Beyond Berkeley: Lessons from a University Chancellor on the Front Lines


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Aired February 8, 2024

Nicholas Dirks joins Jon, Sarah, and Mushtaq to discuss his new book City of Intellect and his time as chancellor of University of California, Berkeley. Dirks offers insights on critical campus issues like working with state governments and balancing free speech with safety. The hosts kick off the episode with an update on the problems with the Education Department’s new FAFSA form.

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University
Nicholas Dirks

Fixing Error in FAFSA Application Adds Another Delay, Education Dept. Says
The Washington Post (sub. req.) | Jan. 30, 2024

Colleges Should Extend May 1 Decision Deadline Amid FAFSA Delays, Higher Ed Groups Say
Higher Ed Dive | Feb. 1, 2024

Education Department Announces ‘FAFSA College Support Strategy.’ Here’s What It Involves.
The Chronicle of Higher Education | Feb. 5, 2024

‘A Roller-Coaster Ride From Start to Finish’
Inside Higher Ed | Jan. 30, 2024

The Latest on Campus Cuts
Inside Higher Ed | Nov. 8, 2023

'America Is Under Attack’: Inside the Anti-D.E.I. Crusade
The New York Times (sub. req.) | Jan. 20, 2024

Amid Violence, Yiannopoulos Speech at Berkeley Canceled
Inside Higher Ed | Feb. 1, 2017

Amid National Backlash, Colleges Brace for Fresh Wave of Anti-DEI Legislation
The Chronicle of Higher Education | Jan. 16, 2024

Hosts and Guests
Nicholas Dirks
President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences and Former Chancellor of UC Berkeley
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Nicholas Dirks - President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences and Former Chancellor of UC Berkeley - Guest
Nicholas Dirks
President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences and Former Chancellor of UC Berkeley

 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Fansmith: Hello and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education policy podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm your host, Jon Fansmith, and later in the episode we'll be joined by Dr. Nicholas Dirks, president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences. He's going to talk to us about a new book he's releasing, as well as his incredible experiences leading the University of California, Berkeley, and what that means to today's political and cultural environment on campuses.

But before we get to Nick, I am joined as always or as almost always by my illustrious co-host, Sarah Spreitzer and Mushtaq Gunja. Hello, wonderful people. How are you doing today?

Sarah Spreitzer: Hello.

Mushtaq Gunja: Hey, Jon.

Sarah Spreitzer: That's how I'm introducing myself and see Mushtaq texted me and said that I should go first, so I thought he wanted something dramatic there, and then he just talked over my long hello.

Jon Fansmith: Well, your hello was very long, in Mushtaq's defense.

Mushtaq Gunja: How are you two doing?

Sarah Spreitzer: Good.

Jon Fansmith: I'm tired. I'm tired, Mushtaq. I'm just very tired.

Mushtaq Gunja: Jon, are you tired because you are tracking what is happening at FSA with the revised FAFSA?

Jon Fansmith: No, I'm depressed because I'm tracking what's happening at the Department of Education because of FAFSA. Tired, it's just I'm not a very good sleeper. There is a lot going on, and frankly, I probably shouldn't even be joking about it because I will tell you, as somebody who hears a lot from campuses and from people across higher education community, what is happening with the FAFSA is incredibly problematic and we have had concerns. We've talked about them. The three of us have talked about them a number of times about what the delays might be in this process. And I think we always knew there would be bumps in the road, but we've really hit a huge pitfall at this point. And basically, to summarize, for folks who might not be aware, last week, last Tuesday, the Department of Education said that the information they send to campuses, the individual student information they get after students have filled out the FAFSA form, which is really the first step for campuses in terms of packaging aid and understanding what a student's financial need truly is, that they would be delaying sending that out to campuses.

They were supposed to have sent it out the end of January. Instead, they told campuses that they would be sending that to them starting in the first half of March. So really, anywhere between March 1st and March 15th or so. It's not an understatement to say this has a massive impact in two areas. University operations, I'm happy to talk about that, but I think the area we're really most focused and most concerned is what this means for low-income students and already having the form available, only available starting at the end of December, was three months later into the cycle, than is normal. Now, that the process on the campus side of taking the information in, processing it, making a determination of what aid a student's eligible for, and notifying that student, pushing that back another six weeks or so means that these students are going to be getting information about what it will cost them to attend a college or university, possibly as early as April, possibly as late as May.

