Activist past gives campus chancellor unique worldview

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s career has been characterized by social activism as well as academic research.
James Besser/File
Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s career has been characterized by social activism as well as academic research.

It was the summer of 1965 — well before UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau was a professor, a world-renowned physicist or an administrator at top-notch universities in both the United States and in Canada.

In fact, Birgeneau was just a graduate student studying physics at Yale University, wanting to do a little more than stay inside and conduct research in his lab all day.

Fresh out of the University of Toronto, Birgeneau said he was “restless” and was looking for something more socially relevant to incorporate into his life.

Surveying New Haven, Conn., with a friend, Birgeneau found a community center six blocks from campus located next to a housing community built specifically for low-income families. The community center and the neighborhood were entirely African American, despite the fact that they were a stone’s throw away from the nearly all-white university community.

That was where he said his activism and his desire for social change were sparked.

However, it was not until he was introduced to a Freedom Rider while visiting Cape Cod, Mass., that Birgeneau was introduced to the Yale-run outreach program called the Southern Teaching Program Incorporated. The program gave individuals from the university the opportunity to go south and teach in all-black colleges as well as conduct civil rights work.

Packing up his bags, Birgeneau and his wife headed to Columbia, S.C., where he was selected to teach at Benedict College, a Baptist, all-black campus at the time.

“It was not the same as standing out on Sproul Plaza,” he said. “It was very serious in those days. I learned the young people we interacted with literally never had a person-to-person conversation with a white person. Ever. In their lives.”

The South proved to be a politically and racially charged experience for Birgeneau, who witnessed firsthand just how complicated race relations were — not only between African-Americans and whites but within the black community itself.

“It was such a psychological impact, knowing an emergency-room doctor had refused to care for one of the black students from the college because they were American but had allowed the hospital to take care of a woman who was black when they realized she was from the Bahamas,” Birgeneau said.

Following completion of his doctorate at Yale, Birgeneau continued his activism while working as a member of the technical staff at Bell Laboratories before joining the physics faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1975.

It was during that time that he met H. Eugene Stanley, a fellow physicist who was also interested in social change. Eventually they were invited to Moscow to meet with the Russian Academy of Sciences, though Birgeneau and others did not just meet with Russian scientists.

Aware that Russia was keeping Refuseniks — members of the Soviet Jewish community who were denied permission to emigrate abroad by the authorities of the former Soviet Union and other countries that were formerly communist states — from leaving the country, Stanley encouraged his fellow colleagues, including Birgeneau, to conduct a freedom march on the Moscow subway to protest the Refuseniks’ captivity.

“There were literally soldiers with machine guns, and it got incredible attention there because there had not been a protest like this in Moscow before,” Birgeneau said. “It was a singular event in my life. This was something we started that led to liberating these sets of people.”

Today, Birgeneau is the leader of one of the most politically active campuses in the country, and according to associate vice chancellor of public affairs and university communications Claire Holmes, Birgeneau’s background gives him the insight and perspective to address the issues the campus faces today.

“UC Berkeley’s legacy of activism is an essential part of who we are,” she said in an email. “We are fortunate to have a Chancellor who brings personal experience and passion about important world issues.”

Katie Nelson is an assistant news editor.

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  • Guest

    I’ve met Birgeneau.  He’s a bleeding heart liberal.  If it’s not good enough for you lefties, NOTHING, nothing is.    Well…. maybe if he went Marxist/Anarchist, right?  

    What is it with you assholes, anyway?  Meth?  What?!!

  • Freedomride

    Hope everyone watched  PBS special last night about the Freedom Riders.  It was amazing how the Freedom Riders stayed nonviolent, no matter how terrible they were treated.  Truly an inspirational movement and very similar to the current Real Occupy movement. 
    On March 5th , it’s California’s turn to be heard;  everyone including  UC, CSU  administrators, students, faculty and staff shhould get on buses, trains and planes and show up and stand up for Education.

  • Gimme A Break

    it is now 2/7/12,
    this piece was first published on 5/25/11… so why is there currently a link to this article on the masthead page of the DailyCal?
    RELEGATE THIS SYCOPHANTIC BULLSHIT FLUFF-JOB TO THE PROVERBIAL INTERNET DUSTBIN.

    PS FUCK BOB BIRGENEAU, he’s an incompetent, lying, race baiting, prick.

  • Anonymous

    Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) of University of California Berkeley, displaces qualified
    for public university education at Cal. Californians with $50,600 FOREIGN
    students

     

    University
    of California Berkeley,
    ranked # 70 Forbes, is not increasing enrollment.  $50,600 FOREIGN students are accepted by Cal. at the expense of
    qualified instate students.

     

    Opinions make a difference, email UC Board of Regents   [email protected]

  • Anyone filling Birgeneau’s shoes has some tough shoes to follow.  Sure, his decisions are not popular and he may come off as callous and unthoughtful in some of the things he says.  But that’s all a part of the job and I think he is holding his position intelligently.  The school has a budget to balance and it can’t be giving away benefits to workers so freely.  Work is tough, but life is tough.  

