‘A very difficult time’ for the campus, but Birgeneau accentuates the positives as he looks toward the future

Coming off what he called “the single most difficult year I personally have experienced” in his long academic career, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau met with staff Thursday in an hourlong session marked by regrets, realism and the recurring theme that better times lie ahead for Berkeley.

“I am sometimes accused of being excessively optimistic,” he told members of the Berkeley Staff Assembly at the top of a keynote and Q&A session that has become something of an annual ritual. Under the circumstances, he added, his comments would be only “moderately optimistic.”

True to his word, he tempered the good news — which included the expected end of systemwide furloughs in August, an uptick in private fundraising and an improving outlook for long-term financial sustainability — by acknowledging that the state’s disinvestment in public higher education is apt to continue, and that the short-term future is less than rosy.

He left no doubt, though, of his belief that the campus would meet the challenges ahead.

“We have all of these strategies, and they all need to work,” he said. “But I’m confident that they all will work, and so I’m confident we will be able to maintain Berkeley’s excellence” as well as its “public character.”

Birgeneau cited a number of “positive indicators” of Berkeley’s health, pointing to evidence he said demonstrates that students, staff, faculty and donors all continue to support the campus.

“One of the things we worried about was that we would see talented students stop coming here, and we would see an incredible exodus of talented people on the staff and faculty,” he said. “So far, that has not come to pass.”

The chancellor noted that despite cutbacks and fee hikes, more than 50,000 applicants sought admission to the fall 2010 freshman class, a record number. Similarly, he said, National Science Foundation graduate-research fellowship winners, who are drawn from the “top undergrads in the country” — and who are free to take their generous stipends to any university in the United States — are making Berkeley their No. 1 choice by an even bigger margin than in years past.

“It just shows that the most talented young people still look at Berkeley and say, ‘This is the place I want to come to get my education,'” declared Birgeneau. “So we can feel really good about that.”

He was less sanguine about some of the events of the past year, from layoffs and furloughs to campus unrest that included occupations, vandalism and even a nighttime attack on his residence by torch-wielding protesters.

“It’s been difficult, and I would have to say — and I’m really sorry about this — that probably the staff took the brunt of the difficulties,” Birgeneau said. But faced with a budget shortfall representing some one-sixth of the university’s operating budget, he explained, the campus was forced to take drastic measures.

Although 512 campus employees have been laid off since January 2009, he said, another 460 jobs were saved by furloughs imposed systemwide by the UC Office of the President. So “even though we feel badly about furloughs,” he added, they were “a very important bridge” over the depths of the financial crisis.

Birgeneau also recalled that when he addressed BSA members last year — just days after the full extent of state funding cutbacks was revealed — he stressed that “we’re all absolutely in this together,” and appealed to the campus community “to make sure that when we circle the wagons we shoot out, not in.”

“Not everyone did,” he said Thursday. “That’s been my biggest sadness, actually, as chancellor, is the people who shot in, not out.”

By contrast, he noted the uniformly positive response he’s received from faculty he’s approached to help with the next phase of Operational Excellence, meant to design and implement strategies to streamline operations, improve effectiveness and achieve $75 million in annual cost savings. “People want this to work,” he said.

On the revenue front, the chancellor acknowledged the possibility that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s May budget proposal — which would restore hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the UC system — might not be approved by the Legislature, but said he believed the “worst case” scenario is that funding for UC would stay flat. “And if we stay flat,” he said, “we will not be in luxury, but actually we will be okay.”

Birgeneau also vigorously defended the campus’s plans to admit more nonresident students in coming years. Almost since his arrival in 2004, “I had been pushing to increase the number of out-of-state and international students here for educational reasons, without particularly worrying about the financial implications,” he said, adding that “of course, it also turns out to be financially tremendously advantageous.”

And he was adamant in insisting the shift would not come at the expense of California residents: “We have not eliminated designated slots for Californians, which is what the press is saying we’re doing,” he said. Instead, “we’re reducing our over-enrollment gradually,” referring to the roughly 2,400 Cal students for whom the campus receives no state funding.

Rather than simply slashing the size of the freshman class — the strategy employed, he said, at Cal State Long Beach — Berkeley has chosen to fill 500 of those slots with out-of-state and international students, who are required by state law to pay the full cost of their education. That, he stressed, still leaves 1,900 California residents above state-funded enrollment levels — while helping to whittle down the deficit.

Birgeneau even found a silver lining in the clouds that have darkened the campus, the UC system and his own job as chancellor over the past year.

“When I first came here to Berkeley six years ago,” he recalled, “if you talked to alumni, they told you, ‘Yeah, but Berkeley’s a public institution, and I went to graduate school at Stanford so I’m going to give my money to them.’

“The one good thing I can see that has come out of progressive disinvestment by the state,” he went on, “is now everyone is educated to the fact that we have significant financial challenges, and that we need the public to step up — either step up by electing the right people in Sacramento, or step up through personal philanthropy.”

Individual donors are indeed stepping up again, he said. And after meeting with presidents of major foundations — many of which “were strongly biased toward private universities” in times past — he thinks Berkeley’s prospects are looking up.

“With only one exception so far, every one has said, ‘We’re now leveling the playing field,'” he reported, citing a growing awareness of the financial challenges facing public universities. “And frankly, if the playing field is leveled, that’s all we need. Berkeley can compete against anybody with a level playing field.”