When you think about the fact that many, many schools still use a May 1st admissions deadline, narrowing that window for low income students to a matter of weeks as to what they will know about the affordability of college, the choices they're looking at, I don't have to tell this audience, that is going to have a disproportionately negative impact on those students and their decisions to enroll in higher education. So this is big news. It's troubling news. There's a real impact on campuses too, not just stressed-out financial aid and admissions folks, but the fact that schools build a class and so many other things trigger off of that decision.

What your class looks like tells you a lot about what your revenue situation's going to look like. It's going to tell you a lot about the number of students you have and in what classes. So what does your faculty hiring look like? It's going to tell you what your budget is to make investments. It's going to tell you the contracts you make with your food services vendor, how many students are they providing for? There's so many things that build off this that now are pushing and pushing and pushing back. And I always caveat this, I want to say, I was quoted as an erstwhile offender of the Department of Education in one publication.

They deserve the credit they deserve, which is to say they are working as hard as they can. They do not have the resources available to them. We know these people. We know they are doing their best effort, but their best efforts at this point have not led to the outcomes we need to see, and it is putting students and institutions in a really bad place this year.

Sarah Spreitzer: So Jon, I met yesterday with a group of amazing undergraduate students from Washington State University, go Cougars, and they were actually talking about this. So it's clear that students, or at least students who are currently enrolled are aware of these FAFSA delays. They did say that it was much easier to complete once it was actually operational, that it was a simplified form, but I think they were also concerned about when they might get their aid offers and what that might mean.

Jon Fansmith: And it's easy to lose track of this in the process. We're doing this for a reason. The form is now easier for students to complete. There's hiccups, there are some students who are having particular difficulties, but everyone else, by and large, your more standard applicant is finding a faster, easier process, and that's also going to mean that more students will get more federal financial aid when all of this is settled. Projections are billions more in student aid will go to millions more students as a result of this. That's great. That was the intent of the legislation. That's something we all want to see. Getting there is the problem. And I think we talk about this in this impact on low-income students and that May 1st deadline and that concern about giving those students the appropriate windows of time to make those decisions.

It's one of the reasons ACE and I think eight other associations put out a statement following the department's announcement, urging schools to look at all of their deadlines, their application deadlines, their decision deadlines, think about the process from the perspective of a low-income student and what they can do to provide flexibility to move some of those deadlines back, give them more time. The other thing I want to say on that, which I think is incredibly important, is there are a lot of schools that you might use the College Board's profile tool or that might have the financial resources to not worry so much about what the FAFSA might mean for their applicants. And they may be thinking, this doesn't impact this way at this other schools. Why should we make changes?

The thing I would say to those schools is, think about it again, from the student's perspective. It may work for you as an institution, but if you want those students to make a fully informed choice, if you want to treat them in a way that says, we want you to find the right fit for where you are, not simply make the choice because we're offering something another school can't. Think about those decision points when you're asking for them. It really is an equity issue. And I will say schools have been amazing. They've been responding in exactly that spirit. Really encouraged by what we've seen, but just want to keep getting that message out because I do think that's important.

Mushtaq Gunja: Yeah, I'm really hopeful that most institutions will push back that May 1st deadline. I mean, partially, because I just know that we are in the midst of student tours, and students are visiting campuses, and I am certain that everybody's going to be getting an ear full about exactly when they're going to be able to hear some of these decisions. Even when the decisions start rolling in early February, mid-February, financial aid's going to have to come with. And if it doesn't, then I think it's going to be very difficult for these institutions to work.

So I mean, I'm really hopeful, and like Sarah, looking at the silver lining here, which I think is, once we get to a stable place, hopefully next year, this will be a better system. We've been talking about FAFSA simplification since Lamar Alexander was walking around with the index card, right? I mean, I think we've made some significant strides here, so if we can just get past cobalt in this ridiculous systems. When I was at the department, I once sat at an FSA computer, trying to understand what was going on in some of the back systems. And I mean, I can barely interpret Excel, so you can just imagine how bad it was when I was trying to understand why we couldn't make some change that Ted and I were hoping to have happen soon. Anyway.

Jon Fansmith: Let's actually turn to Dr. Nicholas Dirks, who I think everyone will find a riveting interview, and we'll do that right after the break.


