After 43 years at UC Berkeley, Provost Breslauer leaves his nest

After witnessing UC's financial cutbacks and student protests during his eight years as UC Berkeley's Executive Chancellor and Provost, George Breslauer is ready to step down

Kevin Chen/Staff

Come Monday, the once jam-packed walls of Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer’s office will be empty for what may be the first time in nearly eight years. Since declaring his retirement about a year ago, Breslauer has been slowly packing up his office — from the Russian nesting dolls to vintage soda bottles — into boxes and quietly dismantling what has been his home as the second-highest ranking official on campus.

Nearly a decade ago, Breslauer stepped into the role of executive vice chancellor and provost, managing day-to-day campus operations and the campuswide budget process, along with being primarily responsible for academic programs. A self-proclaimed advocate of public higher education, Breslauer’s abilities were quickly put to the test against some of the hardest challenges the university has seen — such as state disinvestment and the flight of prestigious faculty to private universities.

The soft-spoken New York City native considers himself a “nester” of the campus, a term he uses to describe people who sacrifice their own interests to stay and better an institution. In many ways, his achievements at UC Berkeley prove him worthy of the title. He has spent his entire professional career at UC Berkeley — a total of 43 years.

“If Berkeley had to go through these hard times, I’m glad that they coincided with my provostship, because it meant that the work that I was doing was all that more important,” Breslauer said.

Breslauer, the longest-serving executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Berkeley since the 1980s, first announced his retirement in April but postponed his exit by almost a year to help the transition of Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, who took office in June. He will be succeeded by Claude Steele, the outgoing dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education, who will take office Tuesday.

In the nest

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer speaks in Sacramento at a rally with students in support of higher education in 2011.

Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer speaks in Sacramento at a rally with students in support of higher education in 2011.

Breslauer’s years spent in the “nest” helped him face his biggest challenge: weathering the largest financial crisis in the history of the university and its effect on UC Berkeley. During his tenure, the university saw unprecedented levels of state disinvestment, with state funding falling to 12 percent compared to 52 percent in 1981.

Amid tough financial circumstances, Breslauer oversaw efforts to retain faculty despite attractive offers from competing universities by instituting the program Targeted Decoupling Initiative, which allocated $1.5 million to increase faculty salaries and improve retention. He also recruited approximately 25 deans, directors and vice provosts.

Breslauer’s colleagues attribute his success on campus to his empathy and familiarity with the campus and faculty. Breslauer steadily made his way up the ranks within UC Berkeley from the department of political science and was the executive dean at the College of Letters and Science before his latest job.

“The extent to which I now have deeper and more nuanced appreciation of the opportunities and challenges we face as a campus … is a direct result of having George at my side during the early days of my chancellorship,” Dirks said in an email.

Former chancellor Robert Birgeneau recalled a particular instance when the campus saw significant budget cuts from the state and lost more than $100 million of salary money — and Breslauer’s role in encouraging faculty members to stay at UC Berkeley.

“He’s very well known and well liked by all of the faculty,” he said. “I think that really helped during some of the more difficult periods, because everyone respected him.”

While concerns are rising about the public nature of UC Berkeley, which increasingly relies on private sources of funding, Breslauer is resolute that the public mission still lies at the heart of UC Berkeley and the university at large.

“It’s not where you get your money, it’s how you spend it that counts,” Breslauer said. He added that 40 percent of undergraduate students at UC Berkeley pay no tuition, while the Middle Class Access Plan, a campus financial aid program introduced by Birgeneau in 2011, has also cushioned the impact of budget cuts for middle-income families.

As the campus’s chief academic officer, he also created programs to improve the undergraduate student experience through the Common Good Curriculum Initiative, which expanded access to core courses, and Berkeley Connect, an advising system that pairs undergraduates with graduate-student mentors.

Vishalli Loomba, ASUC president in 2011-12, noted that Breslauer’s collaboration with Birgeneau saved the campus from sacrificing its excellence to financial circumstances.

“Their partnership in navigating UC Berkeley through one of the most difficult times in its history was remarkable,” Loomba said in an email.

ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President Valerie Jameson echoed Loomba’s sentiments and spoke to Breslauer’s personal characteristics as a campus official.

11.04.administrators.ERHARDT

Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration John Wilton, former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, and Breslauer (left to right) speaks in 2011 about the state of the university.

“He’s a very calm individual,” Jameson said. “He’s been able to execute his position with the clarity that’s needed with such a big role.”

A few regrets

Some do not share Loomba’s sentiments, however. Breslauer says he has few regrets about his tenure — except that the handling of the protests in 2009 and 2011 “got out of hand.” In both years, the campus erupted in protests as students derailed harsh budget cuts and increased fees.

But the events of 2011 in particular may have a longer-lasting effect, as some protesters have filed a lawsuit against Breslauer, Birgeneau and other UC Berkeley administrators, alleging that the officials authorized police violence during an Occupy Cal protest. The campus was criticized for the police response to the protesters, which some saw as excessively violent.

The request from the UC Berkeley administrators to be dismissed from the $15 million lawsuit was denied in January.

But Bob Jacobsen, former chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, warned about overstating the importance of the protests and allowing them to overshadow the developments Breslauer has overseen.

“(The protests) were a part of changing the way the university is financed and changing the way we provide access to students, but they weren’t the thing that was driving the changes,” Jacobsen said. “The underlying changes that the institution has to have were happening and have continued to happen since.”

“He’s been able to execute his position with the clarity that’s needed with such a big role.”

— ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President Valerie Jameson

Looking forward

The plans Breslauer most looks forward to after his retirement are having no plans. He relishes the idea of not having to set an alarm, as well as the “delicious prospect” of traveling spontaneously to visit his daughter in New York.

Eventually, he plans to settle in his new office in Barrows Hall and indulge in “brain candy” — the idea of sitting in his office and reading a book without any competing commitments or deadlines. Breslauer, an expert on Soviet politics — his focus of study at his alma mater, University of Michigan — will return to writing and researching political science and may even plan some courses. He says he won’t miss the pace of being the second-in-command on campus.

“I’ve devoted my whole life to this place, but being a nester and being generous, being a giver not a taker, willing to sacrifice your own interests in order to help advance others’ interests — those are indicators of institutional loyalty,” he said. “The opposite is those who always think the grass is greener on the other side of fence … I prefer to settle in, give up myself and be loyal to an institution that’s been good to me.”