Campus & community, People, Profiles, Campus news

Higher ed, lower cost, bigger bang

By Barry Bergman


Erin Gore’s laugh is heartfelt, at once sardonic and sunny, the real-world payoff to that ancient wisdom, “Years from now, you’ll look back at this…”

Erin Gore

During her time at Berkeley, Gore says, “we showed people it was possible to do more.” (NewsCenter photos by Barry Bergman)

As she contemplates the end of her four-year stint at UC Berkeley next week, the campus’s youthful chief financial officer – she won’t turn 40 until November – sees plenty to look back and laugh about.

Getting a cadaver part, for example, for an ACL, the result of a spill at Squaw Valley in which she broke two bones and tore three ligaments, including that crucial one in her knee. She’d driven to Squaw, questionably perhaps, just 24 hours after returning from a solo journey to Nepal and India, and it’s not entirely clear if the joke is of the cosmic variety – exotic adventure, no problems, local ski outing, disaster – or on herself.

Comical as that may be, though, it pales beside the memory of her arrival at Berkeley in 2009, and her subsequent shock at the state of the budget for which she was now, as chief financial officer, chiefly responsible.

What she’d inherited, she found, was “the lack of a budget.”

“My first year, we couldn’t even figure out where any of the money was,” she says, her laugh bouncing off the walls of her sixth-floor office in University Hall. “I was like, ‘What do you mean you don’t know where the money is?’ It was crazy.”

Gore, a former Bank of America managing director whose portfolio there included higher education, came to Berkeley to make budgeting make sense. Four years later, she’s not only helped the campus “reset how we think about our money,” but implemented a budget system – Berkeley’s “first ever,” she notes – to make sure available funds aren’t trapped in their usual channels, but can flow to the places they’re needed.

“The old idea about ‘permanent budget’ just meant that money was going where money had gone before,” she says, adding that such a model depends on regular revenue increases. With the Legislature closing the spigot of public funds to higher education in order to balance the state’s budget, pain has been felt in every corner of the campus. But much of the burden has been borne by students in the form of tuition hikes.

As Gore sees it, the problem isn’t so much the cuts in public funds as it is the lack of reliable maps to the maze of revenue streams that run through the campus. And she’s made it her mission to bring budget practices in higher ed into the 21st century — a task she plans to continue in her new job as executive vice president at Wells Fargo, leading its commercial-banking education and nonprofit team.

“I fundamentally don’t believe the cost of higher education needs to outpace inflation,” says Gore, whose parents are both Berkeley alums. (She got her bachelor’s degree at UCLA, and an MPA in economic policy from Columbia University.) “I believe you can pay the faculty, pay the staff, make UC Berkeley a wonderful place to work, and that you do not need tuition or money from the state to go up at a fixed percentage every year. And I’ve been passionate about doing projects that help to provide the information to allow people to think differently about the underlying cost structure for higher ed.”

Two of those projects, CalPlanning and CalAnswers , are at the heart of a campuswide effort to give the Berkeley community what John Wilton, vice chancellor for administration and finance, in his announcement of Gore’s pending departure, called “clear, accessible financials and campus data.”

“If it’s all in a black box, and there’s no budget out there, how do people know?” Gore says, adding that lack of information leads to “squirrelification,” a condition in which “everyone assumes that everything’s a scarce resource,” and is “always worried.”

“The key thing we did,” she says, “was to put in the data infrastructure, then fund our top priorities. We funded the Middle Class Access Plan. We funded the Common Good curriculum, to make sure students got the classes they needed. We funded faculty salaries, and staff salaries went up 2 percent last spring – we were out in front of the [UC] system on that. At the same time, through Operational Excellence , we’re reducing the expense structure to provide those additional funds.

“In doing all that,” Gore says, “we showed people it was possible to do more.”

Simplify, simplify

“The thing that stands out about Erin is she really does believe in student involvement, and improving the university for students as well as faculty and administration,” says Bahar Navab, until recently the president of the Graduate Assembly and now one of its vice presidents.

Gore outside California Hall

Gore at California Hall

“In many ways she’s been student government’s biggest advocate within the administration,” adds Navab, who says Gore’s counsel was vital on a number of projects important to students, from an organizational shift of the ASUC Auxiliary to the renovation of Lower Sproul Plaza. “A lot of the things the university is proud of, Erin has had a hand in making happen.”

“That’s been one of my greatest joys, working collaboratively with students,” says Gore.

At Wells, she plans to “go back to working with universities at the national, strategic level,” and to help bring some discipline to higher-education finance, which “hasn’t fundamentally changed in fund accounting since the early ’80s.”

Instead of a manageable handful of funds, Gore says, UC Berkeley maintains a mind-boggling 22,000 – as do many other universities, privates included. “Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA, everybody,” she says. “It’s insane.”

Reducing that complexity is a goal Gore hopes to make part of a nationwide agenda.

“Why can’t the cost of higher education be turned back?” she asks. “We can still pay our faculty, and we can still deliver high-quality education, but how do you set a standard so that there’s always downward pressure on what that total bill should be?

“If you’ve got 22,000 funds, it’s impossible to see how you would do that,” says Gore. “If you had seven funds, you’d be able to say, ‘OK, if I did these four things I could deliver more with less.’ The fact that there’s this structure with so much complexity makes it hard, and I think that’s why our students, and students and families across the country, get frustrated. Because it doesn’t pass the common-sense test, that it’s so hard.”

Simplifying the way higher-education institutions handle their money, Gore says, “requires a big, coordinated effort. Berkeley can’t do it on its own. UC can’t do it on its own. You’ve got to have this national footprint. And I’m personally committed to staying in that conversation, and helping to lead it.”

That said, Gore looks back on the past four years with pride, and is typically upbeat about Berkeley’s ability to stay the course — not just toward financial sustainability, but toward a system that’s both comprehensive and comprehensible, and best serves the needs of students, faculty and staff.

“Having a budget system, and thinking about what’s key to keeping Berkeley great – and what’s not key – is an important discussion to have,” she says. “We have an excellent analytical and finance community on campus, and I’m sure they’ll continue to work collaboratively and push that conversation.”

Her confidence, she notes, is evidence-based. Just this summer, Gore recalls, “We had this analytic community come together – we had 90 people, people sitting on the floor, out the door, we had 70 people streaming, and everyone was having the conversation together about how to think about the whole process, getting information out and standardizing it.

“It was one of my proudest moments on campus,” she declares, not laughing but smiling broadly. “It was awesome.”