Steven E.F. Brown
Aug 9, 2013San Francisco Business Times

Nicholas Dirks has learned from online education’s history and is determined not to repeat it.

Dirks became UC Berkeley’s 10th chancellor on June 1, arriving from Columbia University, where he was dean of the faculty of arts and sciences. As a history professor at Columbia, Dirks saw the university’s early, costly efforts with online education, which he now sees as a supplement, not a replacement, to campus learning.

Dirks is also an expert on India, particularly its caste system and political attempts to compensate those who have suffered from it. He has written three books on India, including “The Hollow Crown,” considered by scholars as an important work. Dirks’ interest in caste and inequality in India led him to look at affirmative action policies in the United States.

After speaking on that subject at the University of Michigan, he was later hired by Lee Bollinger, who had moved from president of the University of Michigan to Columbia University, as an administrator there. His wife, Janaki Bakhle, is also a history professor, and they have a 14-year-old son.

What do the faculty, staff and students want from you? They’re looking to have me listen to them. Students are concerned about the cost of higher education. They’re also concerned about how to negotiate what is sometimes a large and complicated institution, how to ensure they use their time here as well as possible, how to connect what they do in the classroom with things they do outside the classroom. Graduate students are concerned about whether the packages they are being offered are competitive with peer institutions … are their programs being rethought in ways that actually engage the kinds of issues they have in their lives going forward? For example, more and more historians — to take an example I know well — who get Ph.D.s in history are seeking employment outside the formal academic world. Do they get any help with that while they are here and after they leave here?

Are people at the university concerned about future funding cuts? Actually right now, we’re not dealing with cuts. We are dealing with challenging funding requirements and the cost of supporting new initiatives in some areas. The sciences, in particular, is huge, and growing. I’m going to do my best to preserve the comprehensive excellence we have.

Will a shift to online education help save the university money? What do you think about that direction? There’ve been different moments in the history of online that have completely fizzled. Columbia was actually one of the leading partners in a venture called “Fathom,” that went completely bankrupt and lost a lot of money for Columbia. So I have been through moments of exuberance that turned out to be irrational. But I think we all know by now that the Internet and online kinds of formats are here to stay. Whether we build them into our curriculum or not, students are using them. … We need to invest in the first instance in thinking about new ways to use online kinds of formats to supplement what we’re doing here on campus, not to replace it. And it’s turning out to be incredibly costly, actually, to do some of these things, so this notion that you’re just going to save money — well, maybe 25 years from now.

What do you think of the Middle Class Access Plan (financial aid aimed at middle-income families)? The Middle Class Access Program really stood out (when interviewing for the UC Berkeley job) because we had, in effect, in the Ivy League, started doing middle-class access programs. We started doing them in 2008, just before the crash, because we realized that while we were giving very generous financial aid to students from low-income families we were actually, in effect, losing the middle class.

A lot of HR is being moved offsite to Fourth Street in West Berkeley. Are people concerned about that? These transitions are very difficult for the people who are involved. It’s just a hugely disruptive change. But it’s one that has obviously been occasioned by financial reality and financial needs, and it’s been done here I think in a way that is exemplary.

How has library use changed? We all use it differently. Students tend to use libraries now as study spaces. They’ll sit in a library with their laptop, accessing e-journals and e-books that are available through the library. Among the professoriate, there’s a kind of age grading here — if you’re under 50 you don’t go to the library as much as you do over 50. But we all use the library, we just use it through our various and sundry technical devices.

Your subject area is South Asia, you’ve done a lot of work on caste — does that have any application in terms of education in California? How I got involved in administration at this level directly relates to this. I gave a talk at the University of Michigan in 1996 about contrasting the history of affirmative action in the United States with the history of reservations around caste and communal categories in India. It’s clearly been part of my own thinking about social issues and educational issues.

Are there any things that didn’t work in India — Are there any cautionary tales for keeping access open to everybody? The whole system of reservations is predicated on quotas and that has not worked. It just hasn’t worked. It’s both generated incredible backlash and it’s left a lot of posts empty. The way in which we’ve thought about affirmative action in the United States has been much more effective.


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