Nicholas Dirks says he lives his life in an academic novel.
That’s why if Columbia’s Vice President for Arts and Sciences does turn his hand to fiction, he won’t be writing about tenure. His own novel, he explains, would be about relations between India and America, and might “have the backdrop of the spy genre to give it a little bit of interest.”
As the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology, a professor of history, and the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Dirks has a massive job description. But his post, he says, allows him to “realize as many of the aspirations that the University is invested in, because the realities are always more difficult, messy, expensive, and contested than the idea would suggest.” The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is the aggregate of 29 departments and the faculties of the School of International and Public Affairs, General Studies, Columbia College, the School of the Arts, Continuing Education, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Most department chairs answer to Dirks, and his office forms the layer of administration that connects some Columbia constituents to Low Library. He’s in charge of allocating space and funds, among other tasks, a job that can become political and polarizing at Columbia.
With a bushy mustache, long legs, and glasses that rest on end of his nose, Dirks epitomizes what most people consider “professorial.” He grew up shrouded in academia—his father taught at Yale—and became an anthropologist and historian of India. At age 12, Dirks joined his father on a Fulbright Scholarship to India—a year pivotal in his development.
There, Dirks attended a local Indian school. “I studied the south Indian drum, I started picking up a little bit of Tamil,” Dirks said. The trip piqued his interest, and Dirks began relating every school assignment to India.
At the first mention of the year 1968, Dirks hearkens back to his college days. “I was a freshman at Wesleyan at the time, and I wasn’t a hippie per se—I didn’t do drugs, but I did have long hair and a red bandana.” America’s entrenchment in the Vietnam War shaped Dirks’ course of study, since he saw the necessity for scholars to focus on Asian and African studies. As his peers engaged in protests, he engaged intellectually, spending time reading books in his dorm.
His thesis on Gandhi’s relations to South India led Dirks to a fellowship at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. in history and developed an interest in anthropology because of his mentor, Bernard Cohn. Dirks then taught at the California Institute of Technology, and made his way to the University of Michigan, where he founded the interdepartmental Ph.D. in history and anthropology.
In 1997, Columbia asked him to chair and revamp the anthropology department, where he emphasized post-colonialist study. But shortly before the move, he met a man with whom he would work with closely a few years later. University President Lee Bollinger, then president of the University of Michigan, attended a speech Dirks gave at the Society of Fellows about affirmative action in India. “Lee came to that talk and asked me the best questions of anybody there. I was impressed,” Dirks said. Their friendship blossomed shortly before Dirks left Michigan. Dirks was pleased to see Bollinger arrive at Columbia as president in 2002. “When Lee came here, I was delighted, and I sought him out very soon.”
And Bollinger returned the compliment. “Nick has grown into this job in a way that makes it possible for arts and sciences to assume a kind of role in the University that I and many, many others want to see,” Bollinger said. “It’s extremely important that that office take on a larger role, and I think Nick is steadily moving in that direction.”
Before it introduced him to Bollinger, academia even led Dirks to meet his wife, Columbia associate history professor and Gandhi scholar Janaki Bakhle. Then an editor at the University of Minnesota Press, Bakhle pursued Dirks to review a manuscript. Dirks was late in reviewing the book, and Bakhle attended a speech he gave in Minnesota. “She was there at the talk, and it turned out she wasn’t really interested in what I had to say,” Dirks said. “She was there because she was going to chase down that review. And she did. So that’s all I’ll say,” Dirks said, his hair ruffling as he laughed. “It started as a review.”
The coupling turned out to be practical for professors conducting fieldwork in India—Dirks speaks Tamil and his wife speaks Hindi and Murati, so their linguistic capabilities span the country.
These days, Dirks wakes up at 6:30 a.m. and drinks decaffeinated coffee while reading e-mails. He then gets his 8-year-old son ready for school and walks him to the School at Columbia. But if Dirks, a top University administrator, brings his son after the 8:15 a.m. grace period two more times, he says, he’ll have to answer to the school’s principal.
During the day, he has back-to-back meetings with administrators and professors to sort out Columbia issues, small and large. While his meetings often prevent him from taking lunch, he always visits the gym. “Ruby [Cruz, his secretary] schedules me to go to the gym, so I am often seen on elliptical number one in Dodge,” Dirks said. “Ruby sets it up ahead of time, so I do have one perk. I often don’t get lunch, but I do get the elliptical.”
Overall, Dirks said he believes that the University is utopia. “That’s why I wake up at 6:30,” he said.