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The Unretiring Chancellor

March 13, 2013
Photo of Robert Birgeneau

Robert Birgeneau looks ahead to teaching, research, and redesigning the public university.

During his nine years in the job, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau oversaw a successful capital campaign, orchestrated a $320 million stadium renovation, stabilized the University’s budget, and implemented a plan for giving tuition breaks to middle-class students. His accomplishments occurred during what he describes as “an extraordinary period in the history of the University of California,” when an economic downturn precipitated state funding cuts, tuition increases, campus layoffs, and student protests. The outgoing Chancellor sat down with California magazine recently, and talked about the Berkeley he inherited and the one he leaves behind. He also shared his vision for reshaping the public university system.

California: You have proposed a new governance model for the University of California. Why does the system need an overhaul?

When I started as chancellor at Berkeley in 2004, UC as a whole had a compact with Governor Schwarzenegger. The compact promised a fixed budget for one year. There would be a 4 percent increase each year for the next three years, and after that the budget would increase by 5 percent a year. If Schwarzenegger’s commitment had held and we hadn’t had the huge downturn that we had in 2007 and 2008, then our funding in this past year from the state would have been about $590 million. That just would have covered inflationary increases. Instead, our funding from the state was approximately $270 million. So that means in a very short length of time, state support decreased by more than a factor of two, and we were missing $320 million. That’s a real $320 million, which was supposed to pay salaries of faculty and staff. That corresponds to about 4,000 people whose salaries disappeared. That, of course, would have absolutely crippled the University.

Four thousand people systemwide, or just at Berkeley?

Just at Berkeley. We lost the salaries for 4,000 out of our 8,000 state-supported staff, to put it in human terms. Consequently, we had to put in a Herculean effort to preserve jobs for the overwhelming majority of our staff, and simultaneously retain our faculty, preserve access for our students, and of course maintain the excellence of the University overall. There was no silver bullet for this. Instead we had to proceed along six or seven parallel paths, one of which was ensuring that our operations were much more efficient. Accordingly, we launched a major program (which has become a model for all of California) called Operational Excellence, to make our administrative functions more efficient and less costly.

Second, our alumni giving when I arrived was, frankly, embarrassingly low. Cal graduates traditionally took the view that we were a state institution and therefore were supported by the state. The reality is that because of this extraordinary disinvestment by the state, our financial model is not very different from those of the private universities that we compete with. A critical part of our survival as a great institution has been the education of our alumni about the importance of their continuing financial support; this is absolutely necessary if they want their alma mater to continue to be a preeminent university. When I arrived, annual giving, which is mostly from alumni, was about $170 million a year. Last year it was $395 million. This means that alumni giving together with income from the endowment, which also derives from past alumni support, came to more than half a billion dollars last year. This is approximately twice as much as the state provided. Our alumni are now twice as important as the state in providing support for Berkeley.

Of course, we had to do many other things. We had to invest more carefully, we had to increase faculty and staff contributions to the pension fund, and of course we also had to dramatically increase student tuition. Students are now asked to pay their fair share of the cost of their education, their fair share being somewhat under 40 percent of the actual cost of their education.

During this difficult period, we—under the leadership of President Mark Yudof—instituted the Blue and Gold program, which provides generous financial aid to low-income students. So although tuition has gone up to a little over $12,000, if your family income is $80,000 or less, then the tuition is 0. It will stay that way as long as the state continues to support the Cal Grants program.

However, I heard from countless alumni who fell solidly into the financial range of the middle class, that they also were facing significant financial challenges. In response, this year UC Berkeley became the first public university, not just in California but in the entire United States, to introduce a substantial financial aid program for students from middle income families. Specifically, if one of our students’ family income is between $80,000 and $140,000, then the parental contribution is limited to 15 percent of family income. Importantly, if tuition goes up, that family will not pay more; their costs are fixed. Now, of course, this middle income financial aid program requires that state support not continue to decline—otherwise, we will not be able to maintain it.

