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Administering Change

June 12, 2013
by Sean Elder
illustration of chancellor dirks

The career of incoming Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks has led him out of the classroom in order to influence what happens within it. As he is inaugurated Nov. 8, we explore the man and his mission for Cal.

The year was 1996 and Nicholas Dirks, now Berkeley’s newest chancellor, had just traveled from the University of Michigan to Columbia University to talk about joining Columbia’s history and anthropology departments. There was a hunger strike going on there at the time—a group of students were advocating for the creation of a department of ethnic studies—and he had landed right in the middle of it.

“I remember being wined and dined at this fancy restaurant while the then vice-president was taking calls on his big, large cell phone”—those early cell phone models looked like field walkie-talkies. The vice-president’s conversation, Dirks says, was with “people who were monitoring the students on hunger strike.” History is filled with such ironies; no doubt some member of the British Parliament was scarfing down foie gras at the very moment IRA martyr Bobby Sands wasted away. Fortunately, in Columbia’s case, nobody died.

The real irony here was that the same strike, if not the same strikers, was roiling more than a decade later when Dirks was Columbia’s executive vice-president and dean of its faculty of arts and sciences. “[Eleven] years later they were saying that we hadn’t done enough, that there hadn’t been enough investment in ethnic studies,” he recalls. But this time it was his problem: “I was the point person of the administration, because programs, departments, and faculty are all in my bailiwick. This request was being made essentially to me.”

This dramatic episode was of great interest to the search committee he met with last fall as a candidate for the Berkeley chancellorship. “There was a lot of conversation about student activism, how to think about student concerns and sometimes student protests” between him and the committee—a mix of faculty, students, and regents—and they were keen to learn that Dirks’s involvement in one of Columbia’s last crises had not been merely administrative. “I met with the negotiators every night for 16 nights,” he says. “I was able to establish a relationship with certain of the students; some of them had read work I had done, certainly knew people I had brought in and hired. They believed I understood the issues they were talking about.”

But if the protestors, or for that matter the students on Berkeley’s search committee who pressed the issue of his activism, thought they had found a convert to their cause, they were mistaken. “I wasn’t sure there should be a department of ethnic studies, that it might just be a way of marginalizing ethnic studies.… We ended up signing a memorandum of understanding, but the formal document was one that either stated things [the university] was already doing or would discuss doing.” In other words, no real ground was given.

“Obviously, the protest makes clear the depths of feeling some students have about these issues, and that’s important to register. It was a negotiation also about negotiation, about what it means to protest and to get things done in a university.” And while some of those he was facing were no doubt curious about where he stood on various issues, for others the question was far more pragmatic. “I think what they were looking for in part, given the recent history of Berkeley, is whether or not I was battle ready.”

The first time I met Dirks was earlier this year at the library building at Columbia on a freezing cold March day, not too far from where those hunger strikers had been having their vital signs monitored in 2007. He was wearing a blazer and blue jeans. His affect is attentive and articulate, casual yet precise, like the cool professor you want to talk to in the coffee house after class.

Despite the brace of titles he held at Columbia, and the sort of promoting and fund-raising work he did on behalf of that Ivy, Dirks is probably better known as a professor of Indian ethno-history with a passion for interdisciplinary studies. His best-known scholarly work, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, is one of those books that can be read by people with no particular knowledge of India, British Colonialism, or the caste system. The language is clear and straightforward (making it unlike 90 percent of scholarly books I’ve tried to read) and was praised by heavyweights such as the late Edward Said: “Even for the non-specialist, the results of this gripping book are remarkable to behold.”

The author’s relationship to India is hardly secondhand. When Dirks was 12, his father, Yale professor J. Edward Dirks, got a Fulbright grant to go to India and work at a formerly Christian college outside of Madras.

“My father had become very interested in the history of higher education, starting in the U.S., around the question of secularization,” Dirks says. At the time the elder Dirks arrived, Madras Christian College, started by Scottish evangelists, was to be used to educate post-colonial Indians—with its first non-Scottish principal at the helm. And while Madras presented an interesting case study for the Yale Divinity School graduate, it had a different exotic lure for his son.

“I thought of India as a place filled with elephants and tigers and cobras,” he says. “That was my primary interest.” And indeed, a child of the new principal, with whom Dirks’s father was working, had a pet python. “There weren’t tigers, but there were leopard cats; there probably were pythons that were wild, as well as cobras.”

Young Dirks rode his bike through the jungle, wore a uniform of khaki shorts and a white shirt, and took the train to school each day. He became interested in local music and took lessons on the mridangam, a south Indian drum. “The most immersion I had [in Indian culture] was through the study of the drum,” he says now. “I didn’t really learn any Tamil at the time, which was too bad, because later I had to learn Tamil when my brain had become less receptive to new languages. It opened up a sort of connection and interest that was built on later, in ways that led to my own scholarly life.”

