When he steps down in December, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau will end a more than eight-year term during which he pushed for alternative funding options, championed increasing access to the campus and drew criticism for taking a stance on controversial political initiatives.
Birgeneau, who became chancellor in September 2004, presided over the campus during years in which state funding to the university plummeted and tuition increased dramatically. He worked to account for decreased funding by calling upon the federal government and private donors to pitch in, as well as launching an initiative to streamline administrative costs.
Under Birgeneau’s leadership, the campus saw a marked increase in private donations — one of the most significant being a $40 million donation from the Li Ka Shing Foundation to build a new biosciences building on the west end of campus.
The Campaign for Berkeley, launched publicly in 2008, seeks to raise more than $3 billion by 2013. As of December 2011, the campaign had already raised more than $2.3 billion, according to its website.
Birgeneau set his sights on gaining federal financial support in February by proposing a plan that would redirect $1 billion in federal aid over 10 years to public research universities like the UC. The plan has yet to gain legislative traction but could give an additional $30 million a year to UC Berkeley through federal funds that would be matched by the state government and private donors.
In addition to raising private and federal funds, Birgeneau initiated the controversial cost-cutting Operational Excellence initiative with the original goal of saving $75 million annually in administrative costs. The initiative — which began in 2009 — has resulted in the elimination of 280 staff positions, creating contention between campus administrators and protesters. According to a January report, the initiative could save the campus as much as $112 million this year.
But the protests Birgeneau has seen since becoming chancellor have extended well beyond contention over Operational Excellence.
He presided over the campus during a highly publicized 21-month tree-sit in protest of the removal of oak trees, which garnered national media attention and stalled the construction of an athletic center at Memorial Stadium. In a media conference call Tuesday, he recalled the tree-sit — which ended in September 2008 — as a “remarkable social phenomenon.”
Most recently, protesters called on Birgeneau to resign multiple times following criticism surrounding the administration and police’s handling of the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal protest.
Birgeneau’s leadership has also been marked by political activism, including staunch support for the DREAM Act.
UC Berkeley became one of the first public campuses in the state to begin a scholarship specifically for undocumented students after the first part of the California DREAM Act was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July. Birgeneau said in the call that after stepping down, he will continue advocating for the passage of a federal DREAM Act that would give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
However, his political activism has also drawn criticism from some who say that, as the campus’s top-ranking administrator, he should not express controversial political opinions.
In 2008, after Birgeneau publicly announced his opposition to Proposition 8, then-Berkeley College Republicans President Josh Curtis said “schools should teach not what to do when it comes to politics but … should provide the tools for students to figure it out.”
Birgeneau said in the conference call that when he interviewed for position of chancellor, he told the committee that he had strong opinions on providing access to education for low-income and the “most disadvantaged” students.
“I said if (the UC Board of Regents) appointed me as chancellor, they should prepare for the fact I would not be reluctant to express my opinion on issues that might be controversial,” Birgeneau said. “I have tried to stay in the gray area in fairness because I represent the entire community, but I feel that university chancellors and presidents have an obligation to provide moral leadership.”
Senior staff writer J.D. Morris contributed to this report.
Amruta Trivedi is the lead academics and administration reporter.
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