During Robert Birgeneau’s nearly nine years as the chancellor of UC Berkeley, he led the campus as it weathered an unprecedented challenge. While the state slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from the University of California’s budget, he fought to maintain the quality of education at this institution against all odds. Along the way, he redefined what it means for UC Berkeley to be a public university.
In an interview with The Daily Californian’s Senior Editorial Board last week, Birgeneau recalled an instance when officials at another university referred to “the Berkeley miracle” — essentially, the fact that the campus has been able to avoid deteriorating as state funds diminish. A less skilled chancellor might have succumbed to talk that, in the face of such a steep challenge, the campus needed to sacrifice access in the name of excellence or comprehensive academic rigor for targeted success. Birgeneau held steadfast to the belief that UC Berkeley could remain prominent in all areas, and he was largely successful in that mission. “Now, the state … doesn’t even provide enough money to pay the salary of our teachers,” Birgeneau said in the interview. “In spite of that, Berkeley continues to be one of the top-tier universities in the world.”
A student who arrived at UC Berkeley this year sees a tuition bill exponentially higher than those who entered campus when Birgeneau began his chancellorship in 2004. With state funds now accounting for only about 11 percent of the campus budget, students should hardly be surprised. And though UC systemwide tuition hikes over the years have been deplorable, Birgeneau has done all he can to keep UC Berkeley affordable. He started by getting ahead of the curve. About six years ago, Birgeneau said, he and other administrators realized that state funding was going to be a problem, and they “understood that if we did nothing … Berkeley would not be the institution it is today.”
To fight the threat of rising tuition prices posed to middle-class families, Birgeneau pioneered the creation of the campus’s Middle Class Access Plan in 2011. Touted as the first of its kind for any public university in the country, the innovative financial aid system caps parent contribution at 15 percent of total income for students whose families make between $80,000 and $140,000. But he was also cognizant of the reality that “there was no silver bullet” to the funding crisis. Accordingly, he oversaw a diverse transformation in the campus’s fundraising model. During his time as chancellor, for example, the Campaign for Berkeley has raised nearly $2.6 billion as of last summer to support faculty chairs, research and scholarships, among other items.
As such efforts progress, Birgeneau has in effect instigated a culture change for UC Berkeley. Despite dwindling public funds, Birgeneau’s leadership has emphasized holding onto the campus’s “public character.” That means the campus continues to strive for economic diversity — which one can find evidence of by noting that 38 percent of UC Berkeley undergraduate students received Pell Grants in the 2010-11 school year, according to U.S. News and World Report. It also means that the faculty and student body on campus are deeply committed to public service, Birgeneau said.
In the spirit of serving the public, Birgeneau has been a tireless advocate for some of the most disadvantaged students. Aside from his trailblazing middle-class financial aid plan, Birgeneau displayed a deep devotion to making UC Berkeley accessible for undocumented students. Not only did he personally pressure the governor to support the California DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students to receive financial aid, but he also presided over the creation of a campus scholarship for undocumented students. And he understands that support for undocumented students is incomplete without immigration reform at the federal level, a cause he will no doubt continue to advance when he ends his chancellorship this summer.
Yet when it comes to general campus climate, while Birgeneau recognizes the friction among some student communities, his mindset is problematic. He accurately pointed out that productive dialogue between students is key to bridging the gap, but he incorrectly framed campus climate as “a student problem, not an administration problem.” He is correct that “climate is about how students interact with each other,” but more proactive administrative support would go a long way. The administration, which does not turn over every year like much of the student leadership, needs to take a more active role in improving campus climate.
Birgeneau has also not been accessible enough to students. Although he did a decent job connecting with specific student leaders, he certainly could have been more accountable to the student body at large. When asked about his relationship with the student government, Birgeneau pointed out that he has fostered close ties with ASUC presidents, but he has not been nearly visible enough in the ASUC Senate in recent years. Incoming chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who arrives at UC Berkeley after serving as an administrator at Columbia University, must be more present in public student spaces on campus.
|Dirks can also learn from Birgeneau’s mismanagement of major campus protests. During two of the most significant demonstrations in recent years — at Wheeler Hall in 2009 and during Occupy Cal in 2011 — Birgeneau came under fire for failing to prevent police use of force against protesters. If Dirks internalizes lessons learned from the uproarious aftermath of those protests, he should be able to avoid similar pitfalls.
However, Dirks’ biggest test, as Birgeneau indicated, will be whether he can continue to protect the public character of UC Berkeley. The campus has done great work under Birgeneau, but threats to balancing access and excellence remain. “We don’t need more great private universities — we need great public universities,” Birgeneau said. “That’s Berkeley’s responsibility … we need to be vigilant to maintain our public character for the indefinite future.” Dirks has big shoes to fill on that front.