Meanwhile, back in the States, kids Dirks’s age were dancing to a different beat. He missed the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the arrival of the Beatles (he read about them both in the Hindu paper). He returned to enter the ninth grade in 1964, with a worldview very different from other middle schoolers. “When I was asked to do a term paper, I would go and do a paper on Gandhi, or Hinduism, or population movements in India. It became a kind of touchstone for me to think about the world outside the U.S.”

It also gave him an opening to perceive the world beyond Christianity. His father was an ordained Presbyterian minister; his mother was for a time a member of a more fundamentalist church, the Plymouth Brethren. Dirks attended both of his parents’ churches. “I was a pretty religious kid,” he recalls. In an attempt to understand people with other very different religious views, he began to read books about Eastern religion—”not because it was the 1960s or whatever; I was worried a little about questions of faith.”

Not long after his return to the United States, the teenage Dirks started attending the Yale chapel to hear the activist clergyman William Sloane Coffin, “and he just blew me away. I listened to him talking about going to Selma, Alabama, and sort of stopped going to the fundamentalist church.… I became increasingly caught up in the significance of the Civil Rights Movement and concerns about Vietnam. Like the rest of my generation.”

Dirks went to Wesleyan (from 1968 to 1972; “those were interesting years”)—another formerly Christian college—although by then his time in the chapel was spent protesting and doing … other nonreligious things. “Wesleyan had a group of South Indian musicians and a great program in ethnomusicology,” he says, and though he pursued his drum playing for a while, “I gave it up because I wasn’t very good.”

What he did not abandon was his interest in Asian studies. “It seemed to me I needed to understand more about the Third World,” he says. “It was partly the Indian connection, but it wasn’t just that. It was also Vietnam and thinking about America’s role in the world.”

He ended up writing his senior thesis on Gandhi and went back to India for that. He wrote a chapter on caste, but it was just the beginning of his obsession. “Caste is one of the first things you think about when you think about India. At least it was when I was there in college, and tried to understand a social system that seemed a lot like race.” The connection between Gandhi and Martin Luther King was unavoidable, and all the more relevant then. Upon his return to America, Dirks went to the University of Chicago for graduate work and found a mentor in the late Bernard “Barney” Cohn—an anthropologist who taught in the history department, an anomaly at the time. Sherry B. Ortner, now distinguished professor of anthropology at UCLA, was at Chicago then, and later went on to work with Dirks at both Michigan and Columbia.

“When I was in grad school, Barney Cohn was considered weird,” she remembers. “He was so far ahead of his time. I was learning classic anthropology, in which Indian culture was the inverse of our little world. Barney was going up against the orthodoxy, and enjoying it, and Nick was his star and greatest product.”

Dirks says, “Cohn’s most major contribution to the study of India was recognizing the importance of British colonialism.” To Cohn, caste was “a form of ordering Indian society that seemed to be validated by religious principles that were old and pre-political. But as a colonial power, the concern was to find reasons that would legitimate their presence and keep things under their control.” Cohn’s thinking paved the way for Dirks, who according to Ortner did work in the field that fulfilled Cohn’s more theoretical writings. “He really got down in the archives,” she says. “He went beyond Barney.”

“I was once accused of being ‘Barney Clone’ by another colleague of ours,” Dirks recalls. Like Cohn, Dirks was not inclined to choose a lane when it came to his studies, and when he was teaching at the University of Michigan he sought to tear down some of the walls separating the history and anthropology departments. Then-president Lee Bollinger heard him lecture, and it was that talk and the Q&A that followed that prompted Bollinger, now president of Columbia, to encourage Dirks to take a larger administrative role at Columbia.

“I had no interest in becoming an administrator,” Dirks told me, sitting in the sort of big office reserved for vice-presidents. His father had left teaching to work first at a foundation and then as dean of humanities at UC Santa Cruz. “I had thought at the time that he shouldn’t have left [teaching]. Of course I was entering graduate school and had just got my first tenure-tracked job before he died. I thought the pure life was the good life and he was going to the other side.… He went into administration because there were certain kinds of things he was interested in and could only get done through administration.”

I saw Dirks again about a month later, at his home near Sheffield, Massachusetts. It’s a renovated farmhouse, complete with silo and white Labrador, that he shares with his wife, Columbia history professor Janaki Bakhle (who had just been offered a history professorship at Berkeley), and their 13-year-old son, Ishan. Spring was doing its slow Berkshires crawl from brown to green, and Dirks himself seemed to be just awakening, coming off a three-week tour of India and the Far East, where he’d attended Berkeley alumni receptions in Mumbai, Delhi, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Singapore. (“It was partly to introduce myself, connecting with alumni so they can connect with you.… Sometimes they write checks.”)

