Robert Birgeneau to step down as chancellor of UC Berkeley

Barbara Sullinger/Staff

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UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced Tuesday that he will step down at the end of the calendar year.

Birgeneau, who became the campus’s ninth chancellor in September 2004, said in a campuswide email Tuesday morning that he will continue as a regular faculty member of the departments of Physics and Materials Science and Engineering after stepping down as chancellor.

He did not specify his exact reason for stepping down, though he did say he has remained in the position longer than he originally intended due to “the extraordinary circumstances facing the University of California that emerged with the financial crisis and steep loss of state funding.”

“The precipitating event probably is the fact that later in this month I turn 70 and felt that I already had a long run as a major university leader,” Birgeneau said in a media conference call on Tuesday. “This is a decision that my wife and I made together probably more than a year ago but delayed until it got close to my birthday to make the formal announcement.”

(Read the full text of Birgeneau’s email here.)

Birgeneau said in the email that UC President Mark Yudof will appoint a search committee to find a replacement, as per university policy. Looking back on his years at UC Berkeley, Birgeneau also championed the progress the campus as made “in maintaining and expanding Berkeley’s excellence and preserving its unique public character.”

He also addressed the increased cost of tuition and fees that occurred during his tenure.

“Although a necessary response to the loss of state funding was an increase in tuition and fees, we nevertheless have been able to sustain access and affordability for our students from low-income families through our financial aid policies,” Birgeneau said in the email.

The announcement that Birgeneau will step down comes after years of staggering budget cuts from the state and intense student activism that have shaken the campus.

In November 2009, a day after the UC Board of Regents approved a 32 percent systemwide fee hike, students protested en masse at UC Berkeley as 40 activists occupied Wheeler Hall for more than 12 hours. The administration’s response to that protest was criticized at the time and in a June 2010 report from the UC Berkeley Police Review Board. And in December 2009, Birgeneau’s house itself was attacked by protesters.

Furthermore, in the wake of the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal protest last semester — during which police used batons against protesters attempting to set up an encampment on Sproul Plaza — Birgeneau’s leadership came under scrutiny, with some calling for his resignation.

However, ASUC External Affairs Vice President Joey Freeman said in an email that Birgeneau has been “an incredible advocate for students.” He pointed specifically to the Middle Class Access Plan – a financial aid opportunity for middle income families unveiled in December – and his support for undocumented students, among other issues.

“On the tough issues that matter most to students, he has been a true partner,” Freeman said in the email. “Certainly, there were challenges along the way but I think he is leaving Berkeley with a solid record of accomplishment and I am proud to have been able to work with him.”

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof denied any relation between Birgeneau’s resignation, Occupy Cal and the calls for his resignation following the use of police force at the Nov. 9 protests on Sproul Plaza.

“This decision was made based on his own personal evaluation on what he wants to be doing at this point in his career … it’s a tough job,” Mogulof said.

Mogulof said that there are no ideas for possible replacements as of yet but that there will be “a full national search” to select the next chancellor.

Following the announcement, Yudof issued a statement reflecting on Birgeneau’s time as chancellor.

“He has been an ardent champion of academic excellence, as well as an unwavering advocate for the underdog,” Yudof said in his statement. “Birgeneau also has stood out as an administrative innovator.”

(Read the full text of Yudof’s statement here.)

Staff writer Sara Khan contributed to this report.