of concern about security that the police, of course, manifest, heightened attention to the budget, and a heightened belief that the Berkeley's excellence may be something that the state can no longer afford. And that's what really deeply concerns me.

JACK STRIPLING: I mean, one of the areas of real scrutiny, as you know, has been around sexual harassment. You've had some high-profile cases involving professors who were accused of sexually harassing women. I know that you put together a task force to look at these issues. What did you discern from the work that has been done? What are you trying to do better?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Well, in the first instance, I think we discerned that there had just been a lack of serious attention to the issue across the campus. The first year that I was there, in fact, the major issues I confronted and we began to engage — had to do with student — it was sexual assault, student on student. And that was a time when there were a number of cases and ones that raise questions about how our investigations staff did their work, what the frame was, and how they communicated about their findings to the complainants and survivors and whether or not there were appropriate sanctions.

That, of course, yielded to a concern about faculty. And there was a kind of, I think, institutional effort to really understand whether or not faculty were getting special protection because of the various protocols around tenure and the ways in which the Faculty Senate has its own set of investigative procedures that would be used, even in cases of sexual assault, for the purpose of determining whether or not there should be sanctions in re their faculty position.

So what we've been working to do — and I hired a new campus lead on sexual violence and sexual harassment, and we're now hiring on a regular and permanent basis somebody in that position — what we've been doing is putting together new procedures. And we've worked very closely with the Academic Senate to make sure that faculty would be full partners to this, and that we would deal with concerns that faculty have sometimes been given different kinds of treatment than staff and the students.

JACK STRIPLING: Does that revelation, if you will, make you feel that at least in the past, Berkeley had not done enough to protect women?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Well I think many universities have not done enough to protect women. I don't think it's a Berkeley thing alone by any means. But I do think that we had enough high-profile cases of professors — in one case, of course, a dean — that we really had to look very, very self-critically at the procedures that we used.

I think we've come out in a much better place. Right now there's increased reporting of incidents. In the short term, this is actually a good thing. It's easier to report this. Less of a stigma attached to reporting. People feel, when they report, that they get more immediate kinds of responses, and that the process is a much better one than was the case before. But in the short term, there's still a lot of work to do.

JACK STRIPLING: Sure. Maybe you'll indulge me on a thought experiment to close this. You're nearing the end of your tenure, just a couple of months left. Your successor has been named. If you could go back in time and talk to the Nicholas Dirks of 2013 before he came to Berkeley, what would you tell him? What advice would you give him?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Well, you know, that's the problem with 20/20 hindsight — you can't really have it in advance. And this is a thought experiment to ask, are there things that I might have done differently? In reality, I think we did a lot of great things over the last four years. And I think that, for the most part, I would give myself advice to just do what I did and, if anything, sleep less and do more.

JACK STRIPLING: What are you proudest of?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: I'm very proud of the undergraduate initiative that we began. We have a new pilot course in data science and data analytics that has connectors to any kind of major that students can do, which is going to be available in time to all the undergraduates at Berkeley and give them not only the skills that are part of understanding data analytics, but a way of thinking about it in relationship to any number of careers and any number of areas that people will focus on in postgraduate work if they go on to graduate school.

I feel very proud of the work we did in sexual violence and sexual assault. I feel proud of the work we did around really cleaning up the academic environment for student-athletes. I feel that we have made lots of strides in terms of our global engagements, and we have new kinds of partnerships internationally that I believe are going to be very important for the future.

But, of course, the real big issue is the budget. And I suppose if I were to give myself advice, I'd say look a little bit more at some of the issues that were underlying some of the budget crises that came later, the amount of debt capacity that we had, the way to think about how one finds funds to pay for capital for, in particular, deferred maintenance, of which we have so much, because it's a very old campus on a major fault line.

And I believe that looking back, I should have probably anticipated a political environment in which — and I didn't — in which there might be, as there was, a six-year tuition freeze, which really does put focus, first and foremost, on how you're going to pay for all the things you want to do.

JACK STRIPLING: Would you have read more Ann Coulter as well?

NICHOLAS DIRKS: You know, I still haven't read very much Ann Coulter. But I think I —

JACK STRIPLING: You're eager to learn more.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: — might have gone back and read more about the relationship between Pat Brown and Jerry Brown, let's put it that way.

JACK STRIPLING: All right, fair enough. Thanks for coming, Dr. Dirks, you're a good sport, I appreciate it.

NICHOLAS DIRKS: Jack. Great to be here, thanks so much.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.