BERKELEY -- A Columbia University scholar in anthropology and history was named Thursday as University of California President Mark Yudof's choice to take the reins as the next chancellor of UC Berkeley.

Nicholas Dirks, 61, was selected after a six-month search for a candidate to replace Robert Birgeneau, who has served as chancellor since 2004. Birgeneau announced his retirement in March.

Dirks is Columbia's executive vice president for arts and sciences and the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and History. A native of Illinois who grew up in Connecticut, he has a family connection to the University of California: His late father, J. Edward Dirks, was a vice chancellor and dean of humanities at UC Santa Cruz.

"This is an opportunity I embrace with both excitement and humility," Dirks said in a university news release. "I have immense respect for the countless accomplishments of faculty, students and staff at what I consider to be the premier public research university in the world."

Dirks, who earned a bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University and two graduate degrees from the University of Chicago, has been on the faculty at Columbia since 1997. Before Columbia, he taught at the University of Michigan and the California Institute of Technology.

An expert in South Asian history, Dirks has done extensive research on India, publishing three books that look at the nation's caste system, as well as its history from the 12th century through its time as a British colony.

He is married to fellow Columbia history professor Janaki Bakhle; the couple has a 13-year-old son, and Dirks has a grown child from a previous marriage.

As Birgeneau did in 2004, Dirks will take the reins at UC Berkeley at a time of ongoing fiscal challenges. The passage of Proposition 30 means the school will not have to cut about $50million more from its roughly $2.2billion budget, but the regents may vote to raise tuition in some professional degree programs as soon as next week.

An advisory committee of UC faculty, students, staff, regents, alumni and foundation representatives selected Dirks as a top candidate after the lengthy search process.

The UC regents will take up the nomination at a meeting in late November. Birgeneau, who originally said he would retire in December, has agreed to stay on until June 1, 2013, when Dirks will take over if the regents approve his selection.

Contact Daniel M. Jimenez at djimenez@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/DMJreports.