Chancellor ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the year ahead

The setting for Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s back-to-school press briefing Thursday was similar to last year’s event: the chancellor, flanked by senior campus officials, speaking across a boardroom table to an assemblage of reporters wielding notebooks, cameras and microphones.

Chancellor Birgeneau speaks to reporters. (Video by Roxanne Makasdjian / Media Relations)

The difference in tone, though, was striking. In contrast to fall 2009, when the campus was reeling from severe cuts in state funding, the mood was notably sunnier at California Hall. Sunnier, at least, in the Berkeley sense of the word — it’s not yet time to mothball those raincoats and windbreakers.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re turning a corner,” said Birgeneau, who expressed pride at how, “over the past year, we dealt with probably the most dire economic situation that Berkeley has faced in its modern history.”

“Everyone contributed,” he said, noting that “faculty, administrators and staff” took furloughs that saved the positions of more than 450 staff who would otherwise have been laid off. Birgeneau also cited higher student fees — “which we regret, but were necessary” — as a significant factor in the campus’s brightening budget picture.

And he credited donors and alumni with “stepping up in a time of extreme economic hardship for everyone.” The campus, he said, collected $313 million in donations during the last fiscal year, an improvement of $7 million over the same period in 2008-09. The contributions bring the amount raised by the Campaign for Berkeley to $1.8 billion since 2005, well over halfway to the target of $3 billion by 2013.

“Part of our strategy has been not only to deal with the immediate budget crisis that we faced this past year, but to try to make sure that we put UC Berkeley on a solid path to financial sustainability,” said Birgeneau. “And we think we’re well on the way to that.”

“Though we still face considerable challenges,” he said, “we feel we’re in a much more known and secure situation than we were last year, which was, frankly, pretty grim.”

One key challenge is funding for public higher education from Sacramento, which triggered the crisis last year by imposing harsh cuts on the UC system. As of Thursday, Berkeley’s first day of classes, California still lacked a budget, adding a layer of uncertainty to the year ahead.

Reprising the theme of “cautious optimism,” Birgeneau said, “We’re on track, both short-term and possibly even long-term, as long as we don’t sustain new, draconian cuts from the state of the sort that we suffered last year.”

On that note, Birgeneau, who has been a vocal advocate for higher education in the Capitol, said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had assured him recently over dinner that “he was going to stick to his commitment” to provide $300 million in additional funding for UC. “So we’re very hopeful about that.”

But he cautioned, “As every single person here knows, until you have a budget, you don’t have a budget. You can’t spend dollars, or even IOUs, that don’t exist yet.”

Thursday’s hourlong session touched on a range of other campus issues, from the record number of low-income students attending Berkeley this fall — not just more than all Ivy League schools combined, as the chancellor likes to boast, but now outpacing “the Ivys plus Stanford” — to the influx of out-of-state and international students, a much-needed boon, Birgeneau said, both to geographical diversity and the campus’s bottom line. Berkeley is gradually increasing its ratio of nonresident students and reducing the number of over-enrolled California students, or those for whom the campus receives no state funding.

In contrast to last year, he added, when course offerings were reduced by 1 percent, “We’ve put more money into reading and composition courses, and more money — which will be implemented in the spring semester — into the gateway math and science courses.”

In a message to the campus earlier this week, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer announced that more than $1 million in new funds would be allocated to the chemistry, mathematics, physics and statistics departments to add lower-division courses and sections required for students majoring in the sciences and engineering.

Other topics included the controversy over this year’s “On the Same Page” program — Mark Schlissel, Berkeley’s dean of biological sciences, observing that public interest in the program and the issues surrounding personal-DNA testing had “really pushed the debate along” — and Berkeley’s Operational Excellence project, now gearing up for its design phase.

The aim of Operational Excellence is “to make sure we spend our public dollars as efficiently as possible” and “enhance our educational mission,” said Birgeneau, who has set a target of $75 million in annual operational savings within the next three years.

Those savings, he promised, “will go back into the classroom.”

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