How did the head of the univer­sity that gave birth to the free speech move­ment han­dle a toxic turn in dis­course?

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

As chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, Ni­cholas Dirks had to en­dure protests from both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, a pow­er­ful fac­ulty and a tweet from Pres­i­dent Trump threat­en­ing the univer­sity’s fund­ing. He talks to John Gill about how he nav­i­gated his way through

“T he tone of liv­ing in Amer­ica is chang­ing, and, in or­der to stop be­ing scared, we started or­gan­is­ing. I, a trans­gen­der Jew, don’t have a prob­lem with vi­o­lence against fas­cists.”

Neil Lawrence, a third-year lin­guis­tics stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, may or may not be typ­i­cal of the pro­test­ers who, one evening in Fe­bru­ary, shut down a planned talk by right-wing provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los on the cam­pus renowned as the spir­i­tual home of free speech. It is hard to say for cer­tain since the 150 or so who stormed the cam­pus were masked and dressed uni­formly in black. It was later cal­cu­lated that the en­su­ing skir­mishes cost hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in polic­ing and re­pair bills; but be­fore the night was out, it was clear that Berke­ley was at risk of in­cur­ring an even higher cost as the im­ages of the protests went around the world.

Just hours after the talk was can­celled, with the whys and where­fores yet to be es­tab­lished, the US pres­i­dent, Don­ald Trump, took to Twit­ter to is­sue a di­rect threat. “If U.C. Berke­ley does not al­low free speech and prac­tices vi­o­lence on in­no­cent peo­ple with a dif­fer­ent point of view – NO FED­ERAL FUNDS?”, he wrote, in a tweet that was “liked” more than 200,000 times.

For Berke­ley’s then chan­cel­lor, Ni­cholas Dirks, the “night be­fore the tweet” was “deeply trou­bling”.

“No­body re­ally be­lieved that Milo Yiannopou­los com­ing to cam­pus was a test of free speech. This is some­one who was thrown off Twit­ter – and you have to be re­ally egre­gious to be thrown off Twit­ter, as we have dis­cov­ered,” he tells Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, dur­ing an in­ter­view about his four years in charge of the Cal­i­for­nian in­sti­tu­tion, which came to an end in July.

“But he was in­vited by the Berke­ley Col­lege Repub­li­cans, and they are a bona fide group.

So we went out of our way to think about se­cu­rity plans, and thought we had a plan to al­low him to speak, and [thereby avoid giv­ing] any­one the chance to…cast any doubt on our com­mit­ment to free speech.”

That lat­ter point is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in a US con­text be­cause pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, un­like their pri­vate coun­ter­parts, are bound by the First Amend­ment, and as such have no choice about whether or not to al­low speak­ers, pro­vided they are in­vited ac­cord­ing to agreed pro­to­cols.

In the event, how­ever, Berke­ley’s care­ful plan­ning was left in tat­ters when a group iden­ti­fied by Dirks as mil­i­tant anti-fas­cists – known as “An­tifa” – ar­rived on cam­pus.

“We had no idea they were com­ing,” Dirks re­calls. “They had been able to mo­bilise with­out any trace on so­cial me­dia.” The pro­test­ers lit a fire to dis­tract at­ten­tion, then, us­ing what Dirks de­scribes as “black bloc tac­tics”, dis­persed into the crowd.

Fire­works rock­eted into the build­ing and bar­ri­cades were stormed, prompt­ing cam­pus po­lice to ad­vise that they could no longer guar­an­tee the safety of the crowd – or of Yiannopou­los him­self, who was es­corted to his car and taken off cam­pus.

“The most dif­fi­cult thing was that this vi­o­lence had been en­acted by peo­ple who claimed to be on the Left,” Dirks says. “Many stu­dents sym­pa­thised with them and felt that this was in­deed an ap­pro­pri­ate thing to do to make sure th­ese hate­ful state­ments couldn’t be made on our cam­pus”.

The re­sult, he says, is that he woke the next morn­ing “al­ready feel­ing there had been an es­ca­la­tion both of vi­o­lence and of the chal­lenge we faced in match­ing our rhetoric on free speech with re­al­ity. So to then find a tweet [from Trump] threat­en­ing the ces­sa­tion of fed­eral funds was…” He pauses, search­ing for the right words. “It was not a good way to wake up.”

