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Academy President’s New Book Explores Contemporary Challenges in Higher Education

The book cover for City of Intellect.

Published February 1, 2024

By Nick Fetty

Nicholas B. Dirks, President and CEO of The New York Academy of Sciences, reflects on the challenges he encountered and the lessons he learned during his long career in university leadership, from being chair of the Anthropology department at Columbia, to his time as EVP and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences also at Columbia, and then as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, in a newly published book.

The book cover for City of Intellect.

City of Intellect: The Uses and Abuses of the University was released in the United States by Cambridge University Press on Feb. 1. The book, described as “part autobiography, part practical manifesto,” details Dirks’ years in leadership roles at Columbia and Berkeley during an era of vast changes in the culture of academia.

Assessing Challenges in Higher Education

A distinguished historian and anthropologist and an accomplished academic administrator, Dirks offers a frank assessment of some of the challenges facing higher education. In a recent TIME Ideas column, Dirks wrote “There are far too many examples of the failure of universities over the past decade to defend academic freedom when it goes against conventional wisdom on campus.” The attempted canceling of provocative guest speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Bill Maher, and Ann Coulter are several examples that occurred during Dirks’ stint as the leader of the Berkeley campus.

While he acknowledges the need for change at the institutional level, however, he has also expressed concerns about external forces and attacks on the university that are exerting increasing pressure “[on] the overall climate for faculty governance, for academic freedom and for fundamental issues that…are definitely under…threat right at the moment.” 

Reinventing Universities

In addition to leading The New York Academy of Sciences, a position he has held since 2020, Dirks continues to serve as a professor of history in the Graduate School at UC Berkeley and is the Franz Boas Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Columbia.  Dirks has published major works on the history of the state in early modern South Asia, the colonial history of the caste system, the significance of the Indian empire for modern Britain, on social and cultural theory, and on debates in historiography.  He has been a lifelong advocate of the liberal arts, interdisciplinary studies, and India.  In the face of multiple challenges and changes, however, Dirks asserts that universities must “reinvent themselves” to remain relevant.

“[W]e also need to really rethink some of the legitimate concerns people have about how we [in higher education] conduct ourselves at every level—cost, administrative bloat, disciplinary silos, relevance, enacting academic freedom and free speech—across the board,” Dirks said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “All of those things have to be done in order to regain [public] trust.”

And yet, his new book extends remarks he made some years ago, that “The time has come to defend the university vigorously, even as we insist on seeking to open it up further: to new ideas, to even more vigorous debate, to more students who have never had the opportunity for advanced education, to engagement with the world, and to the public more generally for whom the idea that college is a public good needs stressing and demonstrating today more than ever.”

Advancing Science for the Public Good into 2050

Researchers have a discussion while sitting at a computer.

By Nicholas B. Dirks

My journey leading the New York Academy of Sciences roughly coincides with the global calamity of SARS-CoV-2. As I reflect on my two-year anniversary, I cannot help but consider how much we have depended on scientists for the development of vaccines and therapeutics. Even though we are still experiencing the long tail of the pandemic, we are beginning to feel the worst may be behind us. One consequence is that we can more fully turn our attention to other crises, especially the very real dangers of climate change.

The Academy convenes experts for the exchange of scientific knowledge. Photo: Roger Torda

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic was remarkable, but there were shortfalls, too. One lesson was the importance of preparation, and it is to improve scientific preparation for the next global crisis—no matter what it might be—that we are making great strides with the International Science Reserve. It’s an ambitious program to pre-position resources that scientists will need—and to ready scientists themselves—to conduct research and find evidence-based solutions to global emergencies.

That’s a big part of our mission, along with improving science literacy, promoting interdisciplinary and innovative science, and supporting the training of new generations of scientists. While the Academy is 200 years old, as we head toward the mid-21st century we are fulfilling our mission in new, forward-looking ways. Let me provide some updates, and ask for your continued support for our critically-important work.

