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‘We need to keep going full speed ahead’
A conversation with Chancellor Berdahl

01 October 2003

On Monday, Chancellor Robert Berdahl was interviewed by Berkeleyan Editor Jonathan King about the work he’s completed during his tenure, and what priorities remain to be addressed during his final months in office.

After you arrived on campus in 1997, you were asked how long you thought you’d be chancellor here, and you said, “I hope not less than five years, because I think it will take that long to really do something.” You’ve been here for six years so far; it will be nearly seven by the time you step down. Has passing the five-year mark been a significant milestone in terms of making lasting changes, or do you think you might leave with regrets?
Seven years is kind of a normal span for this kind of job. That’s how long Chang-Lin [Tien] was chancellor, and certainly the things that he did are enduring. And so I don’t feel that I’ll have regrets. I do think that many of the things that we have been able to accomplish will be lasting, particularly addressing issues of infrastructure, rebuilding so much of the campus, as well as trying to set a tone, as it were, for the campus, one concerned about issues relating to community.

How will you spend the next nine months? Will you be focusing on certain priorities more than others?
Priorities are dictated by circumstances. One is the fact that we are now in a state fiscal crisis that presents a whole set of new problems for us.

A central priority is recognizing that we have got to, even in a very bad budget situation, find the means to retain the faculty. We know that the number of outside offers made to our faculty has gone up somewhat over the last several years, and that’s because there are more institutions that feel they can raid Berkeley. So I’m working very hard to retain the faculty we have: that’s the future of the university, and that’s essential to the preservation of quality. In all of that there will have to be some discussion about how faculty are compensated: whether or not we need new models for their compensation.

Our approach to budget issues will, I think, also have a political dimension, because we will have to draw upon the support of people who recognize that the preservation of this institution is central to California.

Do you mean cultivating donors?
Yes, but also getting support from the people who are makers and shakers in the business community, for the protection of this university in a bad budget situation. Toward that end we will have to organize a fairly strenuous effort, and have long conversations about [how best to do this].

Beyond the budget, what will be your focus in the coming months?
An additional effort occupying my time will be to realign the administrative structures of the university in ways that will make certain that we’re more efficient, and that long-term we’re investing our funds in the most prudent fashion and containing costs. And that will require some administrative restructuring; it will require, I think, the initiation of some policies with regard, for example, to procurement. We will be working very hard to wring out of the expenditures that we make means of savings for the campus, and aligning the administrative structure in a way that’s most effective.

[Editor’s note: McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, has been asked to work with the campus Center for Organizational Effectiveness (COrE) to identify opportunities for increasing the effectiveness of non-academic services through organizational restructuring. Over the past few months, McKinsey and COrE have worked with the chancellor’s cabinet and other campus administrators on specific recommendations that are currently under consideration by Chancellor Berdahl and Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Gray.]

Do you have a sense that the clock is ticking? That there are things you might want to get done that you’re just not going to be able to see through?
I hope that we receive some major gifts in support of the Health Sciences Initiative — which has been a very high priority for us in private fundraising — in the course of this year, and there’s a strong possibility that we will. There are two capital components of this: the Stanley Hall and Warren Hall replacements. We’ve raised the necessary funds for the Stanley Hall replacement, but we still have a ways to go on raising money for Warren Hall. That will continue, I’m sure, beyond my tenure, because I don’t think that in this fiscal climate we’re likely to be able to finish that.

Are there any workaday duties that you anticipate letting go of? Will you give less attention, say, to your ceremonial duties and more to strategic planning or budget work?
My ceremonial responsibilities are not always understood by all of the campus, except as they may pertain to some ceremonial function in their own unit. But it’s an important aspect of what I do; it’s related to fundraising and friend-raising.

So, no, I don’t think I’ll change anything about how my day is organized. If anything, I’ll try to increase some of my workday, because I want to give this all a strong final push.

This year and next year, your successor will have to deal not only with administering the 2004-05 budget, but will encounter that budget as something that’s been strategically addressed, if not nailed down, on your watch, not theirs. What are your thoughts about next year’s budget planning in general, and about the need, if any, to leave some “wiggle room” for your successor?
No matter who is chancellor, there’s not going to be a lot of wiggle room in the budget, because it’s going to be extraordinarily tight. What’s important for us to do this year, in addition to the nitty-gritty planning of how we meet whatever the budget limitations are next year, is to try to situate the university in such a way that we are thinking well beyond this next year. There will have to be some very serious thought given to the basic sources of revenue on which the university depends, whether or not there are structural changes that the institution — not just the Berkeley campus but the university as a whole — needs to make in the acquisition of resources.