The state has passed Proposition 30, Democrats have taken control of the legislature, and Governor Brown in his State of the State address said, “I will not let the students become the default financier of our colleges and universities.” Does this mitigate the need for a change to the governance model?

There is a lot of confusion about the significance of recent government actions. We are grateful that Prop. 30 passed, because in the near term we’re insulated from further cuts from the state. But some people believe this means our funding is going up. Actually our net funding is continuing to decrease. Specifically, state support is going up at the rate of 5 percent a year; but this represents only 0.5 percent of our overall budget. At the same time, tuition is frozen. Remember, the only Berkeley students who are required to pay an increase in tuition are those from families whose income is over $140,000. The net effect of frozen tuition is that our overall budget, normalized to inflation, will continue to go down. It also means that jobs for our staff generally will be threatened. So, unfortunately, the reality is very different from the way it’s been presented out of Sacramento. We cannot have a situation, long-term, where students whose family incomes are more than $140,000 don’t pay at least inflationary increases in the cost of their education. That is the situation that we currently find ourselves in at UC Berkeley and, indeed, the whole University of California.

All right, so tell me a little bit about how this evolves into a new governance model.

Before starting on governance, let me reemphasize that the situation we face in California is not unique. Some of you may have read that I’ve just agreed to lead a national effort out of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to address at a national level the challenge of public education. We will be working toward devising a new model for the support of public higher education in the United States. In our view, any such model must involve individuals and foundations, state governments, and the federal government as well. This project will last three years. I’ll of course continue to teach and do research at Berkeley, but I very much want to see whether or not we can make real progress in changing the model for support of public higher education in the United States.

This now also naturally leads into a discussion of the master plan for governance. The Master Plan was created at a time when there were a limited number of campuses in the UC system, and approximately 70 percent of our budget came from the state. It therefore was natural that the University of California would be governed by people (regents) appointed by successive governors in Sacramento. We’re not suggesting changing that—we still think the regental system has many positive features—but in the current governance system, even though alumni and students between them provide four times as much money as the state, they have no direct say in the governance of the campus which they attend or from which they graduated.

A group of us here at Berkeley, led by C. Judson King, who’s head of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, and in addition, involving myself; the provost, George Breslauer; our vice chancellor of administration and finance, John Wilton; and our former vice chancellor, Frank Yeary, worked to devise a new, more representative system of governance. Our proposed governance model is one that is consistent with the master plan, respects the role of the regents, takes into account the reality of the current budget, and, by the way, preserves the constitutional autonomy of the University of California. Such a system would have individual boards for each campus, with regental, student, and alumni representation. In fact, alumni—especially alumni who have a proven track record of commitment to the University and also who bring particular kinds of expertise—would have a major role in governing their alma mater. We would then have a board not unlike those of public universities in some other states and of many of the private universities that we compete with. We think that this is a necessary change. We believe that every single campus would profit from this.

Could you explain each regent’s role?

Regents would serve on the overall board but would also serve on local boards.

Overall policies would continue to be set by the regental board as a whole, but they would devolve down various responsibilities and authorities to the individual campuses. So, for example, all capital projects would be handled at a local level, with each campus deciding what it wants to build and how; policies regarding salaries and benefits would also be devolved down to the individual campuses. Also, the standard kinds of financial decisions that are made by any individual business, which are particular to campuses, would be made at a local level.

And would tuition fees be determined at the local campus level?

We would want base tuition to continue to be set for the UC system as a whole. Our advocacy for a change in the UC governance system is quite explicitly not an attempt to have different tuitions on individual campuses. As long as the Cal Grants system is in place as it is now, we think that variable tuition would be a very bad idea.

One of the idiosyncratic features of our proposal, which would differentiate California from other states, is that we would have meaningful student representation on the board, and students would, for example, have a right to vote on the budget. We think that this new governance model would serve every individual campus well, and in particular Berkeley, where our primary competitors are a small number of publics as well as the elite private universities. It would level the playing field.

Are all the other UC campuses supportive of the plan?