The International Science Reserve

We have just completed our first readiness exercise for the International Science Reserve (ISR). Scientists in our ISR Member Network—which stands a thousand strong, with representation from 90 countries—submitted research proposals in response to simulated wildfire emergencies in the U.S., Greece, and Indonesia. We are analyzing the proposals to learn:

  • What data, data-gathering resources, equipment, facilities, and personnel are needed to support scientists in crisis response;
  • What resources transcend specific types of crises and thus can be put in place now;
  • What systems for resource matching and the mobilization of scientists should be in place for quick responses to global emergencies.
The Academy supports early-career scientists through a variety of programs, including the Interstellar Initiative.

Early-Career Science

We are working on the ISR with IBM, UL, Google, Pfizer and other partners. But we need your support to run additional readiness exercises, and to use our findings in building an operations plan. The goal is nothing less than to maximize the power of science to save lives, livelihoods, and the environment.

The Academy is helping young scientists at the most critical stage of their careers, as they transition from graduate school toward success in professional research.

K-12 STEM

The Academy works with younger scientists too. We nurture early interest in science among ever more diverse groups of young people. With the support of EnCorps, for example, we’re placing scientists in in classrooms across New York City’s five boroughs. In a partnership with the Clifford Chance law firm and Ericcson, we’ve enrolled more than 500 students in Rwanda and Oman in STEM innovation challenges. We are working to diversify and expand STEM education in scores of countries around the world, including with a new program in Colombia.

Mentorship

We are helping scientists give back, across all levels of education. Our Mentors Program places experienced scientists with young people in classrooms and alongside student teams working on extracurricular projects. Our mentors also advise older students as they enter the workforce and our programs support scientists who may wish to change careers, to work as teachers themselves.

  • With this letter, I am announcing our partnership with the Leon Levy Foundation to support neuroscience post docs at universities and medical centers across the New York metropolitan area. The plan is to help remove barriers to advancement and provide significant support for the best and brightest young minds in the field.
  • Our Science Alliance brings graduate students and post docs together to gain communications and management skills, and to learn about professional opportunities and career strategies, including ways to fight bias in the workplace.
  • To support our belief that the best science takes place when problems are attacked with interdisciplinary perspectives by people from diverse backgrounds, we run the Interstellar Initiative with the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development. It is a 6-month workshop to support teams of young scientists from around the world in developing innovative research proposals in the life sciences.
  • Our awards programs focus on early career scientists, to help them advance to become leaders in their fields.
Recent Nobel Prize laureate David Julius presents at the Academy’s Advances in Pain conference in May. Photo: Roger Torda

Scientific Convenings

Of course, we continue to convene scientists and policy experts for the exchange of scientific knowledge. Each year, our conferences feature Nobel Prize laureates and dozens of other researchers at the leading edge of their fields. We help specialists work together, and we tackle topics that grab the attention of broader audiences. Examples include a series on new evidence for the therapeutic value of psychedelics, ways to recognize and reduce bias in the health sciences, and continuing reports on SARS-CoV-2.

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences

Our multidisciplinary science journal, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, publishes research of current interest for the broad scientific community and society at large. Recent articles have presented work on mathematics anxiety and performance, the benefits of micronutrients during pregnancy, and the biodiversity and composition of bat communities.

We are an independent, democratic organization, open to all who want to help advance science. Now, more than ever, we believe that this commitment is critically important for the lives of our children and grandchildren. Geopolitical forces continue to drive us apart in ways that not only fracture the world but also the practice and advancement of science. We work to bridge those divides, and to foster collaboration, innovation, and the imagination we need to solve our global challenges.

We receive no government funding, and your support plays a critical role in helping science—and scientists—work toward a better, safe, and prosperous world. Please continue your valuable support for the New York Academy of Sciences.

Climate Change and Collective Action: The Knowledge Resistance Problem

A colorful graphic image.

By Nicholas B. Dirks

June 1 marked the official start of hurricane season and already tropical storms Ana, Bill and Claudette have made their respective debuts.

And while summer has only just officially started, early hot dry conditions in Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah and New Mexico are exacerbating enormous wildfires putting a strain on local first responder services.  Severe drought conditions in the west is restricting the use of essential water supplies.  Its impact on the nation’s food supply has yet to be determined.

