Birgeneau to lead public higher education intitiative

Shirin Ghaffary/Staff

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UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau will lead a national initiative to study and support public universities following his retirement in June.

At a symposium hosted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on Monday evening, Birgeneau announced that he will be heading an initiative called The Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education, which will be funded by the academy. Birgeneau will be tasked with researching and proposing solutions to problems of funding for public universities.

“I chose the academy because it is predominantly an academic society, independent of the government, so it can really act in a neutral way,” Birgeneau said of the Cambridge-based policy research center.

Birgeneau will be joined by other academic, corporate and institutional leaders, including Levi Strauss CEO Robert D. Haas and President of University of Michigan Mary Sue Coleman. In addition to publishing scholarly reports, Lincoln Project members will host national conferences to engage in dialogue with elected officials, policymakers and the broader public to influence education policy.

As the senior visiting scholar of the initiative, Birgeneau hopes to expand the reach of the committee to the private sector. He noted that public universities must find outside sources of revenue during a time when government funding is increasingly running short.

“I believe that state public education is too important to be left to the state,” Birgeneau said.

Birgeneau will spend the first half of his expected three-year unpaid term with the project investigating financial issues and hopes to spend the latter half implementing solutions. He will also maintain his teaching and research positions at the UC Berkeley department of physics.

Though Birgeneau faced some criticism as chancellor for his response to campus protests and implementation of departmental cuts under Operational Excellence, academy President Leslie C. Berlowitz affirmed her confidence in Birgeneau’s commitment to accessible public education.

She cited Birgeneau’s creation of the Middle Class Access Plan, which caps parent contributions for middle-income families, as a sign of his commitment to increasing affordability of public education. Berlowitz also commended his implementation of the UC Berkeley Dream Act Scholarship, which provides up to $8,000 of financial aid annually for undocumented students.

“Chancellor Birgeneau is widely respected by his peers and understanding of the importance of problems we’re facing,” Berlowitz said.

Birgeneau’s term as chancellor ends at a critical time for the campus’s financial well-being. State funding only constitutes about 11 percent of UC Berkeley’s budget, down from 28 percent eight years ago, according to a report from Birgeneau at the symposium on Monday.

“All of us need to contribute,” said Birgeneau. “The federal government should take this responsibility to maintain our public character, corporations need to step up and we need more generous support for foundations.”

Shirin Ghaffary is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected].