After helping lead Columbia University’s 17-acre expansion in upper Manhattan and its $5 billion fundraising campaign, Nicholas Dirks is taking a pay cut to run the University of California, Berkeley, the pre-eminent U.S. public college that has seen its state funding fall 47 percent in the past five years.
State universities across the U.S. are reeling from budget cuts and face increasing pressure to control rising tuition. At Berkeley, students have clashed with riot police and the Ivy League has raided its faculty. None of that deterred Dirks, 62, Columbia’s former executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences.
“The more I studied the place, the more I realized it had weathered the storm,” said Dirks, who becomes Berkeley’s next chancellor on June 1. “It’s very much a contender for one of the top universities in the world.”
At Columbia, Dirks took part in the streamlining of the administration, a two-decade process that resulted in a reduced role for the dean of Columbia College, who resigned. Dirks said the reorganization made the university more functional. Claude Steele, who served with Dirks as Columbia’s provost, said actions made with good intentions can leave bruises, and Dirks has been the target of those lashing out.
“Columbia is an ambitious university and it tried to expand into a new campus and that strained resources,” said Steele, now dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “When you have strained resources, you have tensions. And tensions can be taken out on people.”
Dirks is moving from a private university to an institution whose decisions are scrutinized by taxpayers and legislators. After years of budget cuts and tuition increases, which led to violent protests on campus in 2011, Berkeley’s finances have stabilized after Californians approved a tax hike in November.
The exodus of faculty has also slowed. In the 2009-2010 year, Berkeley had 51 professors it wanted to retain who were weighing offers from other colleges, and 14 left, according to Vice Provost Janet Broughton. Two years later, the number with other offers fell to 33, with 26 staying and seven cases still open. Berkeley has 1,582 full-time professors, according to its website.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” said Christina Maslach, a psychology professor who heads the academic senate. “It’s been challenging but we’re in a much better position for the future.”
Dirks said his mandate will include finding new sources of revenue and further reducing Berkeley’s dependence on state funding, which has slid from 35 percent of its budget in 2003 to 12 percent last year. While he said it was too early for him to talk about his plans, Dirks said fundraising needs be a priority and he expects to invest in the development office.
Dirks seems at ease with the challenge of being chancellor of Berkeley and “the de facto spokesman for public higher education in America,” said Donald McQuade, an English professor who served on the university’s search committee.
“This is the university as town square,” McQuade, a former vice chancellor, said in a phone interview. “As a leader in a place like this, you need to signal you are listening to people and you understand them.”
Almost 10,000, or 38 percent, of Berkeley undergraduates receive federal Pell Grants for low-income students, about the same number as in the eight-member Ivy League, Dirks said. The school’s public mission also directs its professors’ research into areas such as climate change and clean energy, he said.
“The faculty and staff have a commitment to the place as a public institution and it’s quite palpable,” Dirks said.
Dirks grew up outside New Haven, Connecticut, where his father was a professor of religious studies at Yale University. His father later became vice chancellor of humanities at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which Dirks said gave him his first taste of that state’s higher-education system.
At Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, Dirks majored in African and Asian Studies, and earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago in 1981. He taught at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, before taking a job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he helped create a joint history and anthropology program.
Dirks arrived at Columbia in 1997 to chair the anthropology department, and President Lee Bollinger named him dean in 2004. Dirks resigned as dean in November after being named Berkeley’s chancellor.
At Columbia, he started master’s courses and online extension programs which Dirks said made money. While Berkeley has joined the EdX open online course platform developed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “in the short term, I really don’t see revenue generation,” Dirks said.
Dirks will have a base salary of $486,000 at Berkeley, less than what he earned at Columbia, he said.
Founded in 1868, Berkeley has eight Nobel Prize laureates on its faculty. Its 178-acre core campus sits on a wooded hillside overlooking the San Francisco Bay, a long way from Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus jammed between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue in New York.
Berkeley raised $405 million in fiscal 2012, according to the Council for Aid to Education. That figure can be improved upon, said Richard Blum, founder of the Blum Capital Partners LP investment firm and a University of California regent.
“Just look at the Bay Area: If you want to include all the tech companies from San Francisco to San Jose, you’re looking at three-quarters of a trillion dollars,” Blum said. “Apple, Oracle, Google. All of those places have a vested interest in seeing the University of California doing well.”
Berkeley’s endowment was valued at $3.03 billion as of June 30, according to the University of California.
Dirks needs to develop relationships with Silicon Valley, said Blum, who is married to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.
“Is a chancellor’s job a lot of fundraising? You bet,” Blum said. “He understands what needs to be done.”
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