Birgeneau’s bottom line: ‘Public education matters’

Still hobbling a bit from knee surgery, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was all about resilience in his annual back-to-school media briefing Wednesday, insisting that despite the financial challenges facing the campus, “We remain absolutely committed to comprehensive excellence.”

Robert Birgeneau

Chancellor Birgeneau (Roibín Ó hÉochaidh photo)

This, he told reporters, was a recurring theme in his conversations with incoming freshmen and transfer students, whose first fall semester at Berkeley begins this week. Many, he said, told him they’d chosen Berkeley over Ivy League schools — or, in some cases, other state university systems — because whatever academic path they pursue, “they know that they’re being taught by some of the finest instructors in any university in the country.”

How to maintain excellence and access in the face of continuing disinvestment by the state has been a recurring theme of the chancellor’s fall briefings over the past several years, and Wednesday’s hourlong question-and-answer session was no different in that respect. And, as always, Birgeneau managed to find some silver linings, even as he minced no words about the Legislature’s failure to pay the costs of educating California residents, calling it “a disgrace.”

Having already slashed another $650 million in UC’s funding — a cut likely to grow to $750 million by the end of the year — the state is now “a minor partner,” providing a mere 12 percent of the campus’s budget, Birgeneau said. When he arrived here in 2004, he noted, the now-dissolved compact with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would have provided some $600 million in state funds for Berkeley this fiscal year, nearly three times the $220 million the campus will actually receive.

The only “silver bullet” for Berkeley’s budget woes, Birgeneau said, would be “for the state to give us back the $380 million that we were promised.”

But that, he added, is unlikely. Which is why administrators are looking to new sources of funding — from private philanthropy to increased revenues from nonresident tuition — to maintain Berkeley’s “access and excellence.”

“Our challenge now and going forward with a very different financial model,” he said, “is how do we maintain the values of Berkeley, how do we maintain our public character, when the public itself has disinvested in our higher-educational system?”

Birgeneau thanked “alumni and friends of the university” for “stepping up” in a time of crisis, noting the way Bear boosters saved endangered Cal athletics programs and reporting that the Campaign for Berkeley has now raised $2.2 billion toward its $3 billion goal. But he said that the state’s businesses, which rely on universities to provide them with qualified employees, need to do more: “I believe it’s time for corporate California to step up.”

He also cited the campus’s improved investment strategies, plans to use reserve funds to absorb an anticipated $60 million shortfall and Operational Excellence, his 2009 initiative designed to help the campus “spend less money on administration and more on the classroom.”

Efforts to streamline campus operations led to more than 150 layoffs last year, Birgeneau said, adding that he did not expect “any significant number of layoffs” to result from the next phases of Operational Excellence, and expressing the hope that further consolidation of services could be achieved largely through early retirements.  

And even as he lamented the state’s failure to provide adequate funding for classrooms and labs — “You cannot have a 21st-century university if you do not have 21st-century facilities,” he said — Birgeneau managed to sound optimistic about the campus’s future.

“If you read the East Coast media, you’d think that California is in a death spiral,” he said. “This is not true. Our state’s extraordinarily resilient, and our universities are very resilient.” Noting that “our financial model has changed dramatically,” he said Berkeley had nevertheless managed to maintain its high academic standing, and had “actually improved access for undergrads to classes,” adding some 1,700 seats in critical gateway courses.

The campus has also made modest strides in boosting financial aid to middle-class families, he said, though available funding “falls far short of the total cost of education here. And I would say that certainly for the UC system, and for Berkeley in particular, the next challenge we face is providing adequate financial aid to middle-income families in California.”

Birgeneau repeated his endorsement of a Board of Regents decision to create a pool for merit raises for staff and faculty.

“Our staff have worked extraordinarily hard, and have not had their salary increased for four years,” he said, even as they have begun contributing 3.5 percent of their salaries to the UC pension fund. “I decided, just as a matter of fairness, that they deserved [what is] essentially a cost-of-living increase, so that their net take-home would not be less than it has been.”

Berkeley faculty’s take-home pay has gone down as well, Birgeneau noted, at a time when elite private universities are making a concerted effort to lure them away.

“We’d like to think that chancellors and provosts and vice chancellors matter, but ultimately, the caliber of a university is determined by the caliber of the faculty,” he said. “We can’t have a great university if we don’t have great faculty.”

Toward the end of an hourlong focus on budget challenges, Birgeneau segued to the intangibles he said separate Berkeley from its competitors among the nation’s top universities.

Faculty “don’t come here because of money,” he said. “They come here because they believe in public education. There still are many people who are idealistic, and want to teach in public universities, and want to teach the kind of students that we have here.”  Pointing out that 36 percent of Berkeley students receive federal Pell grants for low-income students — compared with just 6 percent at Harvard — he called Berkeley’s undergraduate population “a different kind of student body.”

“Public education matters,” Birgeneau said. “I think it’s very important that we see these great public institutions like Berkeley through this financial transition, and maintain our public character.”