In May, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released revised temperature “normals” which show a significant shift towards warmer temperatures. We are far from the state of readiness required to deal with the inevitable outcomes.

Scientists have been sounding the alarm about the human impact upon climate change for well over a century. French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier, who is generally credited with the discovery of the greenhouse effect, wrote in an 1827 paper that: “The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air.”

But unlike the pandemic, which was a highly visible emergency with nightly news reports showing crowded ER’s and patients on ventilators, the impact of climate change has always been a much tougher sell.  In addition, when proposed changes come up against “the pocketbook,” there is pushback.

Recent Research and “Crisis Fatigue”

A recent paper published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences The distributional impact of climate change – discusses the various impacts of climate change from both a social and environmental perspective.  As with many other global issues, the impacts of climate change will most certainly affect poorer countries even more severely, but that doesn’t let the rich ones like the United States off the hook.

Then there is the risk of “crisis fatigue”—the continual sounding of an alarm about something that is not immediately visible, to the point that the problem is so overwhelming that individual actions won’t help.  But as we learned from Covid-19, there is no local crisis of this kind that doesn’t soon become a global crisis.

Science is an incremental process, and scientific knowledge is based on multiple arguments, experiments, and developments.  However, the scientific consensus that climate change is not only real, but escalating faster than many scientists had predicted, is based on measurements and models that issue a clear and urgent warning.  We need to act now, and fast, to drive effective policy to combat climate change.

Training scientists to be better communicators is a good step, but much more must and can be done to develop a public consensus that might mirror the scientific consensus.  Climatologists, meteorologists and environmental scientists play an important role, but we need to enlist all the disciplines of the academy (including social scientists and humanists), all the agencies of government (domestically and internationally), and all the major sectors of the economy to help chart a way forward.

The Impediment of Knowledge Resistance

As Mikael Klintman, in his recent book, “Knowledge Resistance,” has argued, “it becomes crucial to ask what we as individuals and groups can do about knowledge resistance in cases where, in the long run, it is problematic to ourselves and to others – humans, animals, and the environment alike.”

Professionals from healthcare, insurance, business, as well as legal and financial sectors can help scientists and public officials “sell” appropriate actions and solutions. The average person may not pay much mind to the science behind reducing carbon emissions but put in the context of how much taxpayer money is used to treat patients who have respiratory conditions exacerbated by polluted air from auto emissions, and it’s a different conversation.

Policymakers supporting the development of wetlands or sensitive barrier islands might be more inclined to rethink such plans if voters are provided with data on how much it is likely to cost when severe storms hit, in terms of increased taxes to pay for emergency relief, rebuilding, and higher insurance rates. Like the warnings and recommendations about COVID-19, climate change has become a deeply partisan issue, but preparedness for the long-term impacts of climate change is not “hysterics” or “alarmist” as some would argue.

Ignoring the impact of COVID-19 cost millions their lives, and billions of dollars in healthcare costs and lost income. The economic cost of lost jobs and wages, as well as the cost of care of COVID patients, especially those who still have long-term health effects, has still to be tallied.

All the data are showing us what will happen if we are not ready. Science can deliver on the knowledge, but it will take genuine collective action to hone and sell the messages that can tread that fine line between preparation and panic.

Lessons Learned: The Aftermath of a Pandemic

Academy President and CEO Nicholas Dirks smiles for the camera.

By Nicholas B. Dirks

Nicholas Dirks

When I was first in discussions in early 2020 to take over the leadership of The New York Academy of Sciences from the retiring Ellis Rubinstein, we could still go out to dinner, attend meetings in person, and enjoy concerts and the theater in closed and crowded spaces. Masks were for surgeons in operating theaters and researchers working in labs. We could still enjoy networking at well attended conferences, traveling through crowded airports and train stations, and planning vacations and holiday family gatherings. Although for years I had always mentioned a pandemic as a primary example of a global challenge that would know no borders and require global cooperation, I also knew that the last such pandemic had happened 100 years ago. I confess I had assumed I was being largely rhetorical.

What a difference a year makes.

Now, more than a year after the lockdowns began across the world and in the U.S., we are at last seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It will still require a leap of faith to predict when life will return to the way it was in 2019, but significant progress has been made during the past several months.

