UC Berkeley’s Chancellor recently announced that he will soon step down from the position. Nicholas Dirks’ authority at Berkeley had become increasingly tenuous, dominated by campus sexual harassment scandals, luxury housing and an expensive fence, rumors of an office escape hatch, questions about a personal trainer, and the failure to anticipate a serious budget deficit. Dirks will be replaced sometime after the new year.
The UC Regents and Presidents would like their constituents to believe that the process is in good hands, but members of a UC Berkeley Faculty Association are launching an effort to see Berkeley Professor, Robert Reich, be appointed to lead the state’s and the country’s leading public university. Reich, a former Labor Secretary who supported Bernie Sanders during this year’s primary, has become known for his advocacy and his documentary, Inequality for All.
Faculty leaders used an editorial in the Daily Californian to lay out their arguments about how the process should work and why Reich would be an excellent candidate. They cited Reich’s activism, his public policy knowledge, and the fact that he is “a firm believer in public education and the public interest.”
As crucially, faculty called for the opening up of the traditionally secretive process of choosing a Chancellor: “The short list of candidates selected by the search committee and forwarded to the president should be publicly discussed and not the subject of secret deliberation. The candidates should be invited to campus for public presentations and questions from the university community—faculty, staff and students. The final choice should be made by the president and the UC Board of Regents after consultation with the Academic Senate to ensure a candidate supported by the campus community [is chosen].”
Because Berkeley is a public university and relies on public trust and support, the call for a more open process is important and the idea of Reich as Chancellor is appealing. Students have echoed the call.
Reich’s appointment would serve several important purposes.
It would install someone with ample experience of administration and insight into public policy at the head of a crucial public institution. Reich has managed a federal department, and teaches in the public policy school at Berkeley. Universities do not stand apart from the public. They are products of the same political economies that shape people's daily lives and life-long fortunes. Reich understands this social, political, and economic context, and should prove able to deftly negotiate these currents with a larger picture and vision in mind.
A Chancellor Robert Reich would bring an activist’s vigor to an office that has recently seemed by turns powerless, ambitionless, inept, and at times downright irresponsible in its approach to student affairs, the political economy of the university, and the university community more broadly. Reich’s voice would be strong, well-informed by his experiences at the heart of federal government and of UC Berkeley. He would carry the stature he has built with students and a nation- and state, and campus-wide community of activists, political figures, and concerned citizens.
A Chancellor Robert Reich would be a voice for the students, faculty, and staff whose voices have been increasingly ignored by a growing, lumbering, and deaf bureaucracy atop the University of California. Reich would be simultaneously critical of administrative bloat, while also recognizing that there are other factors in play. But most importantly, he would speak and advocate for students who are burdened by high fees, faculty who have become overburdened, staff who are often undercompensated, and a university community that revolves around the labor of its citizens rather than the corporate mentality of its top echelon of bureaucrats.
A Chancellor Robert Reich would bring a political savvy that is sorely lacking in the leadership of UC more broadly and Berkeley particularly. Current administrators seem comically (and tragically) unaware of the extent to which scandals large and small impact the public’s views of and willingness to fund California’s wonderful but troubled university system.
When people read about a member of the Board of Regents sexually harassing his employees, and what read like cover-ups on campuses about the same, they wonder whether this is an institution they can trust. When they read about the entanglement of some Regents with vast business and financial networks, they wonder whether the institution is not modelling some of the corruption that has become a feature of our country’s politics. When they read about other campus chancellors moonlighting for for-profit educational firms and spending money scrubbing the internet to burnish their personal reputations, they wonder whether they can trust the leadership of their public universities with further funds.
Robert Reich’s experience, politics, and ethics make him well situated to begin turning a page on what has been a troubling decade for Berkeley and UC. Perhaps, if he were to be bold enough, and if Californians felt that they could trust their universities more, his appointment could also help to turn the page on a much longer period of state divestment from UC. Stemming and reversing the tide of privatization is an important step in returning UC and Berkeley to Californians as the public-supported and public-minded institutions they were built to be.
Finally, our country is facing a presidency defined by a know-nothing approach to public policy, hostility toward many communities within our country, and contempt for public institutions and for critical learning and thought. Supporters of the president-elect have at various times discussed rolling back federal support for universities, suggested they might crack down on the freedom of speech and inquiry that define these institutions, and committed to pursuing undocumented students on university campuses.
In the face of this potential onslaught, universities need to be led by people with real public stature, an activist bent, proven leadership, a commitment to public institutions, and concern and compassion for the students who populate their campuses. Higher education needs leaders who understand that universities are communities of learning and discovery rather than businesses.
Robert Reich would be an excellent choice to lead UC Berkeley from the Chancellor’s office, and I urge the UC Regents and UC President Janet Napolitano to appoint him to this position.
Those who agree may sign this petition: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/ucb-petition-principles-of-public-university