42 years on, Berkeley’s provost is ready to leave the nest

George Breslauer, who has announced plans to retire in December as UC Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost  the campus’s second-highest administrative role  describes himself as “a nester, not a nomad.” So it’s not surprising that he’s spent his entire professional life at Berkeley, where he landed his first teaching job in 1971.

George Breslauer (Peg Skorpinski photos)

What’s remarkable  even to Breslauer himself  is that a scholar devoted to parsing pronouncements from Soviet leaders should have advanced through the ranks to the highest level of campus leadership. The No. 2 man in the nation’s No. 1 public university had been, until recently, a decidedly reluctant administrator.

“I was not a self-assured guy seeking to climb the administrative ladder,” says Breslauer, contemplating his 42 years at Berkeley from his office in California Hall. “I had no idea what I was getting into. And, frankly, I didn’t know whether I was up to it.”

Berkeley, for Breslauer, has been a testing ground, a living laboratory of chances to prove he was “up to it.” He was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award in social sciences in 1997, and a year later was appointed Chancellor’s Professor, in recognition of exceptional achievement in scholarship, teaching and service to UC Berkeley. As a scholar, he’s authored or edited 12 volumes on the USSR and Russia, and has served continuously since 1992 as editor of the scholarly journal Post-Soviet Affairs.

Yet he never imagined, when he joined the Berkeley faculty at age 25, that he’d become the campus’s senior academic official.

“Graduate school doesn’t train you to be an administrator,” he observes.

But duty called, and Breslauer answered  even when he might rather have been cracking coded messages from the Kremlin. He was still a young researcher in the early 1980s when he was drafted to head the Center for Slavic and East European Studies. Ten years later he agreed, with reservations, to become chair of the Department of Political Science.

Breslauer not only rose to those leadership challenges, but acquired a taste for greater ones. In 1999 he sought, and won, appointment as dean of the Division of Social Sciences; in 2005 he became executive dean of the College of Letters and Science.

He became executive vice chancellor and provost in 2006, a time of relative calm for the campus. The dot-com crash of 2000 had passed, and the financial crash of 2008 was still to come. He and Chancellor Robert Birgeneau “dreamed big dreams” for UC Berkeley, he recalls.

Just two years later the economy cratered, and with it the university’s state funding.

Despite some anxious moments, however  and a budget hole the campus is still climbing out of  Breslauer says his current job has been “enormously challenging, at the same time as it’s been enormously interesting.” And he’s found the search for ways to both limit the pain and advance new visions for Berkeley’s future “stimulating, often exhilarating.”

Serendipity and Kremlinology

Breslauer, in private, displays an easy sense of humor not always evident in public appearances. His comic timing hints at his background in amateur theater.

Breslauer, “a nester, not a nomad,” in his office in California Hall

His office shelves hold a few family photos, mementos from the former Soviet Union  nesting dolls from Ivan the Terrible to Mikhail Gorbachev, a 1974 vintage Russian bottle of Pepsi-Cola — a baseball signed by the Oakland A’s, foreign-policy and political-science journals, books that run the gamut from Fiat Lux to Lincoln at Gettysburg to the satirical Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.

A soft-spoken New York native, Breslauer divides his life into three discrete stages. He grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. He studied at the University of Michigan, where he earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. And he made his academic career at Berkeley.

It’s a career shaped largely by serendipity: He no more intended to become a Kremlinologist than he did to become Berkeley’s provost. As a boy he loved foreign languages  his skill as an impressionist, he believes, flows from his ear for the spoken word  and became fluent in Spanish. Given the chance to study a new foreign language, he chose Russian simply because it was also taught by his Spanish instructor.

“My passion in education, from middle school on, was studying foreign languages,” he says. But spurred by household discussions led by his parents, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, and the ever-present threat of nuclear war, he opted to use his foreign-language skills to study contemporary international affairs, rather than pursuing a life as a linguistics scholar or translator. He decided to major in political science, and focused his academic career on studying the Soviet Union.

“Not an ethnographer by temperament,” Breslauer most enjoyed “combing through texts.” Once, he recalls, he discovered “a big discrepancy” in how Pravda and Izvestiya described the same event.

