Hours after the administration’s announcement of comprehensive cost-cutting measures due to a growing budget deficit, more than 1,000 members of the campus community saw Alphabet Inc. executive chair Eric Schmidt discuss his experiences in academia and industry and the importance of research universities with Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on Wednesday evening.
Held at Zellerbach Hall, the event inaugurated the spring 2016 season of Berkeley Talks, a series of conversations moderated by Dirks that seeks to engage “thought leaders” on distinctive and timely issues.
Toward the end of the event, subcontracted workers and members of the Student Labor Committee organized a brief demonstration outside the venue in support of a university labor union’s call for a speaker’s boycott on campus.
Schmidt — who received both a master’s and doctoral degree in the campus department of electrical engineering and computer science — is widely known as an Internet pioneer and has also served as the chief executive officer of Google Inc. While retaining chairmanship of the board, he stepped down as CEO in 2011, declaring that “day-to-day adult supervision (was) no longer needed” at the company.
According to an email sent by campus spokesperson and Berkeley Talks producer Amy Atlas, Schmidt was invited to return to campus to speak about “what it takes to reach the top of the tech world while continuing to reinvent and innovate.”
Schmidt began by recounting a few particularly evocative memories from his time as a student on campus — including encounters with a neighbor fond of singing while nude.
“It wasn’t the nakedness that bothered me,” he said. “It was the fact that he did it at six in the morning.”
Schmidt and Dirks then turned their attention to the impact of many recent technological developments, discussing Schmidt and Alphabet’s involvement in advancing many fields including machine learning, biomedical research, expanding Internet access and the advent of self-driving cars.
Noting that the work of UC Berkeley researchers was — and remains — instrumental in each of these fields, Schmidt commended Dirks for his stewardship of research on campus in a challenging financial environment. He reserved special praise for the campus’s efforts in data science education, telling Dirks that the campus’s efforts in this regard “were characteristic of your leadership.”
In light of Dirks’ announcement of upcoming measures to rein in expenses, Schmidt expressed exasperation at the state and federal government’s disinvestment in education.
“The best investment government can ever make is in core research and core education,” he said, noting that the government’s decision to disinvest amounts to “(shutting) off the start of the pump … it’s madness.”
According to Schmidt, Alphabet too has experienced great difficulty in working with the state government.
“California wrote a set of laws which make it extremely difficult to do self-driving car research,” he said, leading the company to test its self-driving cars in “incredibly liberal and permissive states like Texas.”
About 50 minutes after the event began, subcontracted workers and members of the Student Labor Committee gathered outside Zellerbach Hall, in support of the speaker’s boycott called for by AFSCME 3299, a labor union representing more than 22,000 workers across the UC system.
Protesters were barred from entering the venue and instead decided to chant slogans and form a picket line. UCPD officers were present, but Sgt. William Kasiske confirmed that no disciplinary action was taken.
“By consistently disrupting business as usual, we intend to unsettle the complacency UC Berkeley has shown towards the hardships endured by its contract workers,” said Kristian Kim, a member of the Student Labor Committee who was present at the protest.
According to union spokesperson Todd Stenhouse, the boycott is an “act of last resort” intended to get the administration to directly employ nearly 100 workers hired through companies including Performance First, ABM and LAZ Parking.
“The boycott poses a very simple question,” he said. “We’re asking the public to either side with the full time permanent workers being exploited at UC, or to side with the employers who profit by creating more poverty amongst the middle class.”
Though efforts to reach out to Schmidt before the event received no response, Stenhouse said many prominent figures have agreed to honor the boycott, including political activist Angela Davis and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
In response to the efforts of the protesters and AFSCME 3299, campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said in an email that the administration will continue to work with union leaders to resolve these issues as quickly as possible.
“The action by union leaders is unfortunate,” she added in the statement. “For many of our students, this type of engagement with political leaders, renowned scholars, and others may be a missed once in a lifetime experience.”
Despite the demonstrations — and unlike a previous moderated conversation involving Dirks — the event itself went on as planned.When chants were first heard inside the venue, Schmidt was not particularly fazed.
“It’s Berkeley,” he said to much laughter, following which Dirks suggested that Schmidt was being given “the full surround-sound experience” of being on campus.
Dirks will be joined by Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chair of LinkedIn, on March 20 for the second Berkeley Talks event this spring.