Dr. Nicholas B. Dirks was named the 10th chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley on November 8, 2012, and served in that role between June 1, 2013 and July 1, 2017. An internationally renowned historian and anthropologist, 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.
Presently, Dr. Dirks is the Pro Chancellor of SRM University, AP Amaravati. Excerpts of an interview with him:
What is liberal arts and how is it different from a normal arts and science degree, like a B.Sc. Physics or B.A History?
The Liberal Arts entails taking both a broad cross section of courses as well as course work 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 is therefore more important than ever.
Who do you view as some of the pioneers in the liberal arts fields and what are their major contributions?
The 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. The 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.
Why do you believe liberal arts is important in India and what do you see as its potential?
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.
What is unique about the program and degree that will be granted at SRM 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 preparedto 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.
What are the differences in student development that such an SRM Amaravati degree would grant and what are some of the opportunities that will open up to them?
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.
Could you tell us about some of your best experiences with American universities and how these will manifest themselves at SRM Amaravati?
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.
What role are you playing at SRM Amaravati and in what capacity will you remain associated going is forward?
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.