Birgeneau’s decision to step down as UC Berkeley chancellor met with mixed reactions

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Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at the press conference where it was announced that five sports teams would be cut.

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Following UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s announcement Tuesday that he will step down in December, reactions from the campus community have ranged from admiration for his accomplishments to celebration over the end of his time as an administrator.

Birgeneau, who became the campus’s ninth chancellor in September 2004, announced his decision to step down in a campuswide email Tuesday morning. He said in the email that he has remained in the position longer than originally intended due to “the extraordinary circumstances facing the University of California that emerged with the financial crisis and steep loss of state funding.”

After stepping down, he plans to be a regular faculty member in the campus departments of physics and materials science and engineering, he said in the email.

“The precipitating event probably is the fact that later in this month I turned 70 and felt that I already had a long run as a major university leader,” Birgeneau said in a media conference call 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.”

The announcement comes after years of student activism and staggering budget cuts from the state that have shaken the campus. Birgeneau was at the helm of campus operations during a number of large-scale demonstrations, from the occupation of Wheeler Hall in 2009 to the contentious Occupy Cal protests last November.

Birgeneau has received criticism for his handling of campus protests, and the activist group BAMN has characterized his announcement as a clear victory for those who have called for his resignation in the past.

But campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof denied any connection between Birgeneau’s decision to step down and the calls for his resignation that followed the use of police force at the Nov. 9 Occupy Cal protest.

Bob Jacobsen, chair of the campus division of the Academic Senate, said in an email that Birgeneau “has done a great time of getting Berkeley through a hard time.”

“He’s had to accept a lot of criticism from people, many of whom haven’t stepped up to do the hard work,” Jacobsen said in the email. “I think we owe him more than he’s getting credit for right now.”

ASUC External Affairs Vice President Joey Freeman said in an email that Birgeneau has been “an incredible advocate for students” and leaves Berkeley “with a solid record of accomplishment.”

“I hope that whoever comes in to replace him continues to take risks that benefit students and fight for the excellence and affordability of Berkeley,” said Graduate Assembly President Bahar Navab.

To select the next chancellor, a “full national search” will be conducted, according to Mogulof. According to UC spokesperson Dianne Klein, the applicant review could begin in late spring or early summer.

Birgeneau said in the email announcement that UC President Mark Yudof will appoint a search committee to find a replacement, as per university policy. He said in the conference call that the new chancellor should be an “academic with proven high standards” who will pay attention to those disadvantaged in society.

Wendy Brown, co-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, said in an email that the most important thing she hopes to see in the new chancellor is “dedication to renewing UC Berkeley as a premier public research and teaching university.”

“I hope we can involve a wide spectrum of faculty, staff and students in finding the new chancellor, and by doing so get him or her off to a good start with a solid understanding of what this campus values,” Jacobsen said in his email.

Looking back on his years at UC Berkeley in his email announcement, Birgeneau lauded the progress he said the campus has made “in maintaining and expanding Berkeley’s excellence and preserving its unique public character.”

“I wish that I, like everybody else, was able to do a better job of conditioning the people of California that they need to give higher education a higher priority than they do,” he said.

Staff writers Chloe Hunt, Sara Khan, Curan Mehra and J.D. Morris contributed to this report.

Amy Wang covers academics and administration.