Birgeneau enlists students in federal-funding push

In a talk to the Graduate Assembly Thursday evening, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau called for intensified student advocacy for his proposed public-private funding model, which would redirect federal dollars to replace revenue lost through state budget cuts.

Under the chancellor’s plan, which is modeled on Berkeley’s successful Hewlett Challenge endowment program, the federal government would redirect $1 billion a year over 10 years to fund America’s leading public research universities. Currently, the federal government spends roughly $30 billion annually on higher education.

With funding distributed based on state population and other criteria, California could receive up to $130 million a year. The proposal calls for state governments to match federal contributions, and also envisages attracting similar annual matching-funds from private donors.

The plan would combine federal, state and private contributions to establish permanent endowments, which would fund the creation of up to 300 new departmental chairs over 10 years with up to $30 million in additional support for faculty salaries and graduate funding across all campus departments.

“It’s great that the university is coming up with creative new ideas, and it’s the right direction for us to be going in,” said Graduate Assembly President Bahar Navab, who noted the Assembly is still assessing the plan in terms of its potential impact on the many challenges facing graduate students.

The proposal, which is backed by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, has received tentative support from some state legislators in Sacramento, and Birgeneau plans to visit Washington in the coming weeks to continue lobbying federal lawmakers in hope of garnering additional support.

“We think it has a real chance of being successful, but it will take a lot of political advocacy with people in Washington, and it’s an effort in which graduate-student organizations across the country can play an important role,” said Birgeneau. “Our challenge here is to devise a plan that will convince the federal government in this difficult time budget-wise, and garner bipartisan backing to support the great public research universities across this country.

“Alberto Hinojosa [GA external affairs vice president] has been working with graduate assemblies in Michigan, North Carolina, Washington, San Diego and others universities to see whether we can put together a coherent program among graduate students to help advocate for this plan,” Birgeneau added.

During a short question-and-answer session following his remarks, the chancellor — noting that student tuition has now overtaken state contributions in funding the 10-campus system — affirmed his support, in principle, for increased student participation in UC governance.

“Graduate students are really interested in hearing what the chancellor has to say about what’s happening on campus, about what his plans are, and about his efforts, on the state and federal level, to get more funding, especially for graduate students,” Navab said. “I hope this is the first of many appearances because our members really want a chance to engage with the administration.”