Nathan Brostrom, Berkeley’s budget guru, departs for Oakland – but won’t leave campus behind

Local-news viewers were no doubt surprised in November to see footage of Nathan Brostrom, Berkeley’s vice chancellor for administration, facing down protesters in the lobby of the UC Office of the President in downtown Oakland. Brostrom, then serving as UCOP’s interim executive vice president, was caught in the crossfire as more than 100 angry students, staff, and supporters demanded to meet with President Mark Yudof over his handling of the budget crisis.

Nathan Brostrom

Nathan Brostrom (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Yudof was off that day, but Brostrom and interim provost Larry Pitts spent several hours talking with the group. And here, perhaps, is the real surprise: Looking ahead to his new, full-time role as UC’s executive vice president for business operations — Friday marked his last day as a campus employee — he laments that such encounters are among the things he’ll miss most about his old job in California Hall.

“I think it’s our obligation to engage with all of our stakeholders in these kinds of conversations — and quite frankly, I enjoy doing it. It’s one of the things I have less of an opportunity to do here at OP, because I don’t walk through Sproul Plaza every day and don’t have as many interactions,” says Brostrom, who plans to make time to visit UC campuses to meet with students, faculty, staff, and community leaders “in a sort of unfettered dialogue, without agendas.”

“We are a public university, and we’re accountable not only to our students and employees but to the taxpayers of the state of California,” he says, adding that while he may not have changed any minds during the Oakland sit-in, “you can at least get information out there and promote greater understanding on both sides.”

“The process knits us together with the community,” he adds. “And, at least for me, it’s a reminder that we’re all part of the university, and we all share in the hope for its sustained excellence.”

That hope — together with a financial prowess honed at such institutions as J.P. Morgan, Merrill Lynch, and the California treasurer’s office — has been evident since March 2006, when Brostrom was named the campus’s chief administrative and financial officer, managing its annual operating budget and overseeing a division with far-reaching responsibilities that include safety and transportation, athletics, and health services.

“I was drawn to higher education, but to UC Berkeley in particular, because of its combined commitment to both excellence and access,” Brostrom says. “And those twin pillars are threatened in the current funding environment.

“One of the things I saw here at OP,” he adds, “was the ability to work directly on trying to develop some solid and sustainable funding models that will preserve both the excellence of the institution and its access for all Californians.”

Continuity is key

His new job, he explains, is a continuation not just of the months he spent on loan to OP, working four days a week in Oakland and one at Berkeley. He’ll also be trying to solve the same budget issues he set out to address years before the onset of UC’s current financial crisis.

“I’m really proud of a lot of the initiatives that we launched then,” Brostrom says. “It was a quieter, easier time, but I think a lot of the things we launched on the Berkeley campus tempered some of the effect of the downturn. That’s hard for people to realize, because everyone is feeling the effects of the furloughs and layoffs and reduced services. But we did put in place a number of new initiatives on budgeting, debt management, asset management, and private philanthropy which, both in the short term and the longer term, will do a lot to sustain the university.”

As one small example, he cites the creation of a systemwide investment pool that moved some $600 million in reserves from so-called overnight funds into higher-yielding — but equally secure — investments. Over the coming year, Brostrom estimates this change alone could generate as much as $12 million for the Berkeley campus. Taken together, he says, such efforts “did help stem the severity of the crisis.”

And while there remains much to be done to improve UC’s budget management, he adds that “we have to be really aggressive and creative” in getting the state to reinvest in higher education. That means considering initiatives like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed constitutional amendment to guarantee minimum levels of funding for the UC and CSUC systems, and making a stronger case for UC as a vital economic engine for the state.

“Everyone in Sacramento supports the university, but they’re looking at the tradeoff between funding us and cutting in-home health care,” he says. “We somehow have to get out of the environment where we’re being compared directly with some of these social services, so that our budget is seen as an investment budget.”

In a message to the campus community last month, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau praised Brostrom for having “significantly transformed and professionalized our budgeting, financial planning, and capital-funding processes,” and for helping Berkeley to “sustain the deep cuts imposed by the state while protecting our academic and research mission.”

While a search is under way to find a successor, Birgeneau announced, Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary will assume “a substantial portion” of Brostrom’s responsibilities on an interim basis. Yeary — a Berkeley alum and international-finance banker who donates his salary to a needs-based scholarship program — has asked the chancellor not to consider him for the job on a permanent basis, calling his upper-management role at Berkeley “a sabbatical from my business career.”

Brostrom, meanwhile, has “several events I’m thinking of that I’m going to come back for, whether I’m invited to them or not” — among them, the chancellor’s annual fall reception for incoming freshmen. “To talk to these young men and women, and to hear their life stories and see their visceral excitement at being at Berkeley — it would buoy me for most of the fall,” he says. But he also notes that he and his family live nearby, and promises that “people will see us at lectures and Cal Performances and basketball games, and just walking around campus.”

“I was teasing the chancellor that he hired me because of my Wall Street background, but one thing I brought to the job that helped a lot was that my father was a minister and I went to church potlucks for 20 years, learning to listen to people and engage with them,” Brostrom says. “And I think that’s what I’ll miss the most, but also what I’ll take the most from my time at Berkeley — all the amazing human interactions and friendships and relationships that I hope will last a lifetime.”