BY HANK REICHMAN
Just one week after University of California at Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi resigned following an investigation commissioned by UC President Janet Napolitano, which found she had violated “multiple policies,” “exercised poor judgment” and had “not been candid with university leadership,” a second UC chancellor has announced his resignation, pending selection of a permanent successor.
In an email to the campus, University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks wrote, “I have come to the personal decision that the time is right for me to step aside and allow someone else to take up the financial and institutional challenges ahead of us. While we have made important progress … there remains much work, and many difficult decisions, ahead of us,” his statement read. “We need fresh approaches and new ideas as Berkeley forges a path to maintain its excellence, along with its full commitment to a public mission in the current funding environment.”
Dirks, who has faced public criticism for his handling of sexual harassment cases involving high-profile faculty members, and criticism from faculty and staff for budgetary decisions, informed the UC president’s office Monday of his plans to resign his $531,939-a-year post and return to teaching. The resignation was first made public by San Francisco Chronicle political columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross, who said that just months ago Dirks had told them he planned to remain as chancellor for another ten years.
Berkeley faces a $150 million deficit this year that will probably force cuts to both academic and athletic programs. While other UC campuses have managed to get their finances in order, Berkeley’s deficit continues, in part because of considerable construction debt, which, according to officials, has quadrupled over the past few years to $100 million a year.
According to Matier and Ross, “Dirks, 66, has privately blamed his predecessors for saddling him with many of those costs and leaving him with too few reserves to meet the university’s fiscal obligations, prompting him to recently ask every department to make budget cuts.”
Dirks has been able to claim some successes, including a record year of fundraising totaling close to $480 million. But his relationship with the Academic Senate, which voted to block his proposal to merge some graduate programs and possibly eliminate others, had deteriorated to the point where there was talk of a no-confidence vote. In September 2014 Dirks angered faculty leaders and veterans of Berkeley’s 1964 Free Speech Movement, when as the campus was celebrating the FSM’s 50th anniversary, he issued a statement arguing that “free speech and civility” are “two sides of the same coin.”
Then recent revelations added to the chancellor’s woes. “First there was the security fence built around his campus residence that eventually grew into a $700,000 project. Then there was the whistle-blower complaint involving his and his wife’s free use of a university personal trainer that led to the man, Devin Wicks, being placed on paid administrative leave.” In addition, last month word leaked out of the construction of a special $9,000 emergency exit from Dirks’s Sproul Hall office, which was requested about a year ago in response to a protest in April 2015 when demonstrators stormed the chancellor’s suite.
But perhaps most telling — and strikingly similar to actions that led to Katehi’s departure — was the revelation by Chronicle education writer Nanette Asimov today that even as Berkeley “prepared to eliminate hundreds of jobs and take millions of dollars in loans to help balance its flagging budget, the campus also paid more than $200,000 to ‘improve the chancellor’s strategic profile nationally and internationally,’”
It was in July 2015 that the campus hired Williamsworks, a Seattle consulting firm, to identify “fruitful domestic and international opportunities” for Dirks, such as TED talks, the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, and “elite media opportunities,” according to documents obtained by The Chronicle. The company would also provide “high-level staffing” at the events.
The yearlong contract called for UC Berkeley to spend $15,000 a month with Williamsworks and $8,250 a month with a subcontractor, Rosshirt. The companies agreed to “increase exposure and awareness” of Dirks’ vision for higher education, elevate the chancellor “as a key thought leader,” and “form key partnerships” so that potential donors would understand his philosophy. The efforts were part of a “branding strategy” for the campus.
According to the contract, “no in-house personnel could provide this high-level, networking, advisory, and strategic counseling service to the chancellor.”
Asked about the arrangement a few days before Dirks announced his resignation, Sociology Professor Michael Burawoy, co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, an AAUP partner organization, said, “I doubt he’ll last the year.”
“Rather than engaging with the campus — talking to students, having town meetings, recruiting people into his cabinet who are trusted members of the campus — he sees himself flying around the world. He calls on people from the outside and barricades himself in his home,” Burawoy said.
Indeed, the notion that the Chancellor of what is widely held to be the greatest public research university in the world would need such “image-building” assistance boggles the mind.
When asked about Dirks’s resignation, UC President Napolitano issued this brief statement:
Today I have accepted the resignation of Nicholas B. Dirks as chancellor of UC Berkeley. I do so with deep appreciation for Chancellor Dirks’s efforts on behalf of this great institution, its students, faculty, staff, alumni and the larger Berkeley community. We will immediately form a committee to begin a global search for the new chancellor, and Chancellor Dirks intends to stay on until a new successor is named and in place. 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. UC Berkeley, and the University of California, deserve nothing less.
The resignation is not the first high-profile departure of a Berkeley official. Executive vice chancellor and provost Claude Steele stepped down in April after he was lambasted for his minimal punishment of then-dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law Sujit Choudhry after a campus investigation found he violated UC sexual harassment policy. Additionally, amid the campus’s approximately $150 million annual structural deficit, former vice provost of strategic academic and facilities planning Andrew Szeri stepped down in June, and former vice chancellor for administration and finance John Wilton stepped down in February.
In his email to the campus, Dirks wrote:
Our most critical task now is to ensure a sustainable financial foundation for our university at a time of significantly diminished support from the state. While we have made important progress, substantially reducing our deficit for the coming year and developing a plan to balance the budget over the subsequent two to three years, there remains much work, and many difficult decisions ahead of us. We need fresh approaches and new ideas as Berkeley forges a path to maintain its excellence along with its full commitment to a public mission in the current funding environment.
I pledge my total commitment to ensuring a smooth transition as I leave this post. And I look forward to joining on a full-time basis the distinguished faculty that was my primary reason for moving to Berkeley in the first place.