Birgeneau: ‘Ready for something new’

Robert Birgeneau became UC Berkeley’s ninth chancellor in 2004, a year marked by relative calm and the promise of financial stability under the University of California’s compact with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both the calm and the stability proved short-lived.

In this Q&A with the Berkeley NewsCenter, the outgoing chancellor looks back at his eventful nine-year tenure, and beyond his final day on the job Friday, May 31 to share his perspective on the state of public higher education, and contemplate his next chapter as a Berkeley faculty member and physics researcher.

Robert Birgeneau

Robert Birgeneau

NewsCenter: New chancellors mean a passage for Berkeley, but this is also a major transition for you, personally. How does it feel, after nearly nine years at the helm, to be winding down your tenure as chancellor of UC Berkeley?

Chancellor Birgeneau: Frankly, I am not anticipating that big a change in my level of activity. Obviously, on the one hand, I’m no longer going to have the day-to-day responsibilities of being the chancellor of UC Berkeley. On the other hand, in my specific research area there are a lot of interesting and exciting things happening.  I have two new postdocs who are very talented, and I have to do a lot of work to play catch-up with them. We also have to figure out exactly what are the problems that we want to focus on. That will probably take me much of the summer.

I will also be leading the Lincoln Project on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which is going to take about a week a month, and I have not yet been able to give it the energy and thought that it requires.

Q. Before we get into the Lincoln Project — which concerns the future of public higher education — let’s look back a bit. What did you think you were getting into when you accepted the job as chancellor in 2004, before the Great Recession hit and state funds stopped flowing to the University of California?

A. I was recruited for the job in an extraordinarily brief period of time  the entire recruitment process, from when I agreed to be a candidate to when I was offered the position, was slightly less than 48 hours. The president of the system, Bob Dynes  whom I knew well called me up and said, “You don’t have to commit to being a candidate  just come and talk to the committee.”

That was on a Wednesday. I flew out on Thursday, and my interview was at 8 o’clock Friday morning. I am a reasonably competitive person, so I presented myself to the committee as someone who very much wanted the position. Coming to Berkeley would have required me to leave the presidency in Toronto after four years, and I did not feel good about that. Basically, I had not finished what I wanted to do in Toronto.

On the Friday afternoon, I was on a Hertz shuttle bus [at Logan Airport], heading to our home in Boston where Mary Catherine was waiting, when the phone rang. It was the head of the search firm, offering me the position.

Q. What convinced you to accept?

A. In the interview I talked a lot about the beneficial impacts of universities on society, the role of social justice in universities and its propagation to society as a whole and, specifically, the role universities should play in terms of leveling the playing field for people from all kinds of backgrounds.

The committee said: This is wonderful. So I knew immediately that my values and Berkeley’s were consonant, and that this was a place where I could be both happy and effective in a leadership role.

Q. This was the era of UC’s “compact” with Governor Schwarzenegger, which supposedly promised financial stability. Do you ever think you might have been an Eisenhower-type figure, relatively untested and unremembered, if not for the crash that came several years into your administration?

A. It’s hard to know what impact different sets of conditions would have had on your life and your service. I do not know if the crash made me better or worse. But we did encounter a set of challenges which were quite extraordinary, and which required strategic thinking that was well beyond anything I could have imagined would have been required. This created tensions both within Berkeley and outside of Berkeley. A fair fraction of our faculty did not believe, when the first big budget cuts came, that we could both maintain our excellence and continue to be committed to the goals of equity and inclusion, for example, by providing the kind of financial aid that we do to low-income students.

Q. Maintaining both “access and excellence,” in your signature phrase, in the face of significant state disinvestment has been dubbed “the Berkeley miracle.”

A. There is no single person responsible for that. The first important thing that we did was simply to be honest with ourselves, in spite of a lot of pressures to not deal with the reality of the situation, from both faculty and some people in the administration. The key was that we were realistic. We realized that not only were significant cuts coming, but they might very well get worse as they did.

The other thing we realized was that there was no silver bullet to address the consequences of the dramatic disinvestment by the state. It wasn’t as if you could just do X, Y or Z and everything would be OK. We needed to proceed on many paths in parallel.

Q. Describe some of those paths.

Birgeneau at Sather GateA. The first and most obvious was that there was a lot of room for improvement in our administrative processes  that we could not only improve administration, but do it at much lower cost. That led to Operational Excellence, which may not have been uniformly popular with everyone, but which was absolutely needed. In fact, it was needed whether we had a funding crisis or not.

The second was our fundraising campaign. We had already launched the Campaign for Berkeley, but it became clear that we needed it to be really successful, and that as much as possible of the funds that we raised had to be directed toward people  whether it was scholarships, chairs that would support faculty salaries or discretionary money that would help with research, and could also support graduate students. We changed the financial model for chairs so that a significant part of the chair income provides support for both faculty salaries and graduate-student fellowships. That was one of the few changes we made where I acted unilaterally, since the committee that we set up to look at the issue of chair payouts simply did not converge.

Q. One of your more controversial decisions was to increase the numbers of out-of-state and international students at Berkeley.

A. That did generate a lot of controversy, albeit most of it external to the university. The irony in that is that when I came to Berkeley, I was surprised to find out that only 2.5 percent of our undergraduates at that time were international. That is different from MIT, and very different from the University of Toronto. I felt that California students were disadvantaged in their education by the paucity of international classmates.

