A year ago California voters faced a choice: Would they approve a tax increase to help fund a public higher education system that had been the envy of the world? The passage of Proposition 30 on the November 2012 ballot was seen as a resounding affirmative.
And it cemented a decision Nicholas B. Dirks was contemplating, to leave a senior executive post at Columbia University to become chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. On the day after the vote, he knew it was the right move.
“I said, ‘This is good news. It’s auspicious,’ ” Dirks recalled in a recent visit to The Washington Post. “I signed my contract and faxed it in.”
Among elite public universities, there is no school quite like UC-Berkeley. In many ways it is the flagship of state flagships, a perennial choice as the most prestigious public institution in the country in U.S. News & World Report rankings and other lists.
But just a couple years ago, there was intensive debate about fiscal perils confronting UC-Berkeley and other major public universities. Cutbacks in state funding for UC-Berkeley, The Post reported in December 2011, were so deep that faculty were taking mandatory furloughs, class size was growing, roofs were leaking and e-mail was crashing.
Dirks took office June 1 at a more favorable moment. Prop. 30 hasn’t solved all of the state’s education funding issues — far from it — but it has changed the conversation.
“I’ve been able to take advantage of a renewed sense of optimism,” Dirks said. “There’s a sense of stability. There’s a general sense that we’ve weathered the worst and Berkeley will be able to be the great university that it was.”
Dirks, a historian and anthropologist with expertise in South Asia, was executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Columbia before he came to Berkeley. His new job is freighted with history. One former UC-Berkeley chancellor, the legendary Clark Kerr, was considered one of the most important higher education leaders of the 20th century.
Dirks, who is still settling into the job, said one of his top priorities is to maintain “the public character of the institution.” (The public-private balance at premier flagships has been subject of some debate at the University of Virginia, among other places.) Dirks said he wants to put renewed energy into undergraduate education — making sure that students feel a personal connection to what can be a vast university, with 26,000 undergrads and 10,000 graduate students.
What brought him to Washington, among other business, was a meeting with top U.S. Education Department officials to discuss President Obama’s plan for the federal government to rate colleges on value by the start of the 2015-16 school year. Obama announced the plan in August, part of what was billed as an effort to increase college affordability.
The rating system is still under design. Obama proposed that ratings should be based on measures such as the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; the average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt at a college; and outcomes, including graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings and the number of advanced degrees earned by a given college’s graduates.
Many higher education leaders have mixed feelings about Obama’s initiative. Dirks is no exception. But he said that it’s better for universities to participate in the discussion than to boycott it. “We don’t have an option but to engage,” he said.
One of his bottom lines: Dirks is adamant that schools should not be rated based on the earnings of their graduates. “No. No prevarication. Just n-o,” Dirks said when asked whether it would be a good idea to factor earnings into a college rating system. He said that focusing on salaries would give short shrift to schools that prepare students for lower-paying but vital public service positions such as those in the Peace Corps or public education.