Dirks could never be ac­cused of hav­ing gone to Berke­ley in search of the easy life. His pre­vi­ous job was as ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent at Columbia Univer­sity, one of the wealth­i­est Ivy League in­sti­tu­tions, with an en­dow­ment in the re­gion of $9 bil­lion. By con­trast, when he ar­rived in 2013, Berke­ley was still reel­ing from a cat­a­strophic de­cline in its pub­lic fund­ing fol­low­ing the fi­nan­cial cri­sis. When his pre­de­ces­sor, Bob Bir­ge­neau, had taken of­fice in 2004, a third of Berke­ley’s bud­get had come from state cof­fers. By the time he stood down, it had fallen to just

12 per cent.

The steps the in­sti­tu­tion had taken to ride out the fi­nan­cial cri­sis in­cluded ramp­ing up fundrais­ing, hir­ing a J. P. Mor­gan banker to pro­fes­sion­alise its fi­nan­cial man­age­ment, and tak­ing a strate­gic ap­proach to cuts that was rather more com­mand-and-con­trol than Berke­ley fac­ulty were used to.

How­ever, while Dirks knew he was tak­ing on a major chal­lenge, it wasn’t un­til later that he re­alised this con­strained fund­ing en­vi­ron­ment was now Berke­ley’s “new nor­mal”.

“Ev­ery­one thought [Berke­ley’s fund­ing] would re­bound – the econ­omy had re­bounded, so there­fore state fund­ing should as well,” he ex­plains. “In fact, to­day [the state con­tri­bu­tion] is 11 per cent.”

To un­der­stand this on­go­ing de­cline, it is nec­es­sary to look at pol­i­tics as well as eco­nomics, and, in par­tic­u­lar, at Berke­ley’s com­plex, mul­ti­lay­ered gov­er­nance struc­ture.

As part of the over­ar­ch­ing Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem, the chan­cel­lor is be­holden to the sys­tem’s board of 24 po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed re­gents and its pres­i­dent, currently the for­mer gover­nor of Ari­zona Janet Napoli­tano. The lat­ter’s role is to rep­re­sent all the UC cam­puses in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the state gover­nor over is­sues such as fund­ing, but she also re­tains con­trol over ex­ec­u­tive pay, tu­ition fees and the ra­tio of in-state and out-of-state stu­dents (the lat­ter pay more, and as such can help to bal­ance the books).

So while, at Columbia, it had been part of Dirks’ job to set tu­ition fees, at Berke­ley, the fig­ure “had to be ap­proved by the re­gents, who were ad­vised by the pres­i­dent. But it was also a ne­go­ti­a­tion with [Cal­i­for­nia’s] gover­nor, and al­though we made clear our need for greater rev­enue…we didn’t get it, and, at a high level, I had al­most no con­trol over that.”

If he did not con­trol key in­come streams, then he did at least have con­trol over ex­pen­di­ture.

“That’s the di­vi­sion of labour,” Dirks jokes. But, again, that was not quite as sim­ple as it sounds be­cause of an­other aspect of Berke­ley’s gov­er­nance struc­ture – the pow­er­ful fac­ulty rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

The en­gaged nature of Berke­ley aca­demics, the unique cul­ture of the place and a com­mit­ment to its fa­bled role as a pub­lic in­sti­tu­tion are all great points of pride for the in­sti­tu­tion. This can be a pow­er­ful strength: for ex­am­ple, Berke­ley ex­cels at at­tract­ing the most tal­ented young re­searchers and hold­ing on to them, de­spite the higher salar­ies avail­able else­where.

Dirks, whose aca­demic ex­per­tise is on the Bri­tish em­pire in South Asia, is very aware of the his­tory of all this, and par­tic­u­larly the ge­n­e­sis of the aca­demic se­nate.

“The late 19th and early 20th cen­tury in Amer­ica was the era of the ‘great leader’,” he ex­plains, “and in the case of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, that was [per­son­i­fied by] Ben­jamin Ide Wheeler [pres­i­dent from 1899 to 1919, pic­tured right]. He used to ride around cam­pus on a horse with a big stick, ac­cost­ing stu­dents who weren’t in class. He also made all the de­ci­sions about hir­ing fac­ulty, pro­mo­tions and so on.”

Such ab­so­lute power came to an end

To find a tweet [from Trump] threat­en­ing the ces­sa­tion of fed­eral funds was…It was not a good way to wake up

fol­low­ing a fac­ulty re­volt after Wheeler’s re­tire­ment that led to the es­tab­lish­ment of the first aca­demic se­nate in the US: a “re­mark­able and ex­em­plary struc­ture of fac­ulty par­tic­i­pa­tion” that went on to be widely im­i­tated.

