SAGE summit tackles graduate-student issues

Can federal funding save public universities?

That was one of the key questions posed to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and his fellow panelists during a summit on higher education held last week at Sutardja Dai Hall.

Co-hosted by the Berkeley Graduate Assembly, the summit featured two panel discussions on critical issues facing public higher education and graduate students. Panelist included state legislators Loni Hancock and Nancy Skinner; Robert Shireman, a former deputy undersecretary of education; and John Wilton, vice chancellor for administration and finance at Berkeley.

“We’re getting to the place now, given the level of public support for our UC system, where it’s hard to distinguish the UC system from a private institution,” said Skinner, whose Assembly district includes the Berkeley campus. “We’re blurring the lines now because we have so gutted public funding for the institution.”

Birgeneau seized the opportunity to spark some optimism during the forum by outlining the latest iteration of a public-private funding model — first floated in a 2009 op-ed piece he wrote for the Washington Post — tailored to the roughly 130 Ph.D.-granting public research universities across the United States.

“The character of any university is determined by how it spends its money, not by where it comes from,” said Birgeneau. “The goal here is preserve the great public teaching and research universities of this country.”

In its simplest form, the proposal calls for federal, state and private interests to create a permanent endowment through contributions of $1 million each. The $3 million endowment would pay out $150,000 per year to finance the establishment of a single departmental chair and related graduate-student support.

Scaling up to the national level, the federal government would contribute $1 billion per year over 10 years. Assuming that funds were based on state population, California would receive $130 million per year, requiring the state to contribute $130 million per year in matching funds. Under the model, the state would maintain existing levels of funding to higher education, while out-of-state and in-state students would pay the same rate of tuition.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, which represents more than 200 higher-ed institutions, recently adopted the matching-funds model as its preferred approach for federal investment in public higher education. The Association of American Universities, which represents the top 59 public and private research universities in the United States, is currently evaluating the model.

“If we implemented this model at Berkeley, we are confident we could raise the matching funds to create 30 chairs per year,” the chancellor said. “Over 10 years; that’s 300 new chairs, 300 new graduate fellowships, $30 million in additional funds for faculty salaries and support for graduate studies.”

During the summit’s first session, which featured David Dornfeld, chair of mechanical engineering at Berkeley, and UC Davis Graduate Dean Jeffrey Gibeling, panelists discussed the role public universities play in the economy and how state policies impact graduate education, research and jobs, and economic growth. Henry Brady, dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and Berkeley Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri, moderated the panel discussions.

“This event showed that there is an interest, and that we can have great dialogue,” said Bahar Navab, president of the Berkeley Graduate Assembly. “Hopefully, we can build on this where we have more student, federal and state leaders join us in the conversation in the future.”

The Berkeley Graduate Assembly co-hosted Friday’s event in conjunction with the 2011 national conference of Student Advocates for Graduate Education, a national organization representing graduate students at leading public universities throughout the United States. Formed in 2008, SAGE advocates for expanding access to public higher education, increasing funding for public higher education, changing the tax status for graduate students and increasing loan forgiveness for students working in public service.

“Many of the conversations happening throughout the state and the country tend to focus on undergraduates, and we’re trying to bring more attention to issues in graduate education,” said Alberto Ortega Hinojosa, chair of SAGE and a graduate student at Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “Everybody really appreciated the back-and-forth with the chancellor and Nancy Skinner, and the opportunity to have honest, one-on-one conversations with individuals who have been tackling these issues for some time.”