Jon Fansmith: Hello and welcome back. Today we are joined by Dr. Nicholas Dirks, who is the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and was previously the vice president in charge of Columbia's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Nick, welcome to dotEDU.

Nicholas Dirks: Thank you, and great to be here.

Jon Fansmith: Well, it was wonderful to have you. You have recently released a book, a new book called City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University. And I thought I would actually cite one of the quotations on the back of your book because I thought it was so well said.

Drew Gilpin Faust described your book “as a beautifully written book that combines memoir with well-researched analysis to address the current place in crisis of the American University," which, having read the book is a very succinct summary of it, and I thought a nice place to start.

Maybe the first question I'd ask is, there's a lot of discussion about the place of the university in American society right now. What prompted you to write this book in this moment?

Nicholas Dirks: Yeah, well, thank you for mentioning the book, and I will say this, that when you start writing a book, you don't necessarily know when it's going to land. And I certainly didn't know it was going to land at a time of such controversy over the very position of being a university president, not to mention all the other kinds of issues that circulate around that position today in American life. But I always thought of Berkeley in a way, both historically and in terms of the time that I spent there as a harbinger of things to come.

As we know historically in 1964, it was the site of the free speech movement, had the first major protests conducted by students on a college campus, that of course, a few years later erupted across the nation on campuses of many, many different kinds. And similarly, the time period during which I was Chancellor at Berkeley--I was named in 2012, and then I stepped down in 2017--was a time when I felt like I had gone through, in some ways, a lot of the experiences that began to erupt, even more so across other college campuses after 2017. And I then, of course, like many other people, found that I had a little bit more time during the pandemic than I had had before, and certainly since, and decided to write this.

But it occurred to me, even during some of the experiences that I had at Berkeley, that there were things going on there that seemed to be bigger than the event itself. And every time I went through something, whether it was around sexual abuse among students, sexual harassment from faculty, crises and scandals around intercollegiate athletics, and then of course, huge issues around the budget of the university, public funding and how to deal with budgetary crises, only to then lead into the kinds of things that were quite conspicuous at Berkeley around free speech, controversial speakers, questions around academic freedom. I felt like I had this sped up, preview trailer, as it were for the movie that we're all watching right now play out in front of us.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, I will say, I was struck by the fact that, and Sarah, Mushtaq, and I obviously spent a lot of time, in the current moment, observing what the political implications are in the national policy things. It really was striking to me going back and thinking about how we got to this moment, which in a lot of ways we don't pause to do that here. And reading your account, I mean, it is everything you were talking about happening at Berkeley burgeoning to a larger movement, the Me Too movement, the racial justice movement, certainly the issues around where's the lines between free speech on campus versus curbing hate speech.

And I just thought you're so well positioned in the timing, I guess, worked out perfectly in terms of speaking perfectly to a moment. I don't know if that's really a question as much as just really enjoyed the book, and thought what a perfect thing for a college president who's looking at these challenges now to read. But maybe I'll just leave that statement. Mushtaq, I know you had some things you wanted to ask as well.

Mushtaq Gunja: I love the book too. There's a lot packed into, buried, into what's really sort of a slim tone. And I guess as a Californian, my mind and my eyes were immediately drawn to some of the conversations you described, that you had when you took over the position with Governor Brown, and then the intersection between, I guess you being caught in the middle between Secretary Napolitano, Chancellor Napolitano, and Governor Brown.

As we talked about, the ways in which things that happened in California, always seemed to happen five, 10 years before the rest of the country. I would just observe that this does feel like a time of increased politicization between university presidents and governors and state legislatures, but where we've seen that erupt a lot in the last few years is in red states. And I think what's so interesting about what happened with you at Berkeley is that this is, of course, happening in the context of a blue state. So I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about your experiences working with the governor.

Nicholas Dirks: Yeah, well, thank you. Indeed. Look, when I went from Columbia to Berkeley, I was obviously moving from a private institution to a public institution. I didn't fully understand what that meant, even though I had taught for a number of years at the University of Michigan before I went to Columbia. So I had been in a public university, but as a member of the faculty, which is very different than being in the administration. I never met the governor of Michigan. I didn't have to interact in some direct way with the regents or with any of the political kinds of contexts that were clearly there and affected the life of the university, the budget of the university and a lot of other things. But it wasn't really part of my everyday life.