    I think this article is very informative about Birgeneau’s dedication to selfless service and dedication to very worthwhile causes.  And reaffirms my faith in his character as a fighter for disenfranchised members of society.

  • Anonymous

     

    University of California Berkeley
    Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) has forgotten that he is a public
    servant, steward of the public

    money, not overseer of his
    own fiefdom (these are not isolated examples):

     

    recruits (uses California tax $) out of
    state $50,000 tuition

    students that displace
    qualified Californians from public university

    education; spends $7,000,000
    + for consultants to do his & vice

    chancellors work (prominent East Coast university
    accomplishing

    same
    0 cost); pays ex Michigan governor $300,000 for lectures; in

    procuring
    $3,000,000 consultants he failed to receive proposals

    from
    other firms; Latino enrollment drops
    while out of state jumps

    2010; tuition to Return on
    Investment drops below top10; NCAA

    places
    basketball program on probation: absence institutional control.

    It’s
    all shameful. There is no justification for such practices by a steward of the
    public trust. Absolutely none. 

     

    Birgeneau’s practices will
    not change. UC Board of Regents Chair Sherry Lansing must do a better job of
    vigorously enforcing oversight by President Yudof than has been done in the
    past over Chancellors who, like Birgeneau, treat the university as their
    fiefdom.

     

    Until demonstrable action is swiftly applied to
    Chancellors by the Board of Regents/President Yudof, the University of California
    shouldn’t come to the Governor or public for support for any taxes.

     

    I
    have 35 years’ consulting experience, have taught at UC Berkeley, where I
    observed the culture and the way senior management worked. No, I was not fired
    or downsized.

  • Pingback: The Berkeley Wire: 05.26.11 | Berkeleyside()

  • Anonymous

    It seems that the previous commenters cannot reconcile Chancellor Birgeneau’s brilliance and progressive social activism with their preconceived notions of his character.

    Also, was his comment about standing out on Sproul Plaza a jab at student “activist” groups?  If so-  awesome.

    • Anonymous

      Like any addiction,
      admitting you have a problem is the first step toward correcting it. University
      of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau
      ($500,000 salary) has forgotten that he is a public servant, steward of the
      public money, not overseer of his own fiefdom.

       

      Recruits
      (using California tax $) out of state, foreign
      $50,600 tuition students who displace qualified sons, daughters of Californians
      from Cal.      

      Spends
      $7,000,000 + for consultants to do his & vice chancellors work      

      (Prominent East Coast
      University accomplishing same 0 cost).

      University accrues $150 million of
      inefficiencies over his 8 year reign.

      Pays ex Michigan governor
      $300,000 for lectures.

      In procuring $3,000,000 consultant failed
      to receive proposals from other firms.

      Latino
      enrollment drops while out of state jumps 2010(M Krupnick Contra Costa Times)

      Best in nation rank: # 70 Forbes

      Academic rank: QS academic falls below top ten.

      Tuition to
      Return on Investment drops below top 10.

      Cal most expensive USA
      public university

      NCAA absence
      senior management oversight, basketball program on probation.

       

      These
      are not isolated examples: it’s all shameful. There is no justification for
      such irregularities by a steward of the public trust. Absolutely none. 

       

      Birgeneau’s practices will
      not change. University of California Board of Regents Chair Sherry Lansing must
      do a better job of vigorously enforcing  financial oversight by President Yudof over
      Birgeneau who treat’s the university as his fiefdom.

       

      I
      have 35 years’ consulting experience; have taught at UC Berkeley, where I
      observed the culture & the way senior management works. No, I was not fired
      or downsized & have not solicited contracts from UC/Cal

  • Anonymous

    I suspect that Chancellor Birgeneau decided he needed to affirm his international street cred in response to an audience comment that was made  (the “terse exchange” of the UCB Newscenter piece on the talk http://tinyurl.com/3kb6afl) during his annual address to the Berkeley Staff Assembly on Tuesday.

    (At the door, campus i.d. cards were checked against a list of BSA
    members.  My name was highlighted in yellow, and I was told I was an
    “alternate”, then that I was “on the watch list.”)

    A staff member asked  Chancellor Birgeneau if he would be willing to spend a day in the life of a campus service worker.  His response was that he’d grown up poor. When another staff member expressed surprise that he hadn’t responded to the question directly, he became indignant and flustered.

    The Chancellor was nervous, spoke quickly, and swallowed his words.  He was accompanied by a plainclothes policeman (bodyguard?).  He spoke about China quite a bit, about campus intercollegiate athletic programs, about everything but the real subject at hand: “Operational Excellence” and its effects on the lives of UCB staff people.

    Most shocking to me was that the chancellor opened his talk with a joke about disabled parking permits.  And the coterie laughed.