“I knew I had a ‘Eureka’ moment,” he says, remembering his certainty that he’d turned up a political split in the Kremlin. “The thrill was so great, I couldn’t read any more. I just started dancing, just circling the living room in glee.”

‘A steady hand’

As provost, by contrast, Breslauer has projected a more sober image, and believes he’s provided the campus with “a steady hand through difficult times, and a reassuring voice.” During a silent protest of African American students in 2010, for example, he spoke with them outside California Hall, where they’d marched from Sather Gate, to show his support for their concerns. A faculty member who witnessed the scene emailed him the next day, saying she’d written on her blog that “Breslauer was shaken.”

“I wrote her back and said I wasn’t shaken at all,” he recalls. “I was concerned. I was moved. But I don’t shake that easily.”

“In this job,” Breslauer says, “you can’t afford to be shaken very often. You have to be stirred, because otherwise you don’t care. But you have to retain a steady hand.”

Birgeneau concurs. “We could not have navigated so effectively the treacherous waters of the past six years without George as provost,” he declares. At Berkeley, he adds, “we prize contributions to research, teaching and public service. There is no person in our community who exemplifies excellence in all three domains better than George Breslauer.”

Breslauer, for his part, credits the chancellor  an executive he describes as “not just brilliant but steadfast”  for steering the campus leadership team’s efforts to maintain Berkeley’s “access and excellence” during an era of draconian cuts in state funding. Among the most satisfying features of the job, he says, has been Birgeneau’s eagerness to discuss and share major decisions with his second-in-command.

Asked to assess his own tenure as provost, Breslauer cites his efforts to increase academic salaries, cushion the impacts of budget cuts, recruit and retain stellar faculty, and recruit 22 deans, directors and vice provosts. He’s proud of his efforts to improve the physical infrastructure for faculty, staff and students. Breslauer championed new lighting systems for Zellerbach Playhouse and Zellerbach Hall, the refurbishing of Dwinelle Hall, the “Year of the Roofs” – a project involving the repair of about a dozen leaking roofs in academic buildings  and, on its heels, the “Year of the Elevators.”

He also consistently pushed for improvements in undergraduate education, funding a large addition of lecturers and graduate-student instructors to teach badly needed class sections in subjects like reading and composition, foreign languages, the sciences and math. He’s proud that the campus is expanding Berkeley Connect, a mentoring program linking faculty, grad students and undergrads, which he says has been “a phenomenal success” in its pilot form in the English Department.

“One of the most important qualities for a provost,” Breslauer says, is to be a “very good listener who wins confidence as an honest broker. I would be very gratified were people to view this as a key feature of my legacy.”

As he contemplates his final year as provost, Breslauer reflects on the campus’s financial condition, which he believes is becoming increasingly sustainable and less subject to decisions made in Oakland and Sacramento.

“I think we’re in solid condition,” he says. “I leave with a sense of optimism, because the course is charted. Now it requires that we stay that course. It won’t be easy; it will require continuous ingenuity and determination. But if we follow through, we’ll be able to maintain both access and excellence,” which Breslauer considers to be the hallmark of UC Berkeley.

Staying the course, however, is a job for the next wave of campus leadership. Breslauer originally planned to retire in June. He postponed his departure until December to assist with the transition from Birgeneau to Chancellor-designate Nicholas Dirks, who won’t take office until June 1. After that, Breslauer plans to enjoy “a sustained period of doing just whatever seems most appealing at the moment.”

“The idea of waking up one morning and suggesting to my wife that we go visit our daughter in New York City  that’s an exciting prospect,” he says with obvious relish. He’d like to go back with his wife and two grown children to Paris, where they spent a year during his last sabbatical in 1999, and to take a family trip to Cuba. In time he expects to conduct new research and writing on Russia, and he doesn’t rule out a return  albeit likely limited to one class at a time  to teaching, which he’s always found “deeply satisfying.”

“I look forward to the spontaneity above all, and to just relaxing,” Breslauer says.

He mulls this a moment. “I’m sure that after six or 12 months of spontaneity, I’ll get bored,” he adds, “and my achievement-orientation juices will start flowing again.”