And so when I went to California, I did indeed think, 'Okay, I'm going to California.' It's a blue state. Jerry Brown is a progressive governor of the same party that I can now confess is the party I've always been associated with. And not only that, he was a graduate of Berkeley. He went to Berkeley, he loved the university, continues to have many friends there, and he had lots of books out from the library that he was late in returning. So we even had a kind of hook on him, and we could find him if ever he got out of line. But Jerry Brown certainly has been, over the course of his career, an unconventional politician. He was unconventional in many different areas, but certainly not least in his attitude to the university. He certainly believed in the importance of the University of California. He took his role as ex officio member of the Board of Regents quite seriously. He came to many of the meetings and participated actively.

But he made it clear very early on, and he made it clear to me directly, that he was deeply concerned about the cost of higher education and about the extent to which he felt that leaders of public universities, in California in particular, were simply not taking seriously what we all call the cost curve of higher education, which is to say the curve that goes up and up and up and up, faster than anything other than perhaps healthcare. And so he communicated that to me in the first instance by challenging publicly the negotiated compensation for my role, which I'll just say in retrospect, I'm sure it was very nice compensation and I was very grateful to have it. It happened to actually be a little bit less money than I was making as a dean at Columbia. So I didn't think of it as extravagant in the greater scheme of things, even though it obviously was more than most professors, not all, and certainly a lot less than the athletic coaches.

Jon Fansmith: Sure.

Nicholas Dirks: The point is that it became a kind of symbolic demonstration of his concern about the runaway costs. And he felt that both university chancellors and presidents, and for that matter of faculty, should simply see the work they do in the university, if it was a public university, as an extension, in some way, a public service. He talked about what he called the psychic income that we all got. We'd often respond by saying, psychic income is great, but it doesn't get you a mortgage in California. But he did actually believe in some kind of deep sense that it was a great privilege to be part of this university system. And the first thing that we should all do is consider whether or not we were part of the same market system as the private sector.

So anyway, we could talk more about that. And I think the point really here is to say that even in a blue state with a progressive governor, we came up against what was effectively a major disconnect between, on the one side, the kind of economics of running a university that is competing for students, for faculty, for top-level staff with lots of other universities, private as well as public, Stanford, as well as Harvard and MIT, as well as with other public institutions.

So you have that. And on the other, a view on the part of a major political leader that really, the public sector and higher education should be distinctive in all kinds of ways, not least in relationship to issues of what we would expect compensation to be. And that would be the beginning then of thinking very differently and quite aggressively about bringing down this cost curve of higher education.

I have to say, that even though I had disagreements with Jerry, because I didn't ever believe or don't think that I was ever naive enough to believe that just believing that one was getting psychic income by being part of a great public higher education system was going to actually change the economics of running that system. Nevertheless, I can see that the cost of higher education have been going up incredibly fast, and we simply think about cost in terms of just getting more money to fund our expenses, rather than really thinking differently about how we might construct budgets and even construct a logic for how we run a public university, as opposed to a private university.

Sarah Spreitzer: Nick, were you surprised when you moved from Columbia, which has a pretty high sticker price, and then going to a public, which you would assume is seen as having a lower sticker price? Were you surprised that the governor would be so focused on college costs or did you think that those issues of college costs were kind of left behind when you left the private?

Nicholas Dirks: Yeah, I certainly was moving to Berkeley at a time when the tuition at Columbia was getting close to $50,000. It's obviously gone over that by now. And when the tuition at UC had gone up dramatically after the great recession of 2008, 2009, but was still at that point around $12,000 a year, a fraction, I mean, for instate students, a fraction, of course, of what the tuition was at Columbia. So yes, I mean, I did think that I was going to a place where these questions of costs were not nearly as crucial. And furthermore, I came into a situation in which effectively state funding for Berkeley had gone down by 50 percent in the previous two years, and the tuition had gone up by a significant factor, I think, from 2008 to 2012. It had gone up from 7,000 something to 12,000, so it'd gone up dramatically. Of course, Governor Brown would say to me, 'When I went to Berkeley, it was only $70 a semester.'