“But, I would say a cou­ple of things,” Dirks con­tin­ues. “One: it de­vel­oped all its pro­to­cols and cul­ture at a time of very gen­er­ous state fund­ing. So, within the aca­demic se­nate, for ex­am­ple, there is some­thing called the bud­get com­mit­tee. This makes ev­ery rec­om­men­da­tion about fac­ulty salar­ies, pro­mo­tion and ten­ure. But al­though they’re called a bud­get com­mit­tee, they don’t work to a bud­get. All th­ese de­ci­sions are made to a no­tional sense of equal­ity, jus­tice and fair play across the in­sti­tu­tion, with­out a sin­gle dol­lar fig­ure [in mind].”

The re­sult, Dirks says, is that when fi­nan­cial prob­lems hit, there is no mech­a­nism within the se­nate to think prag­mat­i­cally about the trade-offs re­quired.

The sec­ond prob­lem, as he sees it, is that while the se­nate has le­git­i­macy among some fac­ulty, “Berke­ley be­ing Berke­ley”, there are a num­ber of other ri­val groups. One in par­tic­u­lar, he says, proved to be highly adept at us­ing a “di­rect line to the lo­cal me­dia to pros­e­cute its own con­cerns”.

Be that as it may, Dirks knew that if he didn’t move to plug Berke­ley’s huge struc­tural deficit then the in­sti­tu­tion’s whole fu­ture could be put in jeop­ardy. In a 2015 memo to staff, he wrote that “what we are en­gaged in here is a fun­da­men­tal de­fence of the con­cept of the pub­lic univer­sity, a con­cept that we must rein­vent in or­der to pre­serve”.

One of his de­ci­sions was to set up a new “of­fice of strate­gic ini­tia­tives” to spear­head a re­view.

“I felt we needed a struc­ture to al­low max­i­mum par­tic­i­pa­tion, but that would also make very clear that choices would have to be made that would in­volve cuts, pos­si­ble merg­ers, and in­vest­ments in some ar­eas that would be sub­stan­tially more than in other ar­eas,” he says.

Once the of­fice was es­tab­lished, staff were in­formed about the scale of the deficit. “It was huge – $150 mil­lion,” Dirks says. “For­tu­nately, we had the money in re­serves, but we didn’t have it for­ever and the pro­jec­tions were that [the deficit] was go­ing to con­tinue to climb. The scale of it, I think, caused fac­ulty to fear that this process was go­ing to lead to the demise of their own school or depart­ment.”

There was also, Dirks ac­knowl­edges, a de­gree of dis­trust in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, some­thing he says he may have “played into”, de­spite try­ing to be as open as pos­si­ble, but which also stemmed from failed at­tempts to deal with the bud­get deficit un­der pre­vi­ous regimes.

The of­fice of strate­gic ini­tia­tives was not to last long, and Dirks might be for­given for feel­ing that his room for ma­noeu­vre was be­ing ham­pered from all sides.

“My con­cern about the po­si­tion­ing of univer­sity lead­er­ship with a gov­er­nance struc­ture on top that doesn’t re­ally in­clude them, and a gov­er­nance regime be­low that is, at the very least, not al­ways in part­ner­ship with the ad­min­is­tra­tion, is that it has led to a cul­tural stand-off that too of­ten makes un­der­stand­ing seem to be ca­pit­u­la­tion,” he says.

An­other facet of Dirks’ ten­ure was the con­stant me­dia scru­tiny. As well as the fi­nan­cial prob­lems and free speech rows, Dirks had to deal with a num­ber of high­pro­file scan­dals at Berke­ley, in­clud­ing sev­eral al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment in­volv­ing aca­demic staff.

The han­dling of some of th­ese cases was, by Berke­ley’s own ad­mis­sion, un­sat­is­fac­tory, and more than one ad­min­is­tra­tor left their role in the fall­out. Along­side such gen­uine and far­reach­ing is­sues, how­ever, came a steady stream of rather less se­ri­ous sto­ries on is­sues such as the cost of a fence built around his res­i­dence amid se­cu­rity con­cerns on cam­pus.

Dirks, who came to Berke­ley with sleeves rolled up and the laud­able am­bi­tion of se­cur­ing the fu­ture of an im­per­illed icon of pub­lic higher ed­u­ca­tion, re­mains irked about this feed­ing frenzy. To il­lus­trate the point, he refers to an­other story in the Daily Cal­i­for­nian in 2016 that he had built a $9,000 “es­cape hatch” in his of­fice.

