Chancellor Birgeneau announces he will step down at year’s end

Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau today (Tuesday, March 13) announced he is stepping down at the end of 2012 as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. When he leaves office on Dec. 31, he will have served more than eight years as head of the world’s premier public research and teaching university.

Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau

Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau (John Blaustein photo)

“I am deeply grateful to have been entrusted with the profound responsibility of leading this great institution and its outstanding faculty, staff and students through one of the most challenging periods in its 144-year history,” Birgeneau said in a letter today to the campus community.

The internationally distinguished physicist plans to remain at UC Berkeley to teach and conduct research.

Appointed as UC Berkeley’s ninth chancellor in September 2004, Birgeneau initially hoped to serve for seven years, but said he remained in his post longer because of the California economic crisis and the extraordinary challenges posed to the university by “the most extreme disinvestment by the state in UC’s history.”

Birgeneau’s leadership enabled the campus to maintain and expand its excellence, preserve its unique public character, develop new sources of funding, improve investment strategies, streamline operations, and launch a groundbreaking middle-class financial aid plan.

 “Although challenges still remain,” Birgeneau said in his letter, “I am confident that we have put into place a clear pathway for the years ahead and strategies that will support Berkeley’s ongoing excellence and its impact on the world.”

University of California President Mark Yudof said Birgeneau “has proven to be a passionate, dedicated and effective steward of the world’s greatest public university. He has been an ardent champion of academic excellence, as well as an unwavering advocate for the underdog.

“The chancellor has aimed high in his efforts to make UC Berkeley a truly global force in higher education and research, but he also has managed to preserve its historic standing in California as a beacon of hope and opportunity for all prospective students.”

Said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, “”Robert Birgeneau is a leading national spokesman for public higher education and for making sure that all qualified students, no matter what their income level, have access to an excellent education.”

The first of three ideals: Leadership

In his inaugural address on April 15, 2005, Birgeneau listed three core values he would uphold as chancellor: leadership, connection and inclusion.

To keep UC Berkeley a leader in higher education, Birgeneau strove to maintain its excellence in research, education and public service. In all disciplines, the faculty continued to garner awards and honors, including three Nobel Prizes, in 2006, 2009 and 2011. Since 2004, UC Berkeley and MIT have led all universities in the United States and Canada with 43 Sloan Fellowships each for junior faculty who are outstanding early-career scientists.

The campus remains a destination for top graduate students and the top choice, along with MIT, for winners of National Science Foundation fellowships. In the 2010 National Research Council rankings, UC Berkeley ranked second behind Harvard University, and well ahead all other schools, in the number of graduate programs in the top-most group. A new record has been set in the past several years for applications to UC Berkeley’s undergraduate program — more than 60,000 freshman applications were received for the 2012-2013 school year.

The campus’s research funding has grown from some $500 million since Birgeneau arrived in 2004 to  well over $700 million in recent years, and UC Berkeley is consistently ranked in the topmost tier of research and teaching universities in the world.

To support the campus’s academic preeminence, a $3 billion fundraising campaign, the largest in UC Berkeley’s history, was launched in 2008 and to date has raised $2.4 billion. Between 2005 and 2010,  philanthropic giving to the campus grew faster than at any other university in the country, public or private, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Birgeneau also established the Berkeley Management Company to bring a new level of professionalism to stewardship of the campus’s endowment.

Multidisciplinary connections

The chancellor’s second pledge was to foster multidisciplinary connections on a campus with phenomenal breadth and depth of academic expertise, with the goal of solving pressing societal problems. UC Berkeley today is a leader in fields including alternative energy and climate change; the biosciences, bioengineering and stem cell research; and in finding ways to alleviate global poverty.

Multidisciplinary initiatives and centers launched under Birgeneau include the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute; the Energy Biosciences Institute; the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences; and the Richard C. Blum Center for Developing Economies.