And of course my reply to that was, 'Yes, and that's when the state provided something like 65 percent, 70 percent of the budget of the university.' Even in 2008, the percentage of the budget that came from direct state funding, this doesn't include Cal Grants and other things, but from direct state funding, was around 32 percent, 33 percent, And when I arrived, it was 12 percent, 13 percent. So the landscape had changed dramatically in terms of state funding. And I thought two things. One, I thought, well, surely now that California is back, having an economic surplus in terms of state budgets, and it was certainly showing signs of being really able to set aside the legacy of the Great Recession, I thought that a significant part of that funding could be restored. That was one thing I thought.

The other thing I thought was that if it wasn't restored, that at the very least, we could raise tuition in roughly the same kind of way that we did in private universities. I mean in the Ivy League, during those years that I was the VP and dean of the faculty, we routinely raised tuition by 3 percent to 4 percent a year. And yet when you use the T word in California, and it's not dissimilar from other public university settings, you were all of a sudden accused of corporatizing, privatizing the university and directly causing the financial commiseration of a whole new generation of students, even with the kinds of things that we did at Berkeley that included financial aid for even middle class students who were normally excluded from the formula for financial aid across other UC campuses.

So it turned out that it was a very unfamiliar environment, not just because of the very concrete differences in terms of funding, in terms of cost, et cetera, but also in terms of the kind of culture around the levers that might be used in any particular campus to respond to the kinds of financial crises that I then encountered.

Mushtaq Gunja: So Nick on those financial troubles, so state funding decreases, you can't increase tuition or you have a very difficult time increasing tuition, and that led Berkeley into a position of some structural deficit. And you noted you weren't the only institution, and certainly in the news this week is some significant news coming out of Arizona and the University of Arizona that's facing something like $150 million structural deficit.

How did you think about that problem? How did you go about tackling it? Do you have advice for college presidents who are facing similar situations?

Nicholas Dirks: Yeah, no, I have, of course, been following the news about Arizona, and before that, West Virginia. And it's clearly and other kinds of more regional publics, much more common to have if smaller, nevertheless, very, very troubling structural deficits that are troubling more and more university presidents across the country. As I've just said, when I went out to California, I just assumed, naively perhaps, that the state was going to restore the levels of funding that it had accorded the university before the recession. And I also assumed, as it turns out, naively, that small, though regular and compensated by financial aid adjustments at the same level, raises and tuition would be permissible.

And yet, of course, what I learned as I dug into the budget, and I think this is a common experience for anybody who's in these leadership positions and public universities as well, is that oftentimes the levers are actually rather different that you use. You increase, for example, the percentage of out of state students who pay more a higher rate of tuition. Now, the University of Michigan used that and began to do that as early as the 80s, the late 80s, when I actually went there for the first time and taught there. And I remember that there were, at that point, I think 35 percent out-of-state students. It later became much closer to 49 percent, just under 50 percent of the student body. And that clearly secured a much bigger base of tuition revenue for the university.

But in California, at the same time that levels of state funding went down, one found that the kinds of concerns, both of the public and of the political leadership, around things like percentages of out-of-state students only grew in intensity, so that the less state funding there was, the more there was concern that kids from California were having a harder time, or at least that's what it seemed to be the case to get into UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD and so on. And the assumption was always that it was because of those out-of-state students, even though we, in fact, had grown the student body in a way that never had us actually reduce the number of in-state students. Nevertheless, the increment was made up of out-of-state students.

But again, that was a lever that I imagined on the basis of things that my predecessor at Berkeley had done, that I would be able to continue to use, only to find that it became a political hot potato, and in fact, something that Governor Brown was very exercised about, even as he was and never had any intention of increasing in a dramatic way, state funding, and even as he imposed over a six-year period a tuition freeze.

Sarah Spreitzer: So Nick, Jon started by talking about how this is a really good moment for your book. I mean, you were there at the beginning of many of these issues that are hitting our institutions right now. Beyond finance, we're also dealing with issues of free speech, which have just gotten, I think more complicated and louder since you were chancellor at Berkeley and your role at Columbia. And at both those institutions, you dealt with some really big crises on campus around free speech. Are there any best practices that you would share with presidents listening to this podcast or anything from your experiences five, seven years ago that you think can be applied to some of the things happening today on campuses?

