The Daily Californian spoke briefly to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau Tuesday about a controversial proposal he and campus administrators released Monday that would increase campus autonomy.
Read a transcript of the interview below:
Senior staff writer Amruta Trivedi: What prompted you to write this paper?
UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau: First of all, the proposal was actually written in the first place because I described orally to President (Mark) Yudof what our thinking was, and he said “Why don’t you put it down in writing?” So we did. So that was the origin of the proposal, and we put it out now because this was, you know (C. Judson) King is the head of the Center for Studies in Higher Education, this is, along with the rest of us, part of his scholarly work, and enough people had seen it that we felt that it was time for us to sort of open it up for public discussion.
AT: By enough people seeing it, you meant that —
RB: My fellow chancellors, President Yudof, the deans, the leader of the Academic Senate.
AT: Who helped with compiling this?
RB: The lead person on it, Professor King.
AT: Did you —
RB: I didn’t personally, but (campus Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance) John Wilton talked with two regents, and we had extensive discussions with chancellors and President Yudof.
AT: President Yudof gave us a statement yesterday saying the proposal has not been appropriately reviewed, but he is willing to discuss the governance issues. But you just said that you had talked with President Yudof.
RB: He just believes, and so do my fellow chancellors believe, that we just need more discussion, and I agree to that.
AT: Where do you see this going? Does it seem feasible to you that it is possible to make such boards?
RB: I think we will move progressively in the direction that we suggest. What the final result will look like, I don’t know, and it will certainly come after I am finished as chancellor.
AT: There has been a lot of debate around this over the past day, and one of the criticisms to this is that smaller campuses may have to scale back as a result of increased independence because of the larger research universities like Berkeley, LA, UCSD taking more of the national attention away from the smaller campuses.
RB: First of all, the budget. You know we are very careful in the way we constructed it in that the state funding is determined by the regents and the Office of the President, so this doesn’t change the most important element in that respect. Secondly, if I were head of a smaller campus, I would be strong in favor of this.
AT: Why is that?
RB: Well, because if I was head of one of the smaller campuses, my situation would be so much different for that of, let’s say, from that of Berkeley, that I would want to be able to optimize my own strategy.
AT: As made clear in your report, state funding is about 10 percent of the UC budget, so most of the funding that these campuses get come from tuition. Creating the boards, increasing the independence of individual campuses, wouldn’t that compromise the public mission of the UC?
RB: I think exactly the opposite, which is that it will enable individual campuses to optimize their individual situation in order to serve the public appropriately. You know, Bob Haas, who graduated in the ’60s, wrote an excellent editorial recently saying that when he went to school the state provided 70 percent of the budget but now provides 10 percent. Berkeley is more public than it ever has been. The public nature is not determined by where the money comes from but how it spends the money.
On the contrary, first of all, if you read the document, we are very clear that the master plan has to be upheld. And in fact, out-of-state and international students’ revenue from them is an important component of our ability to offer financial aid to middle-class Californians, which is a tremendous boost to the public character to the university. So in fact, increasing the number of out-of-state and international students has actually increased the public aspect for Californians because it made Berkeley more affordable and costs predictable.
AT: How would that affect smaller UC campuses?
RB: Well, for smaller UC campuses, more local control can optimize their local situation. You know, since I’m not in charge of a smaller campus, I can’t tell you what my strategy would be, but I do know that if I were in charge of a smaller one, I would be pursuing a strategy that is different than Berkeley’s.
RB: Probably from a student perspective, what I would have asked, which is one of the motivations in this, for me, came from our students, and our ASUC and GA leadership and our systemwide representatives are complaining that they do not have adequate representation in governance, and one of the really important things we’ve done here is give students two positions on the local boards, we’ve suggested that, and giving them voting rights. So this means that if our proposal was adopted, students would finally have some direct say in operations on their own campuses. So this would be a major gain for students.
AT: Now, what timeline are you looking at? When do you find it appropriate to implement this?
RB: Well, this is driven by the regents, so I haven’t had any control over that. The regents will have to decide that this is what they want to do, and so the timeline is entirely up to them. You know, I think it will take some time for them to absorb the meaning of our proposal and to decide on their own that this is something they want to do. But we just put this out for discussion, nothing more, and I think just the questions you’ve asked me, which are excellent questions, and already the debate that has begun, is exactly what we wanted to accomplish.
AT: I know that after you step down as chancellor, you said you wanted to continue pushing more federal funding, but is this something that you’d also continue advocating for?
RB: This will be entirely up to my successor, whether or not my successor would like me to keep working on this, then fine. If not, then I probably will not.
AT: You cite a lot of evolutionary developments of the UC. Are you saying that this is also an evolution of the UC?
RB: I think that it’s a natural evolution of the UC system because the UC system has always been agile in adapting to the realities of the situation at that time.
AT: And you reference higher ed models of other states. How effective have those been?
RB: Well, you know, I think generally, if you talk to people in those states, they’re relatively happy with them, like North Carolina. But I’m not an expert on every single system. I know in New York state, the universities are unhappy that they don’t have local control. So I’ve heard about unhappiness in states where there isn’t enough independence.
AT: What kind of response have you received from students regarding this?
RB: Students, as I said, part of our motivation for doing this was student desire to have more involvement in governance. But since we just posted it yesterday, I haven’t had any direct feedback from students, but I’ll be anxious to hear that.
AT: Are you planning on talking with students regarding this anytime soon?
RB: Well, certainly with student leadership, but I just haven’t had a chance to think that through yet, but we’re certainly open to conversation.
And let me emphasize that this is meant to be a working document, and it’s our best thoughts, but we don’t pretend that we have the final answer. So we expect this to evolve over time, and student input will be an important part of it.
AT: Okay. Thank you so much.
RB: Okay. Thank you. Bye-bye.
Amruta Trivedi covers academics and administration.