As with most life-altering events, much can be learned when we can take a hard, practical look at what we did wrong, what we did right, and how, with better planning, we might have changed the course of history. And if we’re smart about it, we can use those learnings to prepare a playbook for the next pandemic.

Accept that pandemics and other global catastrophes are here to stay and plan for them.

Much of the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. can be traced to the lack of a cohesive national response. Poor communications also did not help. Mixed messages from public officials and health experts created confusion, and worse, disbelief that COVID-19 should be taken seriously. “It’s no worse than the flu” was one such frequent comment, along with “something that only old people get,” and the “cure or shutdowns cannot be worse than the problem.” Then there are the “hoax” believers, and the bizarre “treatments”—all fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories running rampant on social media. We can’t predict what new crises are on the horizon, but it is incumbent upon all government officials to have emergency response plans ready for quick implementation. Aside from the obvious—i.e., having the necessary medical equipment and public health protocols already in place—understanding that social behavior needs to be addressed is just as important as medical intervention in meeting the crisis.

Look at challenges as opportunities for new ideas to blossom.

Like many other organizations whose core business is based on live in-person events, The New York Academy of Sciences had to quickly pivot to virtual forums when we could no longer host actual gatherings. But we have found that our online webinars and virtual conferences have broad appeal to our members—especially those who do not live within easy access of our physical conference location in downtown New York. At some point the in-person meetings will resume, but we will continue to offer the virtual options that will open up our programs to all our members and others across the globe.

Shutdowns have had some benefits.

The past year has been disastrous for many of us, with death and disease rampant both in the U.S. and globally, and with devastating economic effects on certain sectors and populations. At the same time, we learned what we can do with the technological tools on our laptops and in our phones, seen clear skies in polluted cities from Delhi to Beijing, as well as nature venturing out into the deserted streets. The YouTube video of a kangaroo hopping down an empty street in Adelaide was especially poignant. Of course, we cannot keep things shut down forever—we not only miss our social life, we depend on it. But as we consider not just the effects of a pandemic but the escalating threat of climate change, the past 12 months have provided a clear view of how our natural environment can quickly improve if we give it room to do so. We don’t all agree on everything, but we do all live on the same planet — and as the late Carl Sagan pointed out — “Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.” It will serve humanity well in the future if we could use the lessons of the last year to develop much bolder plans to take on the significant global and planetary challenges before us.

As we look forward to life returning to normal, it is worth remembering that despite all our scientific and technological progress, we were blindsided by a microscopic virus that was exacerbated by polarized politics, and a lack of public understanding and trust in science. It is also clear that the massive disparities of our society and our economy have been magnified by this public health crisis. Scientists must work not only with each other but with social scientists, humanists, and many others, as we seek to find more effective ways to translate our knowledge into enlightened public policy that takes on the full complexity of the human condition.

Fortunately, for the past 200-plus years, The New York Academy of Sciences has been committed to working to bring the best and brightest minds together to develop solutions for our global challenges. It’s a mission I’m proud to embrace as the Academy’s president and CEO.

Nicholas B. Dirks

Building Bridges in the Humanities and Sciences

Academy President and CEO Nicholas Dirks smiles for the camera.

To understand how Nicholas B. Dirks will lead The New York Academy of Sciences, it may be helpful to learn more about three of his passions: the liberal arts, interdisciplinary studies, and southern India.

Nicholas Dirks is a historian, anthropologist and accomplished university administrator. To understand the arc of his career—and how he will lead The New York Academy of Sciences—it may be helpful to understand three of his passions: the liberal arts, interdisciplinary studies, and southern India. The southern India story begins when Dirks was quite young.

A Magical Year

Dirks’ father, then a professor at the Yale Divinity School, took his family to South India in 1963, when Nicholas was 12.  J. Edward Dirks had received a Fulbright grant to teach at a college in Chennai, then known as Madras, and the experience came at an impressionable time for his young son.

“I read a lot as a kid,” Dirks recalled in a recent interview. “And here all of a sudden, it was almost as if a book opened up, and the pages that I was reading felt alive and real in a way that nothing really had quite done before.”

