Friday, November 9, 2012

Questions for Berkeley's New Chancellor

It was announced on Thursday that Nicholas Dirks, a professor of history and anthropology from Columbia University, will replace Robert Birgeneau as the Chancellor of UC Berkeley. 

I know many people who are thrilled to see Birgeneau go (and count me among them).  He was, after all, the Chancellor who reflexively and repeatedly praised UCPD when they beat students for linking arms, on one occasion before he had even seen a video of what had occurred, and on the other occasion, after (I’m not sure which is worse!).  He was the Chancellor who referred in the bizarre, tragicomic e-mails which I shall forever treasure, to his protesting students as a “health and safety” problem.  He was the Chancellor on whose watch the university administration summoned the Director of Counselling and Psychological Services to dialogue with protesters, as though their discontent with gross moral and economic injustice were manifestations of some mental fever.  He and system President Mark Yudof have looked downright amateurish in their ability to head off the catastrophic blows that have had UC reeling in the past years.  He is rightly reviled as the individual most enthusiastic about pushing the de facto breakup of the University of California, and promoting Berkeley’s “exceptionalism”, something which I think those of us with any experience of the system as a whole find reprehensible and irresponsible.  Rather than behaving like rats jumping ship, we should be doing what we can to shore up what is widely recognised as being the best university system in the world—a status stemming from its composition as a system.

There will also be some people—particularly in the social sciences and humanities—who will be reflexively enthusiastic about Dirks.  He is, after all, “one of us”.  I’ve read two of his books—Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India and The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain­—and quite liked them both.  The scholarship behind them is meticulous, and their expression is elegant.  Many people will see him as perhaps inherently sympathetic with the political and economic plight of the university in the context of California’s disinvestment—something that Birgeneau only gave the appearance of understanding late in the game, and not something he seemed capable of acting on in a meaningful way (something which might reflect as much on the extent to which solutions lie in Sacramento rather than in Berkley and Oakland as much as it does any moral failings on the out-going Chancellor’s part). 

I think that Dirks’ appointment should be greeted with neither acclaim nor opprobrium until we have some understanding of how or whether he thinks he can approach Berkeley’s plight in a way consistent with our campus’ and system’s historic values, and which will be more effective than the path pursued by the often bumbling-looking Birgeneau. 

To that end, I offer just a few questions, in the hopes that in the coming days and weeks we will be able to learn about where our new Chancellor, a well-known and widely-praised scholar, stands on the issues critical for Berkeley’s future.

1.      What is your view of UC Berkeley’s standing in the University of California system as a whole?

2.      Are you comfortable with the recommendations (particularly those about differential tuition rates) made by Robert Birgeneau in his co-authored paper, “Modernizing Governance at the University of California”?

3.      How will you reach out to a campus community which has grown mistrustful of its administrative leadership because that leadership appears to see student politics as a nuisance and to the point that the office you will be running is seen as part of the problem by many students, faculty and staff on campus, rather than something contributing to the solution?  How can you convince reform-minded members of the campus community that you understand the relationship between UC’s structural make-up and the leadership problems we’ve experienced in recent years?  How can you convince campus activists who have been largely unwilling to look at the big picture that you’re on their side?

4.      To what extent, in your capacity as Chancellor, do you feel able to address Berkeley’s foremost plight—historic levels of disinvestment by the state of California?  Do you think that you can work with other UC Chancellors and UC President Mark Yudof to develop a more effective strategy for injecting UC’s social and economic centrality into state politics to put the university on a firmer footing over the long-term? 

5.      Will you work to help to reinvigorate the ideas behind the California Master Plan for Higher Education, or do you see a new model as the future in California?  Are you prepared to concede that a tuition-funded university the “new normal”? 

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