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Letter to the Community from Nicholas Dirks

Introducing Myself to the Academy

Published June 01, 2020

Letter to the Community from Nicholas Dirks
photo: Keegan Houser

photo: Keegan Houser

June 2020 

Dear Colleagues, Members, and Friends of the Academy,

It is with great pleasure and pride that I take on the role of President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences.  I would like briefly to introduce myself.

I am, first and foremost, an educator who has been blessed throughout my life by my association with great academic institutions.  I earned my PhD in history at the University of Chicago, but did so in an interdisciplinary setting that allowed me to become an anthropologist as well.  At Caltech I taught in a division of humanities and social sciences in an environment in which I could also interact with some of the world’s most brilliant scientists.  At the University of Michigan I co-founded the Interdepartmental PhD program in Anthropology and History.

At Columbia I chaired the Department of Anthropology (the first anthropology department in the US, founded by Franz Boas, himself trained initially as a geophysicist), before going on to become Executive Vice President and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.  And when I moved to the University of California, Berkeley as Chancellor, I had the opportunity to preside over one of our most preeminent universities and to become an advocate for the importance of our great system of public higher education in the United States.

As I did all this, I explored ways in which I might contribute to a larger effort to break down the silos of university life, forging connections between cognate disciplines to foster more innovative research and more imaginative education. As I spent time in academic administration, I became increasingly interested not just in bridging disciplines (and in particular the “two cultures” of arts and science), but in connecting the university to the world.

I have, for example, worked to establish new programs in sustainable development, neuroscience, and data science, while launching initiatives in undergraduate education, collaborative applied research, and global engagement.  And most recently I have helped build innovative new schools and colleges in China, India, and the US to prepare our young people to become the next generation of leaders around the world.

I take up my role at the Academy at a critical time in history.  We need to do more than study and understand our world.  We need to solve big problems.  Global warming.  Environmental pollution.  Famine and drought.  Economic, racial, and social inequality.  And, yes, pandemics.

The Academy has already made important strides to use its venerable traditions, its extraordinary networks, and its important standing in our great global city to address the grand challenges facing the planet, to champion science while also using the interests and connections of top scientists, thinkers, and other institutional leaders to move from “knowledge dissemination to action.”

Nicholas Dirks and his wife, Janaki Bakhle
photo: Elena Zhukova

Nicholas Dirks and his wife, Janaki Bakhle

photo: Elena Zhukova

photo: Elena Zhukova

photo: Elena Zhukova

As President of the Academy I will continue this work to connect science with the world, and to do so in an institution that knows no boundaries for its work–both on its own and through robust partnerships with institutions and individuals across many fields and areas of activity.

I am looking forward to working with the Academy’s staff, our Members throughout the world, and our partners in industry, public policy, academia, government, and philanthropy.

I’d like to thank the Board of Governors for this great opportunity. And I’d like to thank Ellis Rubinstein, President Emeritus, for his expert stewardship of the Academy over the past two decades.

Sincerely Yours,

Nicholas B. Dirks, PhD

President and CEO
New York Academy of Sciences