This is the way Dirks put it in an introduction to a collection of his essays:

“I had no way of knowing I was going to miss out on the emergence of the Beatles, though I had the usual concerns about leaving my junior high school friends and the eighth grade. But I was excited by the prospect of adventure… and, as it turned out, the year was magical. The college campus did have acres of jungle, and there were peacocks, cobras, and leopard cats, much to my mother’s horror. I attended school in a khaki uniform; studied the south Indian drum, the mridangam… and learned how to negotiate the extremely efficient bus system of the city of Madras.”

Dirks would go back to India many times throughout his life, and he anchored much of his scholarship there.

Wesleyan University

Back in the U.S. with his family after a year, Dirks was influenced by visiting speakers at church services at Yale, and by the University’s chaplain, William Sloan Coffin, a prominent supporter of the Civil Rights movement and critic of the war in Vietnam. In high school, Dirks devoured books on philosophy and the social sciences assigned by an influential teacher, who also recommended that Dirks apply to Wesleyan University. Wesleyan famously was open to diverse interests and liberal studies, and Dirks was sold when he discovered Wesleyan had a group of South Indian musicians and a program in ethnomusicology; he could study mridangam —the south Indian drum—there.

Dirks arrived at Wesleyan’s campus in Middletown, CT in the fall of 1968. He could not help but be influenced by all the unrest around the war in Vietnam, which was at its peak:

“Initially I thought I was going to major in philosophy, because I was interested in ideas. I think a combination of my experience in India and the war in Vietnam led me increasingly, however, to think that I needed to study Asia…. It was important to me personally, and it was also important to all of us politically. And I felt I needed to understand not so much Asia’s philosophy and religion, but instead, its history and politics and economics.”

Dirks majored in Asian and African Studies. For a senior thesis, he traveled back to the state of Tamil Nadu, and learned to speak Tamil in the city of Madurai. It was a difficult six months, amid crowds and poverty, but Dirks was writing about Gandhi and the anti-caste movement in southern India, and became very interested in connections between all this and the Civil Rights movement back home. Dirks decided to study the history of southern India in graduate school, and he applied to the University of Chicago.

The University of Chicago

When Dirks arrived in Chicago in 1972, he came to a university that had built a major South Asian studies program, with faculty from across the full range of the humanities and social sciences. Dirks took good advantage of the opportunity: “You could do just about anything in this kind of area studies program.  You could study ideas, literature, social change, economics, or the role of science in society.  Area studies drew on multiple disciplines and tapped into some of the most central concerns of top thinkers at the university.”

The University of Chicago was also an important center for cultural anthropology, and Dirks found anthropology helped him in “trying to come to grips with how to study India from the point of view of an American by birth and upbringing.”  Dirks was also drawn to the types of questions anthropologists were asking, especially about cultural relativism:

“It seemed to me that anthropology was taking on some of the big questions of the time…. What is the nature of cultural difference? Are fundamental beliefs—in terms of judgement, in terms of fundamental common sense and orientation toward the world—determined by culture?  Or are they determined by biology? Are there universal laws that allow you to understand “difference” in all of its complexity? These were not issues at the time that historians were thinking about a great deal. But it was very much part of the milieu of the anthropology group there.”

Dirks continued: “The interdisciplinary mix of these first years of professional scholarship not only built on the interdisciplinary base of my undergraduate days but also launched a lifelong conversation in my own work, teaching, and thought about the relationships among history, anthropology, and critical theory.”

For his dissertation topic, Dirks turned to the social, political, and economic relationships within the “little kingdoms” of southern India, regions of varying size ruled by local chiefs dating back to the thirteenth century. Dirks used historical approaches, with archival research in London, New Delhi, and in the small city of Pudukkottai. Dirks then spent a year in Pudukkottai, the former capital of one of the “little kingdoms,” doing the kind of field study that is at the heart of cultural anthropology.

As he was writing his dissertation, Dirks gained teaching experience at a small, nearby college, and then, at 27, headed west to Pasadena when he was offered his first fulltime job.

