Meet Cal’s New Changemaker in Chief

The University’s first-ever Chief Innovation and Entrepreneurship Officer, Rich Lyons, talks intentionality and inclusivity.
By Pat Joseph

RICH LYONS SPENT TEN YEARS (2008–2018) as dean of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, where he himself studied as an undergraduate, before being appointed the University’s first-ever chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer in January 2020.

A year later, California Editor in Chief Pat Joseph caught up with Lyons on a video call to talk about his new role and a push he’s making for a trademarked initiative called Berkeley Changemaker, which the website describes as “a way to codify an essential part of what UC Berkeley has always stood for” that also provides a “future-oriented narrative that our whole campus can rally behind.” We wanted to hear more. 

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity. 

So, Rich, let’s start with the new position: chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer. As I understand it, that’s a new title at Berkeley. What’s the role, and how are you defining it?

Well, one thing we don’t need is a lot of relatively high-priced administrators without clear work to do. So I think for a lot of people, the idea is this is like a pilot. Let’s see what happens if we add a little extra intentionality to the way that the so-called innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem at Berkeley evolves. What will that look like?

How does that intentionality manifest? 

I’ll give you some examples. Let’s take bioscience, life science, and the entrepreneurship around it. We have this new Bakar BioEnginuity Hub that’s going to be a really exciting thing on campus. We’ve got the Innovative Genomics Institute, which is basic research and where our new Nobelist Jennifer Doudna does her work. We’ve got quantitative biology, QB3. We have this brand-new undergraduate dual-degree program in molecular and cell biology plus business. And we just got a gift for a new bio-entrepreneurship center. So, how do we make all of that add up to more than the sum of the parts? You know, it wasn’t anybody’s job to try to do that. Berkeley grows or evolves as a thousand flowers bloom. That’s part of Berkeley’s magic, but the idea is, let’s make sure these groups are talking to each other, so they’re not duplicating effort. 

So that’s one concrete example. I’ll give you another one. In the capital campaign, there are five of what they call multidisciplinary themes. An example is energy, climate, and the environment. And David Ackerly is the titular coordinator of that theme from the faculty side. I am the titular coordinator of the innovation and entrepreneurship theme. That doesn’t mean I’m the only one out there fundraising for innovation and entrepreneurship, but the idea is: What are the campus-level narratives that might be most exciting to philanthropists, and how do I pull people together to articulate those storylines as best we can? 

One overarching storyline I know you’ve been pushing is Berkeley Changemaker. Tell us what that is and how it came about. 

“The term changemaker has a long history, but no world-class research universities have said, ‘We’re really going to go for this, we’re going to make it ours.’”

It started with a course that was taught a couple years ago called Becoming a Changemaker by faculty member Alex Budak, and Alex is passionate about this area. It was open to the whole campus, and there were 17 different majors enrolled, which is a lot. And the average course rating was 6.7, on a seven-point scale, which is just off the charts. And in the qualitative comments people were saying things like: “I feel activated.” “I feel transformed.” “I’m thinking about myself differently.” “All of a sudden, I can kind of see myself as a leader.” And it was like, wow! 

So that class was called Becoming a Changemaker. Then somebody else put the word Berkeley in front of it, and, long story short, we built a course last summer with that name, The Berkeley Changemaker, and offered it to incoming freshmen. About 500 took it.

What’s the nature of the course? If I’m an incoming student, what am I going to leave the course knowing that I didn’t know before?

There are three content pillars in the gateway course: critical thinking, collaboration, communication. And you may ask, doesn’t every course at Berkeley have those three things? 

Take me, I’ve got a Ph.D. in economics. I should be pretty studied at critical thinking. And I’m talking to Lisa Wymore [associate professor in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies] as we’re designing the course, and she’s talking, as a humanist, about the importance of empathy in critical thinking. Well, my economist mind doesn’t go there. I think mostly about rationality and reason. But her point being that if you want to really understand something, you have to see it from all sides. And it’s like, hmm, here I am at the end of my career and she’s schooling me on the way a humanist thinks about that phrase. So that’s just one example of what was an “aha” moment for me. So it’s like, OK, how do we help students understand that phrase “critical thinking” more deeply? 