Once we had settled in a sunroom upstairs and the bone-gnawing dog had been banished, I read back to him his quote about his father and the “pure life” and the other side. He confessed to some jet lag before adding, “I did say that. I’ve actually been thinking about the question of purity because of reading Richard Hofstadter’s [1963 book] Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.… He talked about how academics characterized themselves as pure. And he noted that one of the reasons, perhaps, why there were so few public intellectuals of note in America is not just because America is anti-intellectual—which of course it is—but also because so many intellectuals don’t want to take on the sort of complications and impurities that come with being public.”

The theory, he says, resonated with him, in no small part because as an administrator his relationship with some faculty is complicated by his needing to “speak in a very different way about some of the issues in the world.… And I also have to be mindful of the current challenges to higher education, which don’t allow complacency. So purity goes along with complacency, in a way, and also goes along with a certain willful ignorance of the political and economic conditions that surround them.”

For the past eight years, Dirks has been doing more administrating than teaching. Starting at Michigan, he realized that the kinds of changes he wanted to see in departments were not going to be done in the classroom. “In the development of this interdisciplinary program in anthropology and history, I took on this sensibility that if you were going to teach differently, think differently, you would have to structure the institution differently.” The walls between anthropology and history could only have been knocked down by an administrator. “He was a pioneer in what we now call anthro-history,” says Ortner.

Is this like the actor who wants to direct, I asked Dirks? “A lot of faculty love to say, ‘If I were doing this, I would do it differently,'” he answers. “They don’t actually want to make the move to do it.”

I had told Dirks I wouldn’t ask him much about what he was going to do at Berkeley, so far in advance of his arrival. But he’s already been giving it some thought. “A lot of the alums I talked to said they loved Berkeley,” he said of his meetings in the past month. “They had the best professors in the world, it was the best place to live in the world, and there was a kind of continuity between the campus and this community they lived in.… That was one of the contrasts between Berkeley and some liberal arts college set off in the middle of the woods.

“But at the same time they said it was sometimes the school of hard knocks. Some felt they learned to make it because they had to make it on their own, figure out their own course of study and negotiate large lecture classes before they had direct contact with a professor. That’s all very well and good, but I think the undergraduate experience at Berkeley could be slightly less intimidating.” He points to programs at Columbia that have sought to make the entry into its atmosphere easier on undergraduates—”We’ve invested a lot in student advising, and support services for students.” He mentions a pilot program at Berkeley designed to allow undergrads greater access to mentorships from graduate students.

“It’s the kind of thing that sounds great,” he says, “like the kind of thing I had at a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere…”

Having that sense of concern for the individual within a large, multidisciplinary university is one of the challenges Dirks is walking into with his eyes wide open. Others include California’s ongoing budget crises; the relative cost of athletics to the campus; the increasing difficulty even students with perfect scores have in getting admitted; and the problems some have in graduating within four years, due to the diminished availability of some core curriculum courses. Add it up, and you have what even Columbia alum Barack Obama might call a daunting task.

The politician Dirks has spent the most time with is his new boss, the Governor. “When I first met Jerry Brown, he was making hay on questions from executive compensation to online education,” says Dirks. (Brown had voted against increasing the chancellor’s pay by $50,000, even though the raise was coming from private donors.) But since then Brown has been reading Dirks’s books “and we have had these long conversations about caste, about hierarchy, about social theory.” While Brown, he adds, is fascinated by some of the academic superstars whose work he doesn’t necessarily understand or appreciate, he’s really interested in the relationship between ideas and celebrity.

There are a number of ways you could read that sentence, but Dirks seems essentially to be a fan of the Governor’s, at least so far. “He’s unusual; you don’t see political people like that.”

Dirks has obviously been thinking a bit about this public persona. Although not a purely political role, the chancellorship does demand more politesse than even his old role at Columbia (which he has called “Berkeley by the Hudson”). When I left him at his old farmhouse—a refuge he won’t be seeing much of for a while—he was going back to work on an essay tentatively entitled “The Opening of the American Mind” (after Allan Bloom’s 1987 jeremiad, The Closing of the American Mind). He knew if he didn’t finish it now (as part of a forthcoming collection of essays), he might never have time. It’s meant to be a defense of the liberal arts.

We’ll have to wait to see how it comes out.

Sean Elder’s magazine writing has appeared in New York, National Geographic, and many others. His profile of former Canadian ambassador to Iran Kenneth Taylor appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of California.
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