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Chancellor’s staff address is met with frustration, skepticism by some

| 22 October 2003

The chancellor’s annual address to campus staff, organized by the Berkeley Staff Assembly, is typically no lovefest. In recent years, questions addressed to Chancellor Berdahl have touched, pointedly at times, on such topics as faculty/ staff relations, budget constraints, increased workloads, and salary increases (or the lack thereof).

The atmosphere at this year’s lunchtime meeting, held on Tuesday, Oct. 14, in Sibley Auditorium, was markedly contentious — moreso than in past years, according to some observers. Though attendance was light (an estimated 175 attended out of a campus staff workforce of 13,000), some participants made up for their small numbers with raised voices and queue-jumping aggressiveness.

For the first part of the Q&A session that followed the chancellor’s prepared remarks, questions and responses focused primarily on the budget shortfall and its implications, a source of frustration to several of the questioners.

The budget situation remains “very uncertain,” Berdahl acknowledged, while declining to predict how the crisis will play out. With some small signs of recovery in the stock market over the past year, Berdahl said, “there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. The difficulty is that [it’s] an $8 billion tunnel.”

The current budget crisis, he added, “may not be simply a consequence of fiscal downturn.” He pointed to problems in the state’s tax structure in the aftermath of Proposition 13. Revenues earmarked for higher education have gone from eight percent in the last 10 to 15 years, he said, to slightly under four percent today.

“If we are going to really put this university on the kind of financial foundation it needs to retain its quality, there will have to be a real review of how we’re funded,” Berdahl insisted. Although the university has been working very hard at private fundraising, he said, “that doesn’t begin to fill the problem we face.”

Several questions focused on staff compensation. With no pay raises for staff in the state budget for UC, one questioner asked if any non-monetary compensation, such as extra days off during the winter break, were being considered. Berdahl said he would advocate at the UC Council of Chancellors that holiday leave be extended to the days between the Christmas and New Year holidays. Such decisions are made by the UC system, not on each campus, Berdahl said, but he endorsed the idea as a way to give employees more time off “without it cutting into their accrued vacation.”

But many questions reflected skepticism about how the campus and the UC system approach staff compensation. One questioner, who identified herself as an academic department’s manager, said the university’s public message implied that both staff and faculty salaries would be frozen, while in fact one-third of the faculty will continue to be eligible for merit raises. The questioner said of the university’s assertion, “I find it an insult as a staff member.” Her words elicited applause.

“I appreciate that,” replied Berdahl, “and I think that, to the extent that that is the case, our public message is inaccurate.” He explained that the faculty are reviewed every third year for a merit increase, and those reviews will go forward this year. He noted that a decade ago, also in lean budget times, the university attempted to freeze these third-year faculty merit increases temporarily and was challenged by a successful lawsuit brought by a Berkeley faculty member. The suit charged that the freeze put those affected at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their peers who did receive review-related increases.

Approved faculty increases, he said, are funded by savings from turnover of faculty and senior administrators. There are no across-the-board pay increases planned this year for faculty or staff, such as range adjustments or cost-of-living allowances.

Though there is no equivalent guarantee of merit review for staff salary increases, the chancellor said, increases are achievable through reclassification, a process that continues as usual during this budget shortfall. He acknowledged, however, that, like the faculty merit increases, reclassifications are subject to review, and it “doesn’t mean every staff person [recommended for reclassification] is reclassified or gets a raise.”

Berdahl was asked about the recent salary increase awarded to Joseph Mullinix, systemwide Vice President for Business and Finance, who received a $58,000 raise and a $20,000 bonus, bringing his annual salary to $370,000. Berdahl said UC’s Office of the President approved the increase to retain a central UC administrator “in a moment of change,” referring to the confluence of an outside offer to Mullinix and the near-simultaneous announcements by former UC President Richard Atkinson and another UCOP vice president that they would be retiring soon.

“It [was] an anomaly,” said the chancellor, “and a source of irritation, quite obviously.” But, he said, the amount of the increase awarded to Mullinix “would not begin to fill the gap that we face.”

Berdahl also echoed opinions from UCOP that there is little hope that staff and faculty might be offered a VERIP (Very Early Retirement Incentive Program), as was instituted during the budget crisis of the early ’90s. It’s “very unlikely and virtually impossible” to revive that program, he said, since the university’s retirement fund is no longer as over-funded as it was a decade ago.

A familiar topic — the purported existence of $4 billion in unrestricted funds — was raised by a staff member who identified herself as a member of the Coalition of University Employees, which has frequently asserted the existence of such funds in the university’s reserve coffers. The woman’s tone was confrontational — especially after she accused Berdahl of making a face in response to her accusations.

“In the last year we’ve acquired $2 billion in funds in the eyes of the union,” the chancellor responded. “If you really believe we have reserves like that, and we refused to use them and laid off people instead, then I have to say I don’t know what I can say that will persuade you. I don’t want to lay people off. I don’t want to freeze people’s salaries. If I thought we had funds that we could use for those purposes, I would insist that we use them. But let me tell you, we don’t.”

One audience member followed up, saying, “By focusing on Mullinix’s raise and the unrestricted reserves, I think we’re losing sight of what the real point is: The staff feels frustrated and discouraged. Regarding layoffs, how many mid- and upper-level managers have been laid off? Have their salaries been frozen?”

All staff salaries have been frozen, the chancellor said, adding that he didn’t know how many managers were among those laid off. He advised looking at layoffs with some perspective. Out of a workforce of 13,000, just over 100 people have been laid off; positions have also gone unfilled, many of those at the manager level. “Would that we didn’t have to lay off a single individual,” he said.

Asked what he considers his most important legacies to the staff, Berdahl first cited the Career Development Opportunity Program (CDOP), which provides up to $5,250 annually for staff who want to explore new career-development options or pursue skills related to their current job. He said 2,500 people have taken advantage of the program. “Judging by the testimony people made about it enabling them to upgrade skills and improve their opportunities, I think the program has been very successful,” Berdahl said. He noted that half of the program’s participants come from jobs classified as Assistant I or II or Administrative Specialist.

The chancellor also pointed to the work of the Staff Infrastructure Steering Committee (SISC) as part of his legacy. The committee is reassessing the campus’s job-classification system, looking to align it to the outside job market, and exploring job-performance methodology. Berdahl sees SISC’s work as a means to pursue career advancement for the staff that is “transparent and logical.”

After the event, staff reaction was clearly mixed. “He says he understands our pain, but nothing has been done for several years,” said John Zupan, president of the campus local of University Professional and Technical Employees. “I’ve been to three or four of these things, and the message is always the same.“

By way of contrast, Stephanie Siri, director of Audit and Advisory Services, said, “I always find these talks informative. I feel like he’s being very candid with us and has the staff’s best interests at heart.”

According to Paul Riofski, a BSA officer who participated in preparatory sessions with the chancellor and his staff, Berdahl responded to some ideas before the event and will explore others as a result of it. For example, a staff member had e-mailed in a complaint that the lunch-hour address cuts into employees’ personal time. Berdahl responded by sending out an e-mail to campus department heads requesting that they authorize release time for the event.