Campus thrives on global scale

Budget cuts to university, campus may compromise success if tax initiative fails to pass

Kira Walker/Staff

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Walking about campus this week, I am buoyed by the energy and vitality of our students as they flood back onto campus, filled with the excitement of studying at one of the world’s great universities.

We are starting the new term basking in the glow of UC Berkeley’s all-round excellence, whether it is the 17 medals, 11 of them gold, won at the 2012 Olympics by our current and former student athletes, or appearing in the 2012 Academic Ranking of World Universities as one of the five leading universities in the world and indisputably the top public university.

Berkeley continues to offer students an outstanding education while making important, far-reaching discoveries and economic contributions. Despite having our state funding reduced by more than 50 percent in the past five years, we have continued to thrive, in part by increasing alternative sources of revenue, such as philanthropy and federal research contracts. Our staff are fully engaged in Operational Excellence, working tirelessly to reduce administrative costs in order to put more funding into the classroom.

Our professors are among the most distinguished in the world, and they include three Nobel Prize winners in the last seven years. This fall we are welcoming approximately 40 new faculty members. Our new graduate students include 80 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellows and 16 Fulbright scholars. We are attracting the most talented undergraduate students from California and increasingly more from around the country and the globe.

Although tuition has risen, we have worked successfully to maintain access for undergraduate students from low and middle-income families. Over one-third of our undergraduates are from families with incomes under $45,000, the same as all eight Ivy League universities combined. A full 40 percent of our undergraduates receive enough aid to offset tuition. We are also the only public university to have introduced a plan which provides substantial financial aid to students from middle-income families.

Berkeley students graduate with the lowest debt of those from any four-year public research and teaching university with average indebtedness at graduation of around $17,000 for those students who have borrowed. We are providing more classes, new facilities and better technology. Two new undergraduate teaching laboratories have been added in the biological sciences department and there are more Reading & Composition classes, foreign language classes and gateway courses in the mathematical and physical sciences departments.

Students are being provided with best-in-class information technology tools with Google Apps for Education. The Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences and the Helios Energy Research Center have been added to our academic facilities. Maximino Martinez Commons has opened to house sophomore and some upper-division students. The redevelopment of Lower Sproul Plaza to provide state-of-the-art living-learning space for students is proceeding. Our student athletes are training in the new Simpson Student-Athlete High Performance Center. Our Cal Bears will play their first home football game on Sept. 1 in the newly refurbished Memorial Stadium cheered on by an expected 62,000 fans. We have just announced an exciting partnership with Harvard University and MIT for edX, a platform for online education with a global reach.

Sustaining access and excellence requires ongoing investment, and this will be an unusually important semester for us. Gov. Jerry Brown has put forward Proposition 30, The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012. The measure raises sales tax by one-quarter of a percent for four years and personal income tax rate for seven years on income earned above $250,000 for individuals. The UC Board of Regents has endorsed Proposition 30. It is an issue of great importance to the campus for its impact on our budget, including tuition. If Proposition 30 fails, UC would see its state appropriation automatically cut by $250 million in January. This could translate to our campus as a reduction of as much as an estimated $40 million, without other actions to make up for the cut.

Also, the UC would lose an additional $125 million in state funds that lawmakers pledged to provide UC next year in exchange for the system holding tuition fixed at current levels for this year. The potential loss of funding would significantly impact our efforts to achieve financial sustainability and maintain both access and excellence.

Berkeley is the center of active student involvement, where students can really have a voice in their education. This is a critical moment for student engagement. I urge you to make others aware that California’s world-renowned system of public higher education is at risk. Whatever your position on Proposition 30, eligible students should register to vote and even more importantly, urge others who are not students to learn about the measure and vote in an informed way. Imagine your reach if each of you persuades ten members of your family, neighbors and friends to vote, and convinces each of them to do the same, and so forth. You can educate and empower voters to make an informed choice on Proposition 30.

The people of California created this great university 144 years ago and generously and farsightedly supported making it one of the world’s preeminent universities. It is up to all of us to sustain this precious legacy in the best way each of us believes possible.

Robert J. Birgeneau is the chancellor of UC Berkeley.