Berkeley Talks — a series of public talks and lectures hosted by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who introduces and interviews an array of innovators, artists and scholars — was conceived as a way to broach intimate conversations in a public arena and to further engage the campus in the arts. The unique history and culture of UC Berkeley’s campus is marked by intellectual curiosity and engagement in topical issues — most notably for being the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and for having over 70 Nobel Laureates who are affiliated with the University. Co-organized by Dirks, UC Berkeley’s Public Affairs Office and the director of Cal Performances, Matias Tarnopolsky, the campus’s legacy of inquisitiveness and debate is being kept alive with the new series that features writer David Sedaris and musician Yo-Yo Ma.
“We wanted to create a series of events for students, faculty and our wider Bay Area audiences to gain insights into the ideas and thoughts of luminaries across many fields through a series of public conversations and lectures,” Tarnopolsky says.
When Chancellor Dirks arrived at the campus last year, he brought with him a love for the arts and a desire to connect with the campus community. He keeps an unfinished book that he is writing in one of his drawers at home. “One day I’ll finish the thing,” Dirks says. Berkeley Talks is Dirk’s first initiative in a campus-wide engagement in liberal arts, which was a pillar that he promised to focus when he became chancellor in November 2013. “The arts allow you to have conversations that are otherwise impossible,” Dirks says.
The talks are similar to ones that Dirks hosted when he was the faculty dean at Columbia University, where he had spoken with famous artists and intellects such as writer Orhan Pamuk. He also compares the series format to “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross, a radio show that features intimate conversations with a range of guests. “It allows an opportunity for the arts to permeate into the general life of the campus community,” Dirks says about the series.
But Dirks admits that the conversations not only offer students a glimpse into the personal lives of artists and thinkers, but it’s also an opportunity for him to connect with the campus community. Although Dirks — a scholar in South and Southeast Asian studies — previously taught at University of Michigan and California Institute of Technology for several years, he has not been able to teach classes since he became chancellor. “That’s actually a huge problem for someone like me who is an academic and likes to have a context to engage in the community,” Dirks says.
Berkeley Talks launched last spring with a conversation featuring four of UC Berkeley’s Nobel Laureates, in which the panel discussed the role of science in dealing with modern-day issues such as Global Warming. The series continued with Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman’s event WORDLESS! on Friday, October 10. The multimedia tour featured graphic novels that inspired Spiegelman, along with live musical accompaniment by jazz performer Phillip Johnston. On October 29, Cal Performances will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement by featuring Egyptian columnist Bassem Youssef, who hosts Al-Bernameg, a satirical news show that is comparable to the American TV program, The Daily Show. The series will also include a sold-out show on November 15 with writer David Sedaris, whose most recent book of essays Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, debuted as number one on the New York Times Bestseller List.
The 2014 series will conclude with Cellist Yo-Yo Ma on December 10, which “promises to be especially inspiring,” Cal Performances director Tarnopolsky says. “Through a life in music, Mr. Ma has observed at first hand the importance of music and culture in societies the world over, and these observations have helped craft his observations about the role of arts and culture in our own society.”
Dirks says that the speaker series — which also invites questions from the audience — is an important aspect of the educational experience at U.C. Berkeley because the intellectual inquisitiveness and integrity implicit to the arts are qualities that the campus seeks to create and foster.
The arts have the “unique capacity to mobilize everything from aesthetic sensibilities to human challenges, complexions and contradictions. It takes people out of their comfort zones in ways that can be productive,” Dirks says.
Tickets for the Berkeley Talks series will be available to students at half-price, but range from $20 – $48 for the public. For a list of future events in the Berkeley Talks series and to purchase tickets, visit the Cal Performances website.