Nicholas Dirks: One of the advantages of being at a public university is that you don't have to sit and debate whether or not the First Amendment applies. And in fact, you can be completely guided by the jurisprudence around the First Amendment, so that effectively, you simply have to apply the First Amendment to questions of who can speak on campus and what they can say. So good news is that we kept getting legal advice that made it clear that we were unable to make distinctions between and among speakers. And that even as students, faculty, and the public got exercised about some of the invitations that went out to different people to come to speak -beginning with Bill Maher and then going to Milo Yiannopoulos, and then to Ann Coulter, and then Ben Shapiro and others - that we simply could not disinvite them without risking, violating our charter basically as a government funded public institution.

So presidents out there, chancellors out there, public institutions, in some ways, have it a little bit easier than those in privates, because of course, in a private university you do have some kind of choice, although just about every private university I know chooses to say the First Amendment applies and it exists as the same kind of mandate. But Sarah, the reality is that, and I began to see this taking place in 2013, 2014, and now it's taking place much more across the board, that there was a concern that speech could be harmful in ways that I think had not been asserted, at least to that level, in earlier years. So you begin with the notion that somebody like Milo Yiannopoulos is going to out somebody, identify their sexual orientation in public and do things that would violate harassment and discrimination policy. But you actually move from that to saying that virtually anything that Milo Yiannopoulos is going to say is going to cause real harm to students and others on campus.

And of course, the problem I had, and this is a problem that presidents and chancellors have today, is that there actually were real issues around harm, but those issues were because of the likelihood of protests that could turn violent. And yet the separations that we were making at the time between speech, which is allowed, and actual incitement to violence and violence on the other side, and of course the legal example we always use is the person who cries fire in the crowded movie theater, but does so in a way in which you can almost be sure there's going to be a cause and effect relationship between the crying of the word fire and the stampede that will end up in injury, only to find, of course, that people would say just saying fire in an empty public square on a university, if that word were enunciated in particular kinds of ways and by particular kinds of people, would constitute the same kind of harm.

So we actually spent, in the beginning, a great deal of our time thinking about physical harm. We ended up spending, between me and my successor Carol Christ, during a period that we had just one crazy speaker after the next, millions of dollars, bringing in police, bringing in barricades, trying to ensure the physical safety of students, while at the same time having these debates with and among faculty students and staff over what kind of speech is allowed and what kind of speech isn't, how does speech cause harm and how might one interpret the prohibitions on any kind of legislation or any kind of regulation around prohibiting hate speech on campus.

And it was already then a very, very difficult set of distinctions and discussions to have. And you could see that language had begun to be associated with trauma. And in that sense, in many cases, setting up the kind of examples that we've seen over the last six, seven years since I stepped down, of accusations of speech causing harm in a classroom, outside of a classroom, in all kinds of contexts that would either previously have been protected by free speech on the one side or by ideas of academic freedom on the other.

Sarah Spreitzer: So maybe it's more about a conversation about campus safety. Maybe when we're talking about free speech on campuses, we also need to talk about that safety issue, and to many of your good examples and the resources that needed to be called in to deal with some of those issues.

Nicholas Dirks: Well, we use the word safe and safety a lot, and we use it around creating spaces. And of course we, college presidents and chancellors, are always writing memos about the values of the university that are about inclusion, about conveying the sense that everybody should feel that they belong on a campus, that diversity is an important value and so on and so forth. Only then to say in the next paragraph that we're going to have this person on campus, in fact, we can't disinvite this person from campus who is going to be saying things that certainly seem to fly in the face of that kind of safety.

So again, the difficulty I think is that if you focus on safety and you focus then on physical safety, you're going to find that the distinctions you make are not necessarily going to be accepted by others. And I think that's an issue that's only become, in some ways, more difficult and more intense.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah. I wonder a little bit, there has been some soul-searching within academia about this, the difficulty of parsing that line about when does speech become an expression of personal expression and when does it actually become harmful? We talked about language being associated with trauma and to the point of creating safe spaces or providing trigger warnings where there's a thoughtfulness about the harm that words can cause, but maybe veering over the line to saying forms of speech that may further debate or may express opinions could or should be prohibited within campus setting.

And we've seen this reverberate now, following October 7th on college campuses, where two very strongly held oppositional viewpoints are both asserting that the other side's expression of their beliefs is not just a disagreement, but it's an active assault on them as a body of students or members of the faculty. And I'm curious, you obviously had a lot of experience with this, and in some ways, I was struck by public institution, you're required by the First Amendment thinking, oh, I don't know how that's easier, that you had to let these people speak on campus knowing it was going to cost you millions in security, knowing they're deliberately coming to provoke an aggressive, even violent response.