“When the story came out I didn’t know what they were talk­ing about,” he says. “So I went to my of­fice and I started look­ing for this es­cape hatch.”

In fact, he says, the pa­per was re­fer­ring to a new door that had been built at the re­quest of of­fice staff after a num­ber of occupations, “some of which had felt very threat­en­ing to some staff”. How­ever, “the memes started im­me­di­ately: I was in the of­fice with my hair stick­ing straight up, mous­tache and glasses, then go­ing down a slide on a Dis­ney-like Mat­ter­horn ride to get to safety. And

I thought: ‘OK, surely the record will be cor­rected when some fol­low-up is done.’ But I think that es­cape hatches are now in­deli­bly as­so­ci­ated with me for the rest of my life.”

In an age of “fake news” and po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated at­tacks on jour­nal­ism, Dirks is a be­liever in the power of the me­dia. In­deed, he is clear that in the Berke­ley con­text, re­port­ing – good or bad – has a tan­gi­ble in­flu­ence on the UC board of re­gents.

“When a story comes out in the news­pa­per, [the re­gents] read it and think about what it means for them,” Dirks ex­plains. “Take salar­ies, for ex­am­ple. In closed ses­sion, the re­gents are con­cerned about be­ing com­pet­i­tive – they know that the salar­ies [Berke­ley pays] are much lower than at pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties, and that many well-qual­i­fied peo­ple just don’t

make them­selves avail­able [as a re­sult]. But the way in which the gov­er­nance takes place is in­cred­i­bly re­spon­sive to me­dia-driven is­sues, so one also feels that in [open-ses­sion] re­gents’ meet­ings they are mak­ing com­ments that they know are go­ing to be writ­ten up by the press.”

The re­sult, he re­flects, is that the trans­parency and pub­lic ac­count­abil­ity that is so fun­da­men­tal to pub­lic higher ed­u­ca­tion on one level can, on an­other, be­come an Achilles heel. And his fear is that if the ero­sion of support for pub­lic higher ed­u­ca­tion con­tin­ues, “it will be­come like pri­mary and sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion in the US, where any­one who has the means will send their child to a pri­vate school, and the masses will be ex­pected to get a sec­ond-tier ed­u­ca­tion at pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions. That is a real de­par­ture from what we’ve known for the last 100 years.”

If this all sounds rather gloomy, then it’s im­por­tant to say that Dirks re­mains firmly of the view that the pub­lic mis­sion of Berke­ley is as rel­e­vant as it has ever been. In 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view, more than 9,000 Berke­ley un­der­grad­u­ates re­ceived Pell Grants (needs-based support from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment): al­most as many as at all eight Ivy League in­sti­tu­tions put to­gether, and nine times as many as at lo­cal ri­val Stan­ford Univer­sity.

Dirks adds that “if you look back at the stu­dent de­mo­graph­ics in the 1960s, they were over­whelm­ingly white mid­dle class. To­day, whites are the mi­nor­ity, and the so­cio-eco­nomic dis­tri­bu­tion is very dif­fer­ent. So, in my view, you can use pri­vate fund­ing and have a very clear com­mit­ment to be­ing a pub­lic univer­sity in terms both of what that means his­tor­i­cally and look­ing for­ward to the needs of Cal­i­for­nia and the needs of the world in years to come.”

He is also adamant that ful­fill­ing lo­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and main­tain­ing a pro­file as a cen­tre of world-class re­search are not in­com­pat­i­ble – al­though nor are they easy (Berke­ley slipped from 10th to 18th place in this year’s Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion World Univer­sity Rank­ings, for in­stance).

“When you have the kind and cal­i­bre of fac­ulty that we have at Berke­ley, then you will con­tinue to at­tract the best young PhDs and re­searchers to come and work with them,” Dirks says. “We are do­ing as well as we have ever done in re­cruit­ing ju­nior fac­ulty, and re­tain­ing fac­ulty when they get out­side of­fers.

“What we also found, how­ever, is that there are more out­side of­fers, [the salar­ies] are more dif­fi­cult to match, and it’s much more dif­fi­cult to re­cruit mid-level or se­nior fac­ulty than it was even 10 years ago.”

Now free from the bur­dens of high of­fice, Dirks can leave oth­ers to worry about such mat­ters. As a pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, how­ever, he can­not sim­ply move on from the broader threats posed by the febrile po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere. When Yiannopou­los did even­tu­ally speak at Berke­ley, at a poorly at­tended 15-minute ap­pear­ance in Septem­ber, it was a damp squib. But writ­ing re­cently in the Wash­ing­ton Post, Dirks sounded the alarm about what he sees as “a grow­ing move to use cur­rent controversies [such as that sur­round­ing Yiannopou­los] to reg­u­late free speech on pub­lic cam­puses”.