Thus, initially our internationalization had nothing to do with money. In fact, when I started to push for an increase in the percentage of international students, I did not even understand the financial implications. In particular, I did not know what the tuition was for out-of-state and international students at that time. My motivation was entirely educational.

Q. Anything else on the financial front?

A. The other major factor was research. Our research income has gone up progressively every single year, and our indirect-cost recovery has increased commensurately. That has been really impressive. It is a tribute to the Berkeley faculty that at a time when both federal and state research funding have been dropping dramatically, our research funding has gone up year after year.

Q. Salaries, on the other hand, have remained flat.

A. Indeed, salaries of both faculty and especially non-represented staff have been constrained. That needs to be reversed. Recently I instituted a minor, 2 percent salary adjustment for our non-represented staff, because I felt that salaries had been frozen for too long. Our staff had worked very hard during this difficult period, and it was time at least to send a signal to them that we understood just how difficult it has been. It was only a token increase, but I felt that it was extremely important to make a statement that we appreciate the sacrifices that our staff have made on behalf of the university.

Q. What parts of the job will you miss? What won’t you miss?

A. I will not miss some of the nasty emails that come from people who do not like what we are doing and what we stand for. [Laughs.]

I’m an action junkie, so I am obviously going to miss the action. I will miss the range of issues. A former president of Princeton, William Bowen, who is a good friend of mine, wrote a book called Lessons Learned, about all the incredible challenges he faced there. He sent me a copy with a nice dedication in it, and I sent him an email back that said, “When I die and am reincarnated, I am coming back as the president of an elite private university. Here at Berkeley, I deal in one week with what you have dealt with in your entire tenure as president of Princeton.” [Laughs.]

Another thing I’ll miss: Berkeley has played absolutely the national leadership role among universities in terms of fair treatment of undocumented people, not just in California but nationally. Frankly, I’m going to miss having a platform that enables one to do social good at that level. This kind of social change is very hard for one individual to accomplish on his or her own.

I will also miss the camaraderie of the leadership team, a really impressive set of people.

Q. You’re taking on the leadership of the Lincoln Project, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences initiative to “advocate for the importance of public colleges and universities.” As you hand over the chancellorship to your successor, how do you view the state of public higher education in America?

A. I am deeply worried about public higher education throughout the country. In my opinion, we need a new model for the support of public higher education in this country, in order to guarantee that our universities continue to play the important role that they traditionally have played in American society.

Q. You’ve called for support from the federal government.

A. Yes. We are now the only advanced country where the federal government doesn’t play a direct role in supporting the operations of the top universities. I think that it is in the national interest to ensure that we have outstanding public universities in every state, that those universities be fully accessible, and that students graduate from those universities without excessive debt. We now know that we cannot rely on state legislatures alone to ensure that this remains true. So I believe that the federal government has to play a role. I also believe that corporate America needs to step up very directly.

Q. You suggested recently that in making the case for public universities, we may have focused too much on the material benefits to students themselves — that is, the economic value of a diploma — as opposed to the less tangible benefits to a democratic society of having better-educated, civic-minded citizens.

A. I do think that in the marketing of education, we have gone too far in terms of focusing on the economic impact, and not spent enough time on how education enhances all of us as human beings and makes us better people. Our communications strategy for public higher education needs to focus more on the citizenship aspects, rather than just the utilitarian aspects.

Speaking as a physicist and materials scientist here, I do not do my research because of some device that may come out of it. I do it because nature is beautiful, and the more you look at it at a fundamental level, the more elegant and beautiful it is. It’s the aesthetics and mystery of nature which drive my research, not any possible practical applications. If my research turns out to produce new devices or products, that’s great and I am happy about it. However, that is not what drives me and most other scientists.

Q. You’ll be spending a lot more time in the lab now. But you’ve actually been conducting research at Berkeley for some time.

A. I was here as chancellor for a little over a year when I realized that I was not going to be happy and that I would be less effective as chancellor if I did not have a private life as a faculty member doing research. So I have had a lab, with postdocs and graduate students and, until recently, undergraduates. Unfortunately, since we are currently working on materials containing arsenic, for safety reasons I cannot now have undergraduates in my lab.

Q. Can you describe the research in relatively plain English?

A. I work in the general area of physics that’s driven by new and unexpected discoveries in materials. In 2007-08 some people in Japan and China discovered a whole new family of materials that are made up of sheets of iron and arsenic  iron arsenide  that have a variety of counterintuitive properties that do not fit into any existing framework. They can be metals, they can be semiconductors, they can be magnets and they can be superconductors, and with subtle changes in the chemistry they can go from one state to the other. So I made a big gamble at that time  driven by my postdocs, mostly  to switch research topics completely, and start working on this new class of materials.

We are doing some basic, phenomenological characterization of the properties of the materials, and trying to understand which features are universal and which are not. There must be some underlying principles which determine this. We do not know what they are yet.

Q. It sounds like you’re looking forward to this.

A. I am ready to transition to something new in my life. Princeton’s current president, Shirley Tilghman  she is stepping down at the same time as me put it best. She said that there’s a natural rhythm to these jobs: a beginning, a middle and an end. In almost all cases, you yourself know when you have come to the end. I thought that was very eloquently stated, and she captured my own feelings well.

It has been an exciting job, but I feel that I have put my stamp on this great institution and made the major contributions that I can. I think that it is time for someone new, with fresh ideas and approaches, to come in. I think that this will prove to be very healthy for Berkeley.