But in some ways, yeah, I get it. That was at least a direct understanding of what your obligations are. How as college president now, do you start to approach this and parse that line and say, fire in a theater is pretty clear example. From the river to the sea is less clear an example in the context it's used. So maybe just offer some thoughts about, as we see campus presence confronting this, what you might give them in terms of advice for navigating this really very difficult situation.

Nicholas Dirks: So let me just begin by saying that I've had a number of discussions about the book recently, and a lot of my interlocutors have begun by saying, 'Aren't you glad you're not a university president today?' And I say that only to really express my deep sympathy with those leaders who are confronting these kinds of issues today. Because I thought I had it tough, and I know that it's become, after October 7th, in many respects, just much more difficult across both public and private institutions. So a shout-out to all those who are listening, who are in these positions.


One of the things that we used in the University of California was a provision that had been articulated really in response to the free speech movement back in 1964, and we've used ever since, which was this provision of time, place, and manner. And we got into trouble around how we used it because it isn't widely understood. When we told Ann Coulter that she had to come to campus and speak in a place that we designated and at a time that was going to be agreed on with the administration, she saw that as censoring her and suppressing her free speech, which it was not. But we did use it in a way to attempt, as it were, to create a safe space for protest, which would not necessarily have to intrude, for example, on the experiences of students or others who didn't necessarily want to either be part of that protest or confront that protest with a protest of their own.

And I think it may be time to revisit those provisions and dust them off and think a little bit more about how one can actually create spaces where, like Hyde Park Corner, the public square can be a public square, but not have that same necessarily overwhelming, and in some instances, even threatening appearance to those who will react to the things that are being said in those kinds of negative ways. But that doesn't help parse what you mean by or how you interpret from the river to the sea. We've read endless accounts of why it means this and why it means that and why it is the equivalent statement that you're calling for genocide on the one side. And on the other side, it's an expression about the political self-determination of the Palestinians on the other side.

So what I just said doesn't help adjudicate those kinds of interpretive questions that of course are so critical right now. But I do think that it is important to look back really on the history of free speech and for that matter of academic freedom, not that they're the same, but they're connected in this country. And recall that, for example, I mentioned this in the book, 100 years ago, there were students who were offended if there was a course about the history of Christianity that somehow or another historicized, questions of religious faith that were seen as potentially blasphemous by a student who had that faith.

And that in California in 1966 when Ronald Reagan was running for governor, one of the things he did was to try to intervene in campus affairs by calling for the dis invitation of R.F.K., of Robert Kennedy, to come speak on campus along with Stokely Carmichael, and that effectively, what goes around, comes around, and that if you're offended by somebody or something that is said today, you're going to find that somebody you want to come and have speak or some kind of political statement or a discussion that you feel is critical, sometime down the line, will be potentially then not allowed to take place on the grounds that didn't allow me to do this, and therefore I'm not going to allow you to do that.

But that doesn't make it easier. It helps put it in a broader perspective perhaps, but the passions and the feelings are so high right now that I think we've probably reached a point that there's just not going to be agreement on campus about how we adjudicate some of these issues in the short term.

Jon Fansmith: Yeah, I think there's something so interesting in this moment too about the challenges of that, the competing interests. I love the way you put it, about two groups that will see the same thing in very different ways, and no real way to placate that. And we have seen for a long time, as we talk about what does a college, American college or university look like, really this issue of also who belongs on that campus. And there has been a lot of emphasis by university leadership about making sure that their campuses are inclusive. You started actually talking about this, that they're seen as welcoming places to all of their students, that every student feels like this is a place where their opportunities can be realized with effort.

And now following this hyper politicization of the debate, certainly following the Israel-Hamas conflict, we've seen this expansion of challenging those principles of higher education as well. This idea that perhaps this idea of preserving the sense of inclusion and trying to be open and welcoming institutions, more diverse institutions is in some ways fostering this hostility towards other students, it's splitting students apart, rather than bringing them together, which is the goal of these efforts, and certainly a greater level of criticism of DEI efforts in particular. And we've seen that states, we've seen that nationally, and to Mushtaq's other point, not just in red states either.