He is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about the “very cu­ri­ous phe­nom­e­non” of the right-wing think­tanks that pro­mote leg­is­la­tion specif­i­cally aimed at “mak­ing sure the con­ser­va­tive voice is heard and rep­re­sented”: leg­is­la­tion that has been adopted or is be­ing de­bated in 14 states, in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia.

“[Such leg­is­la­tion] sounds on first reading to be jus­ti­fied; it says that uni­ver­si­ties should be open to speak­ers no mat­ter what their po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion…But if you read on, it has a num­ber of as­pects that are quite dis­turb­ing, one be­ing a pro­to­col for the dis­ci­plin­ing of stu­dents who dis­rupt events through protest. It doesn’t de­fine what dis­rup­tion is, it doesn’t de­fine what protest is, but it does de­fine what the pun­ish­ment should be, which is two strikes and you’re out – sus­pended from the univer­sity.”

Equally con­cern­ing, for Dirks, is what he sees as an at­tempt to con­trol what univer­sity lead­ers say, with the threat of sanc­tions if they are judged to have taken too po­lit­i­cal a point of view.

“Again, who is go­ing to ad­ju­di­cate that? Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing we say around in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity, for ex­am­ple, could be seen by some groups as po­lit­i­cally in­flected,” he says.

In his Wash­ing­ton Post ar­ti­cle, he goes fur­ther still, ar­gu­ing that this is part of a “full-throated cam­paign to close the Amer­i­can mind”.

The place that Berke­ley has, or used to have, in Amer­i­can pub­lic con­scious­ness was evoked colour­fully by Peter Agre, the No­bel prizewin­ning di­rec­tor of the Johns Hop­kins Malaria Re­search In­sti­tute, at this year’s Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion World Aca­demic Sum­mit in Lon­don.

“When I was in fourth grade [in the 1950s], my fa­ther, who was a chem­istry pro­fes­sor at a col­lege in Min­nesota, had a sab­bat­i­cal year at Berke­ley – a move I liken to go­ing from Lake Wobe­gon to Sodom and Go­mor­rah,” he joked. “The di­ver­sity at Berke­ley as a child was pal­pa­ble and ex­cit­ing. The het­ero­gene­ity was clear. The gen­tle­man across the street was a jan­i­tor; next door was a sales­man; my brother had a play­mate from the block be­hind us who was the son of Ed­win McMil­lan, who won a No­bel for dis­cov­er­ing [nep­tu­nium]. All the kids were play­ing to­gether.”

This idea of a di­verse, bo­hemian com­mu­nity with a univer­sity at its heart serv­ing as an “up­ward mo­bil­ity ma­chine” (to quote The New York Times) still has pow­er­ful res­o­nance. Whether the neigh­bour­hood mea­sures up to that ideal to­day is de­bat­able: the Bay Area has been taken over by tech firms noted for their lack of di­ver­sity, and has an econ­omy and hous­ing mar­ket to match (a jan­i­tor liv­ing in Berke­ley to­day would have lit­tle more than their broom cup­board to bed down in).

But the univer­sity, Dirks in­sists, still re­tains its com­mit­ment to mer­i­toc­racy above all else.

“What I worry about is that a lot of the pub­lic con­cern about col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties – whether it’s about free speech, safe spa­ces, so-called cod­dling of stu­dents, over­paid ad­min­is­tra­tors and fac­ulty, what’s pre­sented as ridicu­lous re­search – di­min­ishes the sense of what uni­ver­si­ties stand for in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion,” he says.

“There was a time in Cal­i­for­nia when a sig­nif­i­cant ma­jor­ity of the res­i­dents took great pride in the num­ber of No­bel lau­re­ates at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, in its recog­ni­tion for re­search ex­cel­lence. I don’t know if that’s go­ing to come back again; I cer­tainly hope so.”

For Dirks, it’s clear that the idea of the univer­sity mat­ters a great deal, and is worth fight­ing for.

On that, if not on the man­ner of com­bat, he and the pro­test­ers who drove Yiannopou­los from Berke­ley’s hal­lowed grounds have at least some com­mon ground.

Vir­tu­ally ev­ery­thing we say around in­clu­sion and di­ver­sity could be seen by some groups as po­lit­i­cally in­flected

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.