New UC-Berkeley Chancellor Questions College Ratings Based on Grad Earnings

Approximately six months after California voters voted in favor of a tax increase to help fund the public higher education system, a new vice chancellor took office in University of California at Berkeley. Nicholas Dirks comes into the job at an interesting time in which fundamental aspects of the state’s higher education system are being re-evaluated not just at Berkeley, but nationwide.

The passage of proposition 30 on the November 2012 ballot by California voters in favor of tax increase with the aim of funding public higher education system that had been the envy of the world cemented Nicholas B. Dirks’ decision to leave a senior executive post at Columbia University to become chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.

“I said, ‘This is good news. It’s auspicious,’ ” Dirks recalled in a recent visit to The Washington Post. “I signed my contract and faxed it in.”

University of California, Berkley is unique in many ways compared to other elite universities as it is the flagship of state flagships, a perennial choice as the most prestigious public institution in the country in U.S. News & World Report rankings and other lists. There was intensive debate about fiscal perils confronting UC-Berkeley and other major public universities a couple years ago. Reportedly, in December 2011, cutbacks in state funding for UC-Berkeley were so deep that faculty were taking mandatory furloughs, class size was growing, roofs were leaking and e-mail was crashing.

Dirks took office June 1 at a more favorable moment. Prop. 30 haven’t solved all of the state’s education funding issues though it has changed the conversation.

“I’ve been able to take advantage of a renewed sense of optimism,” Dirks said. “There’s a sense of stability. There’s a general sense that we’ve weathered the worst and Berkeley will be able to be the great university that it was.”

According to Nick Anderson of The Washington Post, Dirks, a historian and anthropologist with expertise in South Asia, was executive vice president and dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Columbia before he came to Berkeley. His new job is freighted with history. One former UC-Berkeley chancellor, the legendary Clark Kerr, was considered one of the most important higher education leaders of the 20th century.

Although he is still settling in the job, Dirk said that his main priority is to maintain “the public character of the institution.” He said he would to put renewed energy into undergraduate education — making sure that students feel a personal connection to what can be a vast university, with 26,000 undergrads and 10,000 graduate students.

Among other business, Dirk was brought to Washington by a meeting with top U.S. Education Department officials to discuss President Obama’s plan for the federal government to rate colleges on value by the start of the 2015-16 school year. Obama announced the plan in August as part of what was billed as an effort to increase college affordability. The ratings system proposed by Obama include a provision that ratings should be based on measures such as the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt at a college; and outcomes, including graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings and the number of advanced degrees earned by a given college’s graduates.

Many higher education leaders have mixed feelings about Obama’s initiative and Dirk is no exception. Withal, he said that it’s better for universities to participate in the discussion than to boycott it.

“We don’t have an option but to engage,” he said.