Rich Lyons, a UC Berkeley leader of innovation and entrepreneurship who cultivated a culture of questioning the status quo as business school dean, has been named the new chancellor of the premier public research university following unanimous approval by the regents Wednesday.

Lyons, 63, is a Berkeley alumnus who headed the Haas School of Business for a decade, shattering fundraising records, and currently serves as associate vice chancellor and chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer. A professor of economics and finance, Lyons has won numerous teaching awards and is seen as a charismatic insider with the skills to navigate the complex Berkeley culture — and enliven campus events with mean guitar-playing skills.

UC President Michael V. Drake selected Lyons from a diverse pool of candidates. Lyons would take the helm on July 1, following the retirement of current Chancellor Carol Christ.

An open letter to the new chancellor from the Berkeley Faculty Assn. signaled the challenges ahead. It described unprecedented demoralization stemming from growing workloads and financial hardships.

"You will inherit a campus that is close to breaking point," the letter said. "That has created a huge burden on faculty to maintain Berkeley's reputation as the best public university in the world with ever-diminishing resources and ever-deteriorating working conditions."

Lyons will oversee a campus of nearly 46,000 students and 1,570 faculty members at a particularly fraught moment in higher education. Culture wars over free speech, academic freedom, diversity — and, more recently, the Israel-Palestinian conflict — have inflamed and divided campuses across the country, including Berkeley.

Skepticism over the value of college degrees has grown, and state disinvestment in public universities has accelerated across the nation. Even in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislators have increased higher education funding, Berkeley and other UC campuses continue to struggle to make ends meet.

Berkeley has closed two deficits and raised $7.3 billion in its capital campaign that ended Feb. 29 — the highest haul of any public university. But, faculty members say, the campus needs billions more to repair and maintain aging buildings, offer competitive salaries, accommodate growing enrollment and even afford regular cleaning.

Lyons, in a 2020 campus conversation, said financial sustainability was among the university's biggest challenges — noting that the proportion of Berkeley's educational expenses covered by state funding had plunged, from half years ago to less than 12% in recent years.

As a fundraiser, he helped land eight of the top 10 gifts to the Haas business school and nearly doubled the overall donations during his tenure as dean from 2008 to 2018, compared with the previous decade, the business school reported. One $25-million donation seeded the $65-million development of a six-story, 80,000-square-feet building with classrooms, study rooms, an event space and cafe.

Lyons said diversity, equity and inclusion issues were also top institutional challenges. UC Berkeley enrolls a lower proportion of underrepresented students — 22.6% in fall 2023 — than UCLA at 27.1% and UC San Diego at 25.1%.

"Berkeley ... is a profoundly important institution to society," he said in 2020. "The idea that we look so different than the society we serve is going to get more and more troublesome."

Sydney Roberts, Berkeley's student body president, said financial support for underrepresented students to thrive and succeed was among top student priorities, along with affordable housing, safety and free speech protections. She called for a leader with conflict-resolution skills, political acumen and a commitment to listen to students and act on what they say.

"We need a community builder … a person to help people feel valued and heard," said Lisa García Bedolla, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the graduate division.

She and Maximilian Auffhammer, UC Berkeley's Academic Senate chair, said a new chancellor must be able to articulate the broad value of Berkeley to the larger public to help build support for the university. Its "world-class faculty" members have made life-changing discoveries, Auffhammer said, including breakthroughs in gene-editing processes that helped create COVID-19 vaccines and a treatment for sickle-cell anemia. Berkeley instructors also have helped inspire students to reach their potential, such as one teaching assistant who encouraged García Bedolla to pursue a PhD.

But García Bedolla also noted the low morale across campus, stemming from lingering pandemic fallout, the 2022 academic worker strike and recent polarization over the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Daniel Sargent, an associate professor of history and public policy, said the new chancellor should help facilitate a greater embrace of different viewpoints — including conservative voices as a counterweight to the prevailing "ultraprogressive monoculture," he said.

Lyons has a track record of unifying people around shared goals. After two years as "chief learning officer" at Goldman Sachs, where he observed the value of building an institutional culture, he led a process to do likewise at the Berkeley business school.

The school's four "defining principles" — paraphrased — include questioning the status quo, showing confidence with humility, embracing lifelong curiosity and learning, and serving the collective good — not only personal interests. Lyons also helped spearhead new interdisciplinary majors combining business with other fields, such as engineering and biology, and a "Berkeley Changemaker" class that helped students identify their passions and activate them to make a difference in the world.

A Palo Alto native, Lyons earned a bachelor's degree in business at UC Berkeley and a PhD in economics at MIT. He taught at the Columbia University business school for six years before returning to Berkeley in 1993 as an assistant professor of finance and economics. He went on to serve at Haas as associate dean for academic affairs, acting dean and, in 2008, dean after his stint at Goldman Sachs.

He was appointed chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer in 2020, serving in a newly created role by Christ. He and his team propelled Berkeley to become the No. 1 university to produce venture-funded startups founded by undergraduate alumni.

Fluent in French, he is married with two children.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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