State support as a percentage of the whole is declining. The University of California is off by a billion dollars in receiving the funding pledged under its partnership with the state of California. We need to remember the importance of that partnership in our general planning for the future. It’s got to be restored if the university is going to survive. But we have to look at other potential funding sources, and we’ve currently got a task force that will be doing this.

Another question that has to be faced by the university as a whole is whether this campus needs to be free to differentiate itself to some extent. We have the capacity to increase nonresident enrollment; to what extent is that going to be tolerable? These questions need to be considered. And that, I think, will be the groundwork from which whoever becomes chancellor next will operate.

What about the Long Range Development Plan process? Will that occupy much of your time?
That process is rolling along well. Obviously, there will be a lot of conversations with the city to resolve whatever differences exist. I’m very heartened by the good relationship we’ve built with the city, and it’s one that Mayor Bates is very interested in sustaining, I think. So I expect the LRDP will move forward on its appointed course, but it won’t reach maturity on my watch.

How will your obligation to engage in shared governance with the faculty come into play over the coming months? What kind of learning curve will your successor face in that regard if he or she doesn’t happen to come from Berkeley?
Anyone’s learning curve on the issue of shared governance here, if they come from somewhere else, is going to be a fairly steep one, because shared governance is taken more seriously and is more meaningful and more real here than it is at any other university.

I think we’ve made important progress in terms of shared governance while I’ve been here. Much of it is due to the Strategic Academic Plan [process] and our cooperation there; much of it is also due to the effort simply to draw the leadership of the Academic Senate into closer collaboration on the budget planning process that we’ve been through this past year. And, as well, the successful resolution of issues that concern academic freedom — how we worked together on the Palestinian poetry course, for example. I think those achievements will be lasting. Part of my job will be helping to brief my successor on this tradition; anyone who comes from Berkeley will have a full understanding of it already.

Do you anticipate being on call, however informally, during your sabbatical year to advise your successor?
I’ll do anything that they request to help. But the most appropriate thing for the former chancellor to do is to step out of the way, so that he or she is not in the hair of their successor. Chang-Lin was very generous in that regard: he was always there to consult with, but he was not hanging around. And that’s the way I intend to be as well.

A question about the importance of staff to the campus. Staff is acutely aware of how their salaries have failed to keep pace with the cost of living, as well as with benchmark levels of compensation that prevail at our comparison institutions. Since they’ve already been told that there will be no funding for increases in 2004-05, even as they’re being told this week that cost increases for health care are in the works, what do you hope to accomplish in your remaining months to reinforce their sense of value to the campus?
First of all, even though the state has said there will be no merit increases, we have to challenge that and fight for those increases [in the future]. The cost of benefits is indeed going up for staff; we’ve tried to cushion that for lower-paid staff, but the fact is that those costs are going up. So we’ve got to find some means of providing some merit increases for staff next year, even if they’re fairly minimal — whether we try to do it through reallocation ourselves, or whether the state is able to give us some leeway on this front.

I’m really disappointed that we haven’t made as much headway on staff salaries as I’d hoped we would. In this kind of fiscal crisis people are less concerned about the outside market, because there are not a lot of jobs out there. But I don’t want us to somehow take advantage of that fact and not reward staff, who are doing really outstanding work.

That said, if you look at some of the surveys of staff morale and staff attitudes — for example, those that the Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Committee has done — you’ll see that staff are concerned about a lot of things, but that compensation doesn’t always rise to the top of the list. They’re concerned about being overworked, about being asked to do things that simply cannot be done with the available resources. They’re concerned about the kind of relationship that they have with their supervisors. They’re concerned about the overall work environment, and whether or not it’s supportive of them, and whether they feel valued. There are a lot of things we can do as a campus, in bad times as well as good, to make people feel appreciated, and to have them understand the central role they play in the success of this campus, short of compensation.

You haven’t said much in public about the personal factors affecting your decision to step down.
A lot of people are aware that we have a pretty serious health problem in our family, and that has had to be a consideration for the timing of this and my thoughts about this. This is the kind of job that deserves my full-time attention, and I just can’t do it justice if I have distractions. And that condition is certainly a distraction, one that I can’t neglect.

Any closing thoughts?
As I said to the cabinet when I told them of my decision, we’ve got a lot of things underway: initiatives related to undergraduate education, to the campus’s administrative structures, to how we retain and recruit faculty, and to improve and modernize classrooms.

My view of this whole year is, don’t take your foot off the accelerator. That’s exactly the metaphor I use: we need to keep going full speed ahead.