Interview by Sakshi Aggarwal
Dr. Nicholas B. Dirks was named the 10th Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley on November 8, 2012, and served in that role from June 1, 2013 to July 1, 2017. Currently serving as the Honorary Pro-Chancellor of SRM University, he is a leader in higher education and well-known for his commitment to and advocacy for accessible, high-quality undergraduate education, to the globalization of the university, and to innovation and collaboration across the disciplines and between universities and outside partners. While Chancellor, Dr. Dirks launched an undergraduate initiative, which occasioned unprecedented cooperation among the Deans of undergraduate colleges and the appointment of the first Vice-Chancellor of Undergraduate Education. Dr. Dirks convened a group of faculty who developed a new set of courses in data science across the curriculum (and led to the appointment of the first Dean of Data Science).
Before coming to Berkeley, he was the Executive Vice President for the arts and sciences and dean of the faculty at Columbia University, where, in addition to his work on behalf of undergraduate programs, he improved and diversified the faculty, putting special emphasis on interdisciplinary and international initiatives. The Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and History, Dr. Dirks joined Columbia in 1997 as chair of the anthropology department. Prior to his appointment at Columbia, he was a Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of Michigan for 10 years, before which he taught Asian history and civilization at the California Institute of Technology. He received his B.A. from Wesleyan University and his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He has published four major books, edited three more, and written numerous essays, articles, and papers.
Dr. Dirks has held numerous fellowships and scholarships and received several scholarly honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation residential fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the Lionel Trilling Award for his book Castes of Mind. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has served on numerous national and international bodies while receiving honorary degrees in Beijing, China, and Madras, India. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Liberal Arts assure that students not only have achieved mastery of a particular field but have a sophisticated and wide exposure to subjects with the additional value of “learning how to learn” across a wide range of fields.
Dr. Dirks on how Liberal Arts is different from other courses
The Liberal Arts entail taking both a broad cross-section of courses as well as coursework that leads to a more specialized education and degree. In many cases, liberal arts curricula include a set of “core” or “foundation” courses (or, in other cases, a menu of such courses) in order to provide “structured” breadth, introducing students to core issues, texts, and perspectives that will benefit them no matter what the area of specialization. The Liberal Arts, therefore, assures that students not only have achieved mastery of a particular field but have a sophisticated and wide exposure to subjects with the additional value of “learning how to learn” across a wide range of fields. At a time of massive change in our society, economy, technology, etc., the Liberal Arts are therefore more important than ever.
Pioneers whom Dr. Dirks views in the field of Liberal Arts
Liberal Arts represent the best of what colleges and universities in the United States drew from previous traditions of learning developed in the classical world, and then more recently in England and Germany while developing a new, and now distinctive and world-class, educational system. Liberal Arts provide a foundation for education that has benefited Nobel laureates in Science and Economics, prize winners in the Arts and Humanities, and the work of influential publicly minded social scientists who are addressing critical questions and public policy needs with important background across history, culture, society, and economy.
Dr. Dirks on the importance of Liberal Arts and its potential in India
The Liberal Arts will provide the basis not just for general learning but for creativity and innovation across many disciplines. If India is to continue to become one of the world’s largest and most dynamic societies and economies, its citizens will require precisely the kind of education that the Liberal Arts affords.
Unique features about the program and degree that will be granted at SRM University, Amaravati
SRM Amaravati is designing a cutting-edge curriculum that will have innovative and path-breaking “foundation” courses, a core set of majors in the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences, Journalism, and Business, all in proximity to and collaboration with one of India’s most prominent engineering faculties. Students will, therefore, have the opportunity not just to build robots, design new forms of artificial intelligence, and analyze new technological solutions for India’s and global challenge while majoring in other fields, they will also be prepared to make a major contribution to the ethical and cultural dimensions, the historical and policy implications, and the social and economic opportunities that will emerge as a result.
Dr. Dirks on the development of students in SRM University, Amaravati
Students graduating from SRM Amaravati will develop to be leaders in their fields as well as leaders in their professions in India and abroad. These are the students who will be sought after by major companies, by the Indian government, by world-leading universities, and across all other careers and walks of life.
Dr. Dirks’s role in SRM University, Amaravati
It is my honor to serve as the Honorary Pro-Chancellor of SRM Amaravati and to be in a position to advise the university as a whole and the new School of Liberal Arts and Basic Sciences more specifically. I will remain in this capacity in the years ahead and will be a frequent visitor to SRM Amaravati, where I will also lead seminars and workshops for faculty and administrators as well as, on occasion, for students.
Dr. Dirks‘s best experiences with American universities
I did my Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago, and then have taught and been a senior administrator at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, and the University of California, Berkeley. I have learned about the best features of Liberal Arts training while also being part of a handful of the world’s leading research universities.