Birgeneau leaves legacy of complicated commitment to public mission

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Michael Tao/File

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The problems facing UC Berkeley are well-worn: State disinvestment and pension mismanagement have caused the UC system to raise tuition at an unprecedented rate, elite private institutions threaten to poach UC Berkeley’s brightest faculty and students, campus buildings crumble in the absence of funds to repair them — the list goes on and on.

In February 2012, the campus stood on the verge of capturing a $60 million grant from the Simons Foundation to launch a theory of computing institute. Its competition, several elite East Coast private universities, equated the problems facing the campus with a death spiral. Why, they wanted to know, would the foundation consider giving such a large sum of money to a campus that in a decade would be a shadow of itself?

Having been posed the question, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau gulped as he sat across a table from the foundation’s decision-makers. Completely unprepared for such an assessment, he paused for a full 30 seconds before unleashing a 30-minute lecture on the ongoing vitality of UC Berkeley.

“I told them everything,” he said in an interview last week. “I told them about our public character, I told them about our comprehensive excellence, I told them about our financial aid strategy.”

UC Berkeley’s proposal, which drew from a variety of fields, including molecular and computational biology, and incorporated the star power of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Saul Perlmutter, won the grant, beating out top-flight private universities like Harvard and MIT.

This triumph is emblematic of the excellence UC Berkeley has achieved under the leadership of Birgeneau, who is stepping down this summer. Worldwide rankings place it among the top universities on the globe, it has maintained its status as the premier public institution in the United States and its faculty members and students continue to win the most prestigious awards academia offers.

But the success has come at a cost, to both UC Berkeley itself and the University of California as a whole. For many, the path charted by Birgeneau through the state’s disinvestment has threatened the fabric of the UC system and alienated members of the campus community. To some, it has gone so far as to jeopardize the very idea of the public university.

Because of its stature, UC Berkeley has a unique ability among the UC schools to generate revenue through fundraising, private partnerships and nonresident tuition dollars. In a two-day strategic planning meeting shortly after he took office in 2004, Birgeneau decided to capitalize on this advantage in order to maintain what he calls the campus’s “comprehensive excellence.”

But this strategy — a mixture of increased lobbying for federal research grants, a drastically expanded private fundraising enterprise and a sharp increase in out-of-state students that yielded unprecedented nonstate revenue for the campus — favored UC Berkeley ahead of the rest of the system. By leveraging UC Berkeley’s brand, Birgeneau set the campus apart from the other nine UC campuses.

“(Fundraising) is campus-driven: You’re always counting on the allegiances and often the heartstrings of the donors,” said David Blinder, who spearheaded fundraising efforts as the campus’s associate vice chancellor of university relations and vice president of the UC Berkeley Foundation. “Their affiliations are to the campus rather than to the broad, amorphous thing that is the University of California.”

In the last fiscal year alone, the campus has raised $408 million through programs like the Campaign for Berkeley.

UC Berkeley’s prestige gives it a leg up on the fundraising competition, and Birgeneau has not shied from exploiting this advantage — a policy with which Birgeneau, who says he values the Master Plan’s multitiered structure, sees no problem.

“Ultimately, the responsibility of the UC Berkeley chancellor is to ensure that Berkeley continues to set the standard for public education nationally and internationally,” Birgeneau said. “My first responsibility is to ensure that … California has at least one public institution that is as good as the very best private institutions and sets the standard for the world.”

Birgeneau further articulated his vision of UC Berkeley’s primacy in a 2012 white paper he co-authored that called for many decision-making functions to be devolved from the central Office of the President to individual campuses. Although he said the proposal was not intended to give UC Berkeley or any other campus special status, it strained the unity of the 10-campus UC system. Among many controversial points, the paper’s proposal to create decision-making boards specific to each campus opened the door to differential tuition between campuses — a proposal that was shelved by the university’s 2010 Commission on the Future due to concerns it would irreparably destroy the system’s nine undergraduate campuses’ equal-footing relationship.

In addition to being a coalition of campuses, the UC system is also a coalition of undergraduate and graduate institutions. At UC Berkeley, the relationship between undergraduate and graduate programs has struggled — and in some cases, this relationship has been severed almost completely.