And this term “changemaker,” where does that come from? And how does it differ from, say, social entrepreneur, or even just leader?

I think in some ways it’s a conflation of those and other things. 

“Berkeley has always tried to stay away from presumptuousness. I think it’s in the DNA of this public institution. We don’t crow as much about our national championships as some other schools.”

The term changemaker has a long history, and a lot of institutions have used that word, but no world-class research universities have said, “We’re really going to go for this, we’re going to make it ours.”

Now, it’s got to be demand-driven. We’re not ramming this down anybody’s throat. But what if we do what I call a lineup test and we say, “Berkeley Changemaker.” Does that resonate for you? Does it resonate for somebody who’s not from Berkeley? There are a lot of people that have never been to Berkeley who would say, “Berkeley Changemaker, that kind of feels right to me.” Now, try “Harvard Changemaker.” Harvard’s great, but those two words don’t go together for me. I went to grad school at MIT. Let’s try “MIT Changemaker.” If you’re talking technology, it works beautifully. If you’re talking humanities and social evolution, then no, right? But Berkeley spans that space. And these are tough competitors. When you can leap out of a lineup against those players, that’s something.

But we invite folks to push back on us. 

Well, here I should own up to the fact that last time we talked, I very rudely offered my criticism. 

And I welcomed that.

You did. I remember you wrote it down. The word I used was presumptuous. I thought it was a little presumptuous, since changemakers could come from anywhere. 

They do.

But I was thinking more about it, and I think it’s also just that change is so double-edged. Sure, we need to change if we’re going to meet the challenges of global warming, for example. But change also brings with it challenges and risks. CRISPR is a fine example of that. It’s a world-changing discovery, but boy, not all the changes that come with CRISPR will be welcome.

“I’ve become kind of obsessed with trying to quantify the essential nature of things. If those are just words on the wall, people should be skeptical.”

Yeah, and I love both of those points. You know, part of what Berkeley has always tried to do is stay away from presumptuousness. I think it’s in the DNA of this public institution. We don’t crow as much about our national championships as some other schools, for example. We just don’t.

But let me try and address the second piece because, at the end of the day, if it’s not founded on values, then you probably don’t have any mooring. You probably have a foundational problem. 

And so, for example, if I said—and I don’t mean to pick on Harvard, but I’ll just use Harvard. 

Go ahead. They can take it. 

OK, so, try this. Harvard University: “Question the status quo.” There are a lot of great intellects on that campus who are questioning the status quo. But when you ask, does Harvard attract students who are questioning the status quo? Is that why the staff and faculty have gone there? Is that what it represents in society? I think the answer is no. And I think there’s a pretty objective standard for saying that. 

Question the Status Quo, I know, is one of four defining principles you articulated while dean at Haas. The others are Confidence Without Attitude. Students Always. Beyond Yourself. Do you see Berkeley Changemaker as an outgrowth of that exercise?

I think one way to say it is I’ve become kind of obsessed with trying to quantify the essential nature of things. But the first point I want to make is that those four principles are in some ways more congruent with Berkeley than they are with Haas, but Haas does its very best to live up to them, including changing admission decisions based on them. If those are just words on the wall, people should be skeptical. But if you’re saying, “No, nobody gets into the MBA program unless the interviewer feels that they are confident without attitude,” then it’s like no compromises; this is real. 

“Berkeley needs to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. That’s part of what makes it so marvelous.”

We didn’t get that Haas process exactly right, but it has become a real attractor of talent. A lot of people are coming to Haas because of it, and we have real data on this.

But look, Berkeley is just this majestically complex institution, right? It just is. And there’s no way that a single phrase like Berkeley Changemaker could fully summarize it. That said, if Berkeley continues to say we are so majestically complex that we could never and should never try to distill some of the essential parts of who we are, then that’s where I depart from those people. 

