Campus & community, Campus news, Work life

UC Berkeley faces a budget crisis like no other

Three campus leaders examined the campus’s finances in a livestreamed conversation

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ smiles at the camera
"As the first female chancellor of the top public university in the world, I am writing to you today because today’s decision by the Supreme Court is profoundly personal, alarming and distressing," UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ wrote in a message to the campus community. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)
Three UC Berkeley leaders discussed the campus’s $340 million shortfall during a livestreamed conversation on Friday. (UC Berkeley video)

Classrooms are dark. Residence halls are nearly vacant, performance spaces are suddenly silent and stadiums and playing fields are void of fans. State support is drying up and, while research continues, productivity has been tempered.

All told, Berkeley looks to be as much as $340 million short of its budget projections by the end of the 2021 fiscal year, as the university is facing a budget crisis unlike any before, campus leaders said Friday.

The dramatic change — just eight months ago campus leaders were celebrating a one-time surplus of $60 million — has consumed the energy of Chancellor Carol Christ, Vice Chancellor of Finance Rosemarie Rae, and Paul Alivisatos, the executive vice chancellor and provost.

The three discussed the grim financial picture and took questions from the campus community during a livestreamed Campus Conversation talk on Friday. Campus Conversations are regular events where top Berkeley leaders take questions from the campus community.

The hour-long conversation examined wonky questions of capital reserves, budget-planning assumptions, early-retirement programs, union contracts, tuition discounts and philanthropic strategy, along with the more human questions of staff morale, student wellness, social justice, staff layoffs and furloughs.

“I don’t know of any time more difficult in my lived life as this one,” Christ told the audience of thousands of viewers on YouTube and Facebook. “We are undergoing a triple crisis: the crisis of the pandemic, the financial crisis it has set off and the urgent crisis of social justice and systemic racism.”

Over the course of the talk, Christ and her two lieutenants expanded on a series of messages they have sent the campus community about the budget and they outlined how they hope to avoid long-lasting damage to Berkeley’s respected research and academic standing.

“We all reflect continuously on the fact that the COVID-19 crisis and the economic crisis has been an inequality amplifier in so many ways,” Alivisatos said. “We will do our best to try not to replicate that” when closing the budget deficit.

Still, all three leaders warned that hard times were ahead for Berkeley’s students, staff and faculty.

“People always talk about doing more with less,” Christ said. “We have to do less with less. I am really eager for ideas about how we can reduce work or eliminate activities. We cannot expect our staff to continually be taking up the slack with the reduction of our workforce.”

“It is certainly true we are in a very difficult period,” Alivisatos added. “We are well aware … that people may be dealing with very difficult circumstances. There could be a spouse or partner who has lost employment. … Every person engaged with Berkeley is almost certainly dealing with a lot of difficulties right now, and challenges to mental health and work-life balance.”

Many questions from the campus community could not be answered before the hour-long conversation ended. More information will be posted in the coming days on Berkeley’s financial website.

The next Campus Conversation will be Tuesday, August 11, when a panel will give an update on student services during the virtual fall 2020 semester.