Unfortunately, no. Many of the other campuses currently are not supportive of our proposal. Further, the Office of the President has been actively hostile to it. We think that this is unfortunate. My belief is that in time, the changes that we are proposing are inevitable. My experience throughout my career, especially as a scientist, is that whenever you introduce a revolutionary idea, people, especially academics, are reluctant to accept it. But in the end, if it’s right, it will be successful.

A conundrum for Berkeley is that it is one of the nation’s most competitive universities and has fairly high tuition, yet it is a state school. Thus, it relies heavily on the support and good will of voters, many of whom have been frustrated by fee increases and the failure of their children to gain admission. What would you tell them?

As a result of the budget model I’ve just described, the state is now a minor contributor to the overall budget at the University of California. The single largest component of our budget is research. Berkeley’s research budget, including funds that come through Lawrence Berkeley Lab, approaches $800 million a year. This makes us one of the main economic drivers, not just in the Bay Area, but in the state as a whole. This is first of all because of the monies that we bring into California, but secondly through the many businesses that we create.

At the same time, students more and more want to go to the very best universities. So, for example, we are now processing more than 80,000 applications for the next school year. It’s become extraordinarily competitive to gain entrance into Berkeley. I receive many letters from alumni who are very disappointed that their sons or daughters were not admitted to Berkeley. However, that’s the reality of the numbers, and so we’re victims of our own success.

Some people have said, “Well, has this changed the public character?” I hosted a very interesting dinner some time ago for our undocumented students, and at that dinner there were also some alumni who had graduated from Cal several decades ago. After listening to stories from our students, one of our alums stood up and said, “You know, Cal has never been more public.” What the person meant is that the student body has never been more representative, economically and ethnically, of the people of California. But Berkeley is a meritocracy and we are now extraordinarily competitive in terms of admissions. We continue to be very proud of the fact that a student from a family whose income is $20,000 a year or less nevertheless has a high probability of being admitted to Berkeley, provided that he or she has worked hard enough and achieved at a high level.

How do sports, particularly football and basketball, affect the overall mission of the University? Do you think it’s a net positive?

I spent most of my career at MIT, which is not renowned for its intercollegiate athletics programs, and at the University of Toronto, where at our last football game, 500 people attended and we lost 81–0. So coming to Berkeley was a real eye-opener. I must say that after my experience here at Cal, I’m a very strong supporter of intercollegiate athletics.

I think that most Cal graduates know this, but probably not all: In the last Summer Olympics, Cal athletes won the same number of gold medals as France and Germany did separately. The only reason that we are able to support a world-class program in Olympic sports like men’s and women’s swimming, is because of the revenue-generating sports, namely football and men’s basketball. I should also say that compared to other universities that I’ve taught at in my past life—I’ve been at Yale, Oxford, MIT, and the University of Toronto—I find student esprit at Berkeley to be unusually high. I am convinced that our IA programs are important contributors to that esprit, not just for the athletes themselves, but also for the many thousands of students who attend IA events.

Of course we have challenges with the arms race in NCAA sports, and we’re hoping that we can get control over that. One of my goals in coming to Berkeley was to reduce the net cost of intercollegiate athletics to below the level that it was at MIT. We’ve now achieved that. Further, our intercollegiate athletics program costs about a third of those at the Ivies, like Princeton and Harvard. At the same time, our student athletes must be students first and athletes second; this requires a refocusing on academics in certain of our programs.

Do you have any overall thoughts on your tenure as Chancellor?

This has been a wonderful experience; I am really grateful to have had this opportunity. Of course, there have been significant challenges, but those challenges have provided me and the other people on our leadership team the opportunity to achieve something quite significant. I’m very proud of the fact that, after losing more than half of our state budget, Berkeley continues to be ranked as the top public university in the United States, and to be the full equal of Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford, and Cambridge. We’ve done that in the face of a really daunting change in our overall budget.

How does it feel to be leaving Berkeley?

My friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts, all assumed that when I finished up as chancellor at Berkeley, I would be returning to the MIT/Harvard world. In fact, I am very much looking forward to serving full time as a faculty member at Berkeley. We love this community, and we intend to stay here for the indefinite future.

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