The University of California campus in Berkeley. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

The University of California is a towering force in higher education, by almost any measure. Six of its nine undergraduate campuses rank among the top 50 in the nation, and its graduate campus in San Francisco is among the world’s elite medical schools.

That makes the news of abrupt leadership shakeups at two of UC’s prized campuses — the Berkeley flagship and Davis — all the more significant not just for California but for the country.

UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks announced his resignation Tuesday, a week after Linda Katehi stepped down as UC-Davis chancellor. Both leaders had been embroiled in multiple controversies.

Dirks faced questions about whether Berkeley was too lax in response to sexual harassment allegations against faculty and how the school would surmount steep budget troubles. The Los Angeles Times disclosed last month that he was under investigation for possible misuse of public funds for travel and the personal use of a campus fitness trainer without payment. The Daily Californian student newspaper also reported that the university had spent $9,000 for an emergency exit near Dirks’s office as a security measure in case of protests. All of this undermined the three-year tenure of a historian and anthropologist who sought to rejuvenate undergraduate education at Berkeley and boost public support for higher education’s great public flagships.

“Definitely a significant number of faculty had lost confidence in him,” Robert Powell, a political scientist and chair of Berkeley’s faculty senate, said Wednesday. “The reasons vary depending on different people you talk to.”

Dirks, who took office in June 2013, said he plans to step down when a successor is ready to take his place. When he exits, his tenure as chancellor is likely to have been the shortest at UC-Berkeley in a half century. Edward Strong served in the job for four years, from 1961 to 1965, and Glenn T. Seaborg for three, from 1958 to 1961.

UC President Janet Napolitano, who oversees the 10-campus system, told The Washington Post on Wednesday that she had discussions with Dirks about his leadership tenure but she did not force him out. “This was a personal decision by the chancellor,” she said.

Katehi could not shake questions about efforts to reshape the public image of UC-Davis after an infamous 2011 incident in which campus police used pepper spray against student protesters. The Sacramento Bee revealed in April that the school had paid consultants at least $175,000 to improve the school’s online reputation. Katehi also faced questions about various other alleged lapses. Napolitano placed Katehi on administrative leave in April. When she resigned last week, Katehi said investigators had cleared her of accusations of nepotism, retaliation and inappropriate travel expenses. The electrical and computer engineering scholar had been chancellor since 2009.

Each of these dramas was notable on its own. Combined, they cast an intense spotlight on Napolitano as UC seeks new leaders for the 38,000-student Berkeley campus and the 35,000-student Davis campus. Napolitano, a former U.S. homeland security secretary and former governor of Arizona, took office as UC’s 20th president in September 2013.

Napolitano is pledging swift action. She issued a statement on Aug. 9 asserting that investigators found “numerous instances where Chancellor Katehi was not candid, either with me, the press or the public, that she exercised poor judgment and violated multiple university policies. In these circumstances, Chancellor Katehi has now offered to resign, and I have accepted that resignation.”

Napolitano said UC would immediately form a committee for a national search for a new chancellor “to lead this extraordinary campus.” In the interim, Ralph J. Hexter is the acting chancellor at UC-Davis.

Regarding the UC-Berkeley vacancy, Napolitano pledged a global search for a new leader at the flagship. “We seek nothing less than an individual of the highest caliber to lead Berkeley, widely and correctly regarded as the finest public research university in the world,” she said in a statement.

She told the Post that it was not so unusual for UC to embark on two chancellor searches simultaneously. “We’ve had in the past times when there have been two vacancies right around the same time,” she said. “It’s a big system, and things happen.”

The vacancies should draw strong interest, she said.

“It’s Berkeley and it’s Davis,” Napolitano said. “These are two of the best public universities in the country. We’ll have very good internal and external candidates.”

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