UC Berkeley’s New Chancellor on The Subject of ‘Scandal’

Nicholas B. Dirks

Here’s the announcement from the university. It’s Nicholas B. Dirks, Columbia University’s executive vice president and dean of the faculty of  Arts and Sciences, who not only appears to be very accomplished as an academic, but looks like he plays one on TV.

He’ll replace Chancellor Robert Birgeneaum, who’s stepping down at the end of the year.

The university says the UC Board of Regents will vote on  the appointment in late November. The LA times reports Dirks’  proposed salary, which the Board has to approve, “was not publicly released pending negotiations. Birgeneau’s salary was $436,800 a year and Dirks is expected to be paid at least that.”

Here’s Dirks’ web page at Columbia. According to his bio, Dirks received an undergrad degree in Asian and African Studies at Wesleyan and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Dept. of History. He’s taught at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, and  the London School of Economics.

More…

His major works include The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom (Cambridge University Press, 1987); Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton University Press, 2001); and The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain (Harvard University Press, 2006). He has edited several books, including Colonialism and Culture, (University of Michigan Press, 1992), Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory (Princeton University Press, 1994), and In Near Ruins: Cultural Theory at the end of the Century (University of Minnesota Press, 1999), and published more than forty articles on subjects ranging from the history and anthropology of South Asia to social and cultural theory, the history of imperialism, historiography, cultural studies, and globalization. He has done extensive archival and field research in India as well as in Britain. He is currently working on a book concerning the last years of British rule in India and the growing role of the United States in South Asia, as also a book entitled, The University and the World: The Opening of the American Mind.

The last couple of years have been even more tumultuous than usual for Cal, with its historically restive student population. A series of tuition hikes galvanized protests against system administrators around the state, and last November, during student demonstrations inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, university cops and other local law enforcement personnel were videotaped aggressively shoving their batons into protesters, as well as pulling some students by the hair, forcing Birgeneau to apologize for the police response.

Considering all that, this passage from Dirks’ The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain is pretty interesting. Originally tweeted by Aaron Brady.

Scandal itself is a peculiar historical form that only reveals its real meaning long after the public outcry and formal investigations have ceased. Scandals point to the underlying tensions and anxieties of an age, even as they work ironically to resolve crises by finding new ways to repress these tensions and anxieties. Scandals require careful management, and they elicit widespread vicarious attention, because they invariably produce a spectacle in which we see how the mighty have fallen. Whether caused by sexual indiscretion, extreme political ambition, undue greed, or other appetites driven by the desire for self-fulfillment and self-aggrandizement, the public unfolding of scandal provides public titillation at the same time it becomes a morality play.

Despite either that authority will be subverted or the rules and conventions of public (or private) life radically changed, scandals in fact usually lead to far more benign outcomes. For the most part, public scandals become ritual moments in which the sacrifice of the reputation of one or more individuals allows many more to continue their scandalous ways, if perhaps with minimal safeguards and protocols that are meant to ensure that the terrible excesses of the past will not occur again. Scandals often do lead to reforms, but the reforms usually work to protect the potential agents of scandal rather than its actual victims. Indeed, it is the scandal itself that must be erased, not the underlying systemic reasons for scandal. The scandal is only the tip of the iceberg, the moment of excess that in the end works to conceal the far more endemic excesses that, at least for modern times, have become normalized…”

Wonder if the committee has seen that.

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Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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