In the face of state disinvestment, graduate programs have ratcheted up tuition rates and subtly pivoted away from the campus. Combined living and tuition expenses at the UC Berkeley School of Law now top $72,000 for California residents, placing it in the neighborhood of its private peers. Meanwhile, graduate programs in the sciences have increasingly looked to sponsored projects as a way to obtain research money.

“All of the attention in access has tended be on undergraduate education,” said Judson King, director of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley.

In pursuit of financial security, the campus’s graduate programs have emulated the operations of their counterparts at schools like the University of Virginia. Virginia’s Darden School of Business, for example, has relied largely on tuition and fees to finance itself self-sufficiently for more than a decade.

“What a lot of places are doing is selectively quasi-privatizing certain schools, like law and graduate business schools,” said University of Virginia professor David Breneman, an expert in the economics and financing of higher education. “But they don’t like to talk — UVA doesn’t like to talk about anything but it being a public university — but we’re moving away from the meaning that it’s largely publicly financed.”

Instead, the reliance on student fees and donations has meant that graduate programs have come to look more like privately financed arms of a public university.

In order to demonstrate to donors that he was serious about maintaining UC Berkeley’s comprehensive excellence, Birgeneau fully committed the campus to his alternative funding push.

“First and foremost, it was important for our constituents to have the confidence that nobody was going to be retreating from Berkeley’s standards,” said Blinder, who left the campus for a similar position at The Scripps Research Institute this year.

But the focus on money created an atmosphere in which Birgeneau spent so much time away from UC Berkeley pursuing additional revenue that students and faculty members alike came to see him as aloof from the needs of the campus community. The tension came to a head during Birgeneau’s controversial handling of the November 2011 Occupy protests — an episode he said he regrets — when many in the faculty called for a no-confidence vote in his leadership.

Other policies also created conflict on campus. Operational Excellence, a cost-saving initiative that Blinder credited with demonstrating the campus’s commitment to financial efficiency to donors, often became a target for its layoffs that campus workers perceived disproportionately affected nonsenior management roles.

Increased admission rates of nonresident students became an equally frequent focus of campus dialogue. During protests, activists decried the immediate effects of the out-of-state influx while analysts considered the policy myopic. A recent paper co-authored by professors Bradley Curs of the University of Missouri and Ozan Jaquette of the University of Arizona found that increased enrollment of nonresidents at public research universities, including UC Berkeley, has limited socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.

“It undermines the university’s long-term case that it is a public university and needs public support,” said Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, who called the pursuit of nonresident students “expedient revenue-hunting.” “These things represent short-term solutions to long-term systemic problems that need to be worked through.”

All these policies and decisions, and the reactions to them, are manifestations of the fundamental tension that underlies Birgeneau’s term as chancellor. His nine years in California Hall have been at some level a prolonged dialogue on what it means to be a public university.

On the one hand, the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education founded the UC system on the public ideal, according to which the population of the state invested in the education of its younger generations. This is the ideal that many faculty members and students aspire to and the principle that has guided the movement against state disinvestment of the past four years.

But as the state disinvested from the UC system regardless and UC Berkeley began raising money from other sources, Birgeneau has sought to maintain what he calls the “public character” of the university.

“Saying it’s a public university means it is available and accessible to all residents of the state depending only on their having the academic qualifications for admission,” King said. “The idea of public education is that it is available without regard to personal or family (financial) resources.”

By this metric, Birgeneau claims to have preserved public character. Although middle-income enrollment has decreased 9 percentage points from 2000 to 2010, 38 percent of UC Berkeley’s student body receives Pell Grants, and in December 2011, the campus implemented the Middle Class Access Plan, which caps parent contribution toward undergraduate education for students with family incomes of between $80,000 to $140,000.

Birgeneau’s appointment in January as the leader of the Lincoln Project — a three-year initiative organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences aimed at defining the future of public higher education — affords him a platform from which he can continue exploring higher education reform, this time on a national level. Though his methods have at times been controversial, his peers in public higher education refer to the successes of the campus during his tenure as the “Berkeley Miracle.”

Endorsing his work at UC Berkeley, the academy wrote in a press release announcing the move that Birgeneau “has launched initiatives at UC Berkeley that are the models for public colleges and universities elsewhere.”

Contact Jordan Bach-Lombardo and Curan Mehra at [email protected]

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