    Dwight Macdonald wrote in “The Root Is Man”:
    “Those who do not make human beings the center of their concern soon lose the capacity to make any ethical choices, for they willingly sacrifice others in the name of the politically expedient and practical.” 

      

    • Bronwen, if you really hate the UC so much, why don’t you quit your job?

      There has to be a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in accepting a paycheck (and fat union pension benefits) from an organization that you despise so intensely. I think it might be affecting you psychologically.

    • Bronwen, if you really hate the UC so much, why don’t you quit your job?

      There has to be a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in accepting a paycheck (and fat union pension benefits) from an organization that you despise so intensely. I think it might be affecting you psychologically.

      • Anonymous

        If he spent a day as a service worker, he could bitch on this blog and get paid by UCB ….sweet.

      • Anonymous

        Capt. Morgan — Is criticizing the current leadership the same thing as “hating UC?”. I don’t think it is. I love UC, I hate the current administration’s distortion of the mission of UC and the misappropriation of funds. I don’t leave the United States when I am unhappy with the current legislators, jurors and executive.

        Also, what are the “fat union pension benefits”? As far as I know, all staff and faculty are in the same pension fund whether or not they are members of a union? Is there a secret union benefit of which I am unaware?

      • Anonymous

        Like any addiction,
        admitting you have a problem is the first step toward correcting it. University
        of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau
        ($500,000 salary) has forgotten that he is a public servant, steward of the
        public money, not overseer of his own fiefdom.

         

        Recruits
        (using California tax $) out of state, foreign
        $50,600 tuition students who displace qualified sons, daughters of Californians
        from Cal.      

        Spends
        $7,000,000 + for consultants to do his & vice chancellors work      

        (Prominent East Coast
        University accomplishing same 0 cost).

        University accrues $150 million of
        inefficiencies over his 8 year reign.

        Pays ex Michigan governor
        $300,000 for lectures.

        In procuring $3,000,000 consultant failed
        to receive proposals from other firms.

        Latino
        enrollment drops while out of state jumps 2010(M Krupnick Contra Costa Times)

        Best in nation rank: # 70 Forbes

        Academic rank: QS academic falls below top ten.

        Tuition to
        Return on Investment drops below top 10.

        Cal most expensive USA
        public university

        NCAA absence
        senior management oversight, basketball program on probation.

         

        These
        are not isolated examples: it’s all shameful. There is no justification for
        such irregularities by a steward of the public trust. Absolutely none. 

         

        Birgeneau’s practices will
        not change. University of California Board of Regents Chair Sherry Lansing must
        do a better job of vigorously enforcing  financial oversight by President Yudof over
        Birgeneau who treat’s the university as his fiefdom.

         

        I
        have 35 years’ consulting experience; have taught at UC Berkeley, where I
        observed the culture & the way senior management works. No, I was not fired
        or downsized & have not solicited contracts from UC/Cal

    • Bronwen, if you really hate the UC so much, why don’t you quit your job?

      There has to be a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in accepting a paycheck (and fat union pension benefits) from an organization that you despise so intensely. I think it might be affecting you psychologically.

    • Bronwen, if you really hate the UC so much, why don’t you quit your job?

      There has to be a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in accepting a paycheck (and fat union pension benefits) from an organization that you despise so intensely. I think it might be affecting you psychologically.

    • Bronwen, if you really hate the UC so much, why don’t you quit your job?

      There has to be a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in accepting a paycheck (and fat union pension benefits) from an organization that you despise so intensely. I think it might be affecting you psychologically.

    • Bronwen, if you really hate the UC so much, why don’t you quit your job?

      There has to be a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in accepting a paycheck (and fat union pension benefits) from an organization that you despise so intensely. I think it might be affecting you psychologically.

  • Does anybody else remember when Birgeneau blamed the tree-sit protest on racism against African-American student athletes?

    I do not support the tree-sitters in any way, but that was a ridiculous attempt to play the race card.

  • I hope he has the courage to eliminate all race/gender/ethnic studies programs and reallocate these resources to real academic programs

  • I disagree with the commenter below. I thought this was very interesting and I learned things I did not know about Birgeneau.  Love the new design, too. Hope there is still access to your archives.

  • alex poska

    there is zero substance in this story. he cant relate to the current student problems at all. and for all his caring about african americans who can forget the racist comment he made as chancellor/president of another university about “diversity”. disgusting. this is a terrible puff piece with absolutely no relativity and substance. Great he protested in Russia and went down to the south, but he was protesting for other, which is commendable, but what he cant understand is the student here protesting for themselves because no one will advocate for them, NOT EVEN HIM!

    • Alex, it may just be me although  other adults may agree that Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s experience in the American South and abroad displays a level of selflessness for causes of great importance.  The students are misdirecting their tantrums towards the uc system meanwhile the economic strains of the state are in dire need of solutions.