California Institute of Technology

In 1978, Dirks began what would be eight years at Caltech. He taught Introduction to Asian Civilization, a distribution course. He made another trip to India to research his first book, The Hollow Crown, a study of Pudukkottai using approaches from both ethnography and history. And Dirks also got to know accomplished scholars in the hard sciences.

“They had this wonderful, storied, faculty club called The Athenaeum,” Dirks recalled. “And they had these round tables that facilitated random seating. The idea was that you would go and meet faculty outside of your department or division. And it turned out that a number of the senior scientists were the ones most interested in talking to a young faculty member who had just arrived to teach courses in humanities and the social sciences.”

To Dirks, these seemed like Renaissance figures, interested in everything. The group included Max Delbrück, a Nobel Laureate who was a pioneer in the study of molecular genetics. He got to know Richard Feynman, the colorful Nobel Laureate in theoretical physics. “And I got to know Murray Gell-Mann, the inventor of the quark, because he had a great interest in Indian philosophy,” Dirks recalled. “And you know, it was world opening, eye opening in every way, to be there with somebody who invented the quark who wanted to ask you about some esoteric eleventh century Indian philosopher.”

Dirks said he started seeing connections between the hard sciences and his own fields of study. “You know, until I went to Caltech, I thought that in academia, one went into science and engineering, or you went into humanities and social science,” Dirks said. “And so for me, being at Caltech was, in effect, an opportunity to live across the two cultures.”

The conversations at the round tables, Dirks said, mirrored in some ways what he experienced in India. The hard sciences were strange and familiar at the same time. Strange because they were built on foundations of knowledge he never studied.  “But they were also familiar because some of the core questions that people were asking were things I was interested in as well,” Dirks continued, adding:

“And anthropology was an interesting point of connection, because you began with discussions, for example, concerning the debate between nature and culture, of relevance to science as well as social science.  But you were also attuned to debates about different world views.  And it was an easy move from there to ask questions about the meaning of the universe, and then, say, to cosmology.  Astrophysicists were naturally drawn to questions that bridged science and philosophy.  And, as we talked about a wide range of subjects, we all realized that even the ways we use metaphors to understand the world are similar, whether you’re thinking in terms of history or whether you’re thinking in terms of natural laws.”

The University of Michigan

From Caltech, Dirks moved with his family in 1987 to the University of Michigan, where he would have graduate students for the first time. He assumed a joint appointment in the history and anthropology departments and, with a colleague, built an interdepartmental PhD program in both disciplines. It was a good time to start a program formalizing a relationship between the two fields.

Many historians at the time were de-emphasizing politics and intellectual history, focusing instead on social and cultural phenomena, perspectives that aligned with touchpoints in cultural anthropology. And scholars in anthropology were placing more emphasis on political and economic forces, the traditional frameworks of historical research.

Columbia University

The historical turn in anthropology, in addition to Dirks’ work in founding the interdepartmental PhD program at Michigan, led to an offer in 1997 to chair the oldest department of anthropology in the country, at Columbia University.

Dirks broadened the department, recruiting new faculty from Asia and Africa, and supported research in colonial and postcolonial studies, increasingly popular areas of focus at the time.  And in 2001, Dirks published his second book, Castes of Mind, in which he demonstrated the extent to which the caste system had changed under British colonial rule, and was changing still as it became the social base of many postcolonial political movements.  The book won several major awards and is still widely taught in graduate curricula in the U.S. and India.

Earlier, at the University of Michigan, Dirks started honing administrative skills, having discovered that bridging the anthropology and history departments would require that he drive institutional change. In 2004, at Columbia, Dirks stepped into administration full time, giving him opportunities to promote interdisciplinary study across all of the liberal arts and sciences. He became Vice President (later, Executive Vice President) of the Arts and Sciences and Dean of the Faculty.

In his new roles at Columbia, Dirks oversaw 6 schools, 29 departments, and a number of special programs and labs. Dirks channeled his learnings from Caltech and made special efforts to reach out to the chairs of the science departments.  He committed to renovating science buildings and laboratories, and commenced planning for a new science building. Even there, Dirks says he “built on his interdisciplinary interests” by creating a building plan that located the laboratories of scientists from different disciplines adjacent to each other “so that they would have to interact.”