Let me paint an alternative picture, and you push back on me if this is wrong. It’s five years from now, there’s this 17-year-old in Stockton or San Diego or São Paulo or wherever. And that 17-year-old says, “I have to go to Berkeley. I’m not hearing a narrative anywhere near that clear from Princeton or Michigan or name-your-university with as sharp a story to tell and with the curriculum behind it.”

It isn’t just that we have a few new classes. It’s sort of like, no, we’re trying to bring in a different mix of people.

I’m not a big fan of the term “branding,” but I noticed that in a lot of the literature around Berkeley Changemaker, it’s more about this idea of identity-making, which I kind of like. But as we’ve talked about before, Berkeley is such a hard identity to corral, because it has cultivated all these different identities: Cal versus Berkeley, for starters. There’s the “Go Bears” element. There’s the activist element. And the elite, world-class research element. It isn’t easily resolved, is it?

No, it certainly isn’t, and I think we have to respect that. Berkeley needs to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. That’s part of what makes it so marvelous, that when we started to introduce some of these ideas, the humanists said, I love it. And the engineers are saying, I love it. And the business people and School of Public Health are saying, I love it. It’s spanning a wider space, right?

“One of the risks of coming out with this is like, wait, is this just a euphemism for entrepre-
neurship and
capitalism and things that some people aren’t fully vested in? We have to guard against that as well.”

If instead of the Berkeley Changemaker, the class that we had offered last summer was an introduction to entrepreneurship, maybe we could have built a successful class, but based on enrollments in entrepreneurship classes around campus, it probably would have been 60 percent men and 40 percent women. The Berkeley Changemaker course, the one that enrolled over 500 students, was 62 percent women. So I think there’s an inclusion part to this. Changemaking appears to be able to connect to a wider cross-section of people coming in, and that’s a good thing. 

And do you think, when we talk about inclusiveness at Berkeley, there’s room in that for both progressive and conservative thinking? 

One of the risks of coming out with this is like, wait, the chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer is one of the main flag-bearers here? Is this just a euphemism for entrepreneurship and capitalism and things that some people aren’t fully vested in? We have to guard against that as well. So, I sort of feel like if we’re intentional about it, that the more market-oriented, libertarian views of the world could also look at this and say, “I can buy that life. I want a life of agency. I’m just going to define it differently than those folks there, but this is capacious enough to include me.” 

So should our readers expect to start seeing “Berkeley Changemaker” showing up in the literature that they’re sent, or even, say, splashed across the scoreboard at football games? 

When they’re really going to start hearing about it is when it’s in admissions essays or an interview question. We haven’t really started that discussion, but we certainly intend to if students are saying that’s part of why they apply. 

So there’s an admissions part of the process. And there’s obviously the curriculum part of the process. And more and more of this content is digital. It’s modular and we can pump bits of it out to the alumni network. But we thought we should get the internal curriculum worked out first. Some people are saying, Get it to other universities, make it systemwide. But we kind of want to get it right here first. 

But again, there’s no entitlement: If this doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and we shut it down. But it does feel like it will continue to gather energy.

So we’re at the successful pilot phase. 

Yep. Now imagine that in two years we have classes called Berkeley Changemaker: American Cultures; Berkeley Changemaker: Reading and Composition; Berkeley Changemaker: Quantitative Reasoning.

And then there are Berkeley Changemaker modules. You’ve got a three-unit class on international politics. We’ve got a simulation that we’re going to plug in to your course. It’s a Berkeley Changemaker–branded simulation. It’s an action component to your lecture class. Now, people start looking at it and saying, Oh, you can give the students a “why” to take quantitative reasoning. We’re not dumbing down any of the tools, and there are many other ways to satisfy that requirement on campus. But for a lot of students, it’s sort of like, give me a platform that matters to me. 

I already know that this Changemaker platform matters, so go ahead and dish me the rigorous stuff in that framework. And now we’re talking possibly 50, 60, 70, even 80 percent of undergraduates going through a Changemaker course while they’re at Berkeley. That’s not a crazy scenario.

From the Spring 2021 issue of California.
Image source: Noah Berger / Collage by Leah Worthington
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