The connections Birgeneau has fostered include not only those on campus, but those made between UC Berkeley and society. Last year, the campus celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, which has dispatched in its history more UC Berkeley students than any other school, and established the Cal Energy Corps to send undergraduates worldwide to develop and deliver sustainable energy and climate solutions. The Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice minor became the fastest-growing minor on campus.

“It is a privilege to be a student at Berkeley,…but with that privilege comes the obligation to give back to society in proportion to the benefits received,” Birgeneau said at his inauguration.

Inclusion for all

Birgeneau felt his third ideal for the campus – inclusion – was so threatened as he took his post that he already was speaking publicly about the importance, post-Proposition 209, of access for all to public higher education.

Although tuition and fees have risen on campus due to loss of state funding, some 40 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduates now pay no tuition, and the cost for Pell Grant recipients, whose families usually have incomes under $45,000, has dropped over the past five years. The number of students with Pell Grants now constitutes 35 percent of UC Berkeley’s student body –-  about the same number of undergraduates as in all eight Ivy League schools combined.

Birgeneau recently made UC Berkeley the first public university to provide substantial financial aid for middle-income families. The Middle Class Access Plan limits parental contribution to 15 percent of family income for families earning between $80,000 and $140,000 annually. Overall, UC Berkeley students graduate with the lowest student debt among all public teaching and research universities nationwide.

A tireless advocate for the right to higher education for undocumented students, Birgeneau testified in Sacramento on behalf of the California DREAM Act, signed last October, which provides undocumented students the same opportunity to attend college as all Californians.

He also took up the cause of students who are former foster children, and upon winning the 2008 Academic Leadership Award from the Carnegie Corporation, gave $50,000 of his prize to seed an endowment fund for UC Berkeley students from the foster care system, saying “they face unique and substantial financial challenges.”

Birgeneau’s 2009 Pathfinders to Peace Prize from the Shinnyo-en Foundation commended him for his “commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and to the integration of public service as an essential component of the academic experience.”

UC Berkeley became, under Birgeneau’s leadership, one of the first universities in the country to create a Division of Equity & Inclusion at the vice chancellor level. A 10-year strategic plan for equity and inclusion that engages the entire campus community was launched, along with the Haas Diversity Research Center.

Securing the future

In today’s announcement, Birgeneau commended the UC Berkeley staff, who have experienced reductions and organizational change during the budget crisis, for responding “with great resilience and their engagement with Operational Excellence.” The comprehensive effort, begun in 2009 to cut $75 million in costs by streamlining administrative operations, already has achieved more than $20 million in annual savings.

He also praised the financial management plan for Intercollegiate Athletics that saved four sports teams and the loss of Intercollegiate Athletics’ status for another. “With the support of donors…,” he said, “we were able to maintain these teams and establish viable plans for their sustainability.”

Physics professor Robert Jacobsen, chair of UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate, said that for eight years, “Chancellor Birgeneau has worked tirelessly to improve access and excellence at UC Berkeley, and I wish he weren’t leaving. He has accomplished so much for faculty, staff and students, and his hard work and commitment have made a big difference in a tough environment.”

“Bob Birgeneau has been a strong advocate and leading national thinker on the future of public research universities. He has had a deep commitment to educating a diverse student population, including Pell Grant-eligible students,” added Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “We will miss his thoughtful voice at the council of presidents and chancellors.”

President Yudof plans to establish a committee to conduct a nationwide search for a new chancellor for UC Berkeley.

“I will continue to devote my full energies to leading Berkeley until my successor is appointed by the UC Regents,” said Birgeneau, “and will work with him or her to effect a smooth transition.”

The chancellor added that, after he steps down, he will return to the departments of physics and materials science and engineering as “a regular faculty member and hope I have one more truly significant physics/materials science experiment still to come in my academic career.”

He said he also intends to work at the state and national levels to “to ameliorate the deplorable funding situation of our nation’s great public teaching and research universities” and that he would continue his efforts, especially advocating for passage of the federal DREAM act, on behalf of “our most disadvantaged students.”