Of his new role at Columbia, Dirks said:  “That’s where I really began to understand not just the intellectual interests of scientists, but, also the needs that they have, what it takes to allow great research to take place in the natural and physical sciences.”

Dirks also stepped up fundraising at Columbia, and in 2008, he helped the university establish a Global Center in Mumbai.

University of California, Berkeley

In 2013, Dirks moved back to California, to become the tenth chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. As with Columbia, he would have responsibilities across all the arts and sciences, including engineering, law, and business, but now at a public research university with a $2.4 billion budget.

At his inauguration ceremony, Dirks, in charge of a world-renowned university dependent on public funding, said he wanted to “re-assert the value of research and higher education for the public good.” And reflecting his long interest in interdisciplinary approaches to the humanities and sciences, he promised leadership to build bridges—rather than barriers—in academia:

“I resist the stark divide between teaching and research, between general and professional education, between basic and applied research, between the arts and the sciences, between private interests and public good, between our local obligations and our global ambitions, between disciplinary specialization and multidisciplinary collaboration, between our commitment to diversity and to academic excellence, between the goals of a college and the aspirations of a university.”

Dirks’ accomplishments as chancellor include significant improvements in undergraduate facilities and programs, such as a new initiative in data science and data analytics that serves students across all majors.

Dirks also strengthened alumni relations and reorganized the fundraising system. This led to large increases in donations—almost $500 million in 2016 alone—which helped offset ongoing reductions in public funding.

Dirks built connections to institutions around the world, establishing partnerships with Cambridge University and the National University of Singapore. Dirks also helped develop a joint research and educational partnership with Tsinghua University in the Chinese city of Shenzhen. And with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Dirks partnered with Tsinghua University in Beijing on a joint research center focusing on energy and climate change.

In the US, Dirks invested in research collaborations in neuroscience and genomics, and strengthened ties with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) medical school. Dirks also guided Berkeley’s participation in the $600 million Chan Zuckerberg BioHub, a partnership with Stanford and UCSF, to develop technologies to improve healthcare.

The New York Academy of Sciences

Dirks’ most recent scholarship has been on the history and future of the American university. He has continued teaching, both at Berkeley and at the Schwarzman College of Tsinghua University in Beijing. And after being recruited to lead The New York Academy of Sciences, Dirks has been thinking about how his new position aligns with his passions and experiences.

“As I see it, the New York Academy of Sciences is a very fitting culmination to all the things that I’ve been doing in my career…. it promotes scientific research, it aims to connect scientific expertise with policy discussions more broadly, and it is committed to science education. I intend to build on its long and venerable history of connecting science with the core issues and challenges of our time.”

Now, Dirks plans to marshal the resources of the Academy, which he describes as a “learned society open to everybody,” to help address the most pressing questions and problems facing the world:

“Almost every major issue we’re confronting today is of central concern to the Academy: whether it’s climate change, the pandemic or infectious disease more broadly, the relationship of inequality to health outcomes, or the whole set of questions that arise with technology— for example, machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics as they promise new kinds of scientific solutions while at the same time threatening our traditional understandings of the difference between machines and humans.  In my view, the Academy can and should play a critical role in enabling our city, our nation, and the globe to take on these issues with the requisite commitment to scientific knowledge, perspective, education, and advocacy.”

The world has changed a great deal since Dirks was a junior high school student in Madras. “When I first went to India I was fascinated by cultural difference,” Dirks said. “But gradually I became more struck by our human commonality — and by the forces of modernity that link us all closer and closer together.” That deep understanding of commonality, coupled with his long history of building bridges not just across cultures but across the disciplines of the arts and the sciences, will help Nicholas Dirks effectively lead The New York Academy of Sciences as it enters its third century.


Nicholas Dirks has two children. His daughter, Sandhya, is a reporter at the public radio station KQED in San Francisco. His son, Ishan, is a rising senior at Columbia.  Dirks’ wife, Janaki Bakhle, is an Associate Professor of History at UC Berkeley.

Photos by: Keegan Houser