I'm curious, where do you see this debate evolving? Do you think this is real? Do you think this is manufactured? Do you think this is something that will impact the way institutions operate? Just give me your thoughts in this area.

Nicholas Dirks: So the invocation in the first instance around politically correct, and then the use of the term 'woke,' the identification of critical race theory as this horrible kind of theory that whites are to feel guilty about everything. And now, the calls around DEI, which maybe two, three years ago, if you said those three syllables, nobody would actually know these three letters. Nobody would actually know what you were referring to. It is just the spinning out of the same kind of use of a particular thing to stand for much broader dissatisfaction about whatever it might be, the leftward leaning nature of the university, the kinds of critical forms of thought that date back to different ways of thinking about the history of the US, vis-a-vis slavery, or different ways of thinking about the history of women and gender in the United States, or the different kinds of ways of thinking about groups with different kinds of sexual orientation and the like.

And all of this then seems to have been, at some level, directed around particular kinds of symbolic things that become stand-ins for a broader sense of the university is full of these left-wing Marxists. The university doesn't value viewpoint diversity. And very interesting piece on the New York Times a few weeks ago by the reporter Nick Confessore on DEI. And he found, of course, that in tracing the ways in which people like Christopher Rufo have identified first CRT and then DEI as convenient ways to code this general dissatisfaction and concern, of course, is in the service of a very different kind of orthodoxy that many of the people who have followed Rufo have wanted to install. And we can see that in the ways in which Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida has posed his own way of thinking about how you teach the history of slavery or the history of race or the history of the U.S.

And we've seen, to some extent, that happening in Texas and efforts in Virginia and elsewhere. So yes, there's certainly the use of these kinds of things to generate anger, hostility, criticism, and the like in ways that seem to be working well enough that you, of course, have observed the way in which concerns about how, for example, former President Claudine Gay at Harvard responded to a question by Elise Stefanik, to an all-out assault on Harvard's DEI programs and orientations.

Now, to your point about the efforts on university campuses to take diversity seriously and to provide greater and better support for students who have been actively recruited for years to our universities is something that we have to remember was absolutely critical. Because for many years, we were out there trying to say, well, our recruitment efforts have been successful. We've been able to raise our percentage of African American students or a percentage of Latino students, or whatever it might be, from 2 percent or 3 percent to 6 percent or 10 percent.

And yet, we would do that, and then we would find that many of these students would come to campus and would feel lost because they didn't see anybody very much like them. They certainly didn't see people teaching them who looked like them. And they often came from families in which they were first generation college goers and didn't have the kind of cultural, social and familial support systems that many students had earlier. And we had an obligation if we were going to actively recruit, whether we used affirmative action or not, a diverse student body to provide support.

Now, having said all of that, I want to quickly say that as in the case of what we were talking about vis-a-vis free speech and the kind of steady erosion of an idea that speech alone, unless under certain circumstances directed at a very particular community in a very particular way, doesn't constitute the kind of harm that we have to protect students against. In that same way, there's been a kind of accretion to the ways in which universities have attempted to deal with these important matters.

And of course, there are instances where everybody now is aware of the kind of difficulty and the controversies around diversity statements for hiring or even to apply for graduate school or what have you. And I think we are always in a situation in the university where we have to take these critiques, however politically motivated they might be, we have to take them seriously and effectively examine our practices and think about how consistent we really are across the board before we simply say it's a politically motivated attack.

So, I'm sorry to go on it at some length there, but I wanted to try to bring that response full circle in some way.

Jon Fansmith: Well, yeah, I will say as somebody who tries to develop pithy responses on these issues, I don't know that there's a way to do it, and your response is certainly much more illuminating than anything I've come up with. It's also, we have been monopolizing your time for quite a while now, Nick. And while I could ask you about 75 more questions, I will just recommend to listeners to pick up your book City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University. It really is for people who care about this moment in American higher education, a really insightful look at not just some of the root causes, but the ways to think about them and to address the challenges you're facing. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing with us.

Nicholas Dirks: It's been great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Jon Fansmith: Thank you for joining us on dotEDU. If you enjoyed the show, please consider subscribing, rating and leaving a review on your favorite podcast platform. Your feedback is important to us and it helps other policy wonks discover our show.

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About the Podcast

​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major public policy issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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