UC Berkeley News


   An SRO crowd packed the Morrison Library for the announcement of Birgeneau’s appointment. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

The Birgeneaus come to Berkeley
On the day his appointment was announced, the incoming chancellor and his wife were seemingly everywhere on campus — getting to know us as we started to know them

| 19 August 2004


Chancellor Birgeneau and his wife, Mary Catherine

Chancellor-designate Birgeneau was accompanied to Berkeley by his wife, Mary Catherine, whose good cheer and focused interest in everyone she encountered — and there were dozens, if not hundreds, of introductions made during that 48-hour visit — were noted by all who met her.
(Peg Skorpinski photo)

The ninth chancellor of UC Berkeley, Robert J. Birgeneau, was formally introduced to the campus community on July 27 by the outgoing chancellor, Robert M. Berdahl, and UC President Robert C. Dynes.

The UC Board of Regents made the midafternoon announcement that Birgeneau would become Berkeley’s new chancellor at the end of a special meeting held in Doe Library’s Morrison Library. Even the narrow mezzanine gallery overlooking the sumptuous library was crowded with media, staff, students, and faculty, all hungry for a first glimpse of the man who would be Berdahl’s successor.

Dynes first met Birgeneau — who, like Dynes, is an internationally distinguished physicist — when they were both performing research at Bell Laboratories 30 years ago. He described Birgeneau as someone “who cares deeply about students, is courageous, compassionate, and will work tirelessly to sustain this university.…He has a deep commitment to social equity and to the responsibilities of a public university.” Birgeneau is currently president of the University of Toronto, Canada’s largest public university.

Berdahl said he and his wife, Peg, have become personally acquainted with Birgeneau and his wife, Mary Catherine, through their visits to the Berdahls’ daughter and son-in-law, both of whom are on the Toronto faculty. “I knew that Bob Birgeneau was the person most likely to be given the nod, and I was delighted when he was selected,” said Berdahl. “We have come to know Bob and Mary Catherine as warm, delightful people with a true commitment to improving the institutions they are associated with and the society in which they live.”

Committed to inclusion

The chancellor-designate, flanked by UC President Dynes (at left) and outgoing Chancellor Berdahl, addressed the UC Regents briefly, then took questions from the press. Though it was a day of high seriousness, there was some room for levity, as Berdahl noted (while introducing his successor), “Perhaps no one in this room has been more eager to see this day arrive than I.” (Peg Skorpinski photo)

For Birgeneau, that commitment stems from what he calls his “humble beginnings.” As he told George Strait, Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor of public affairs, in a videotaped interview conducted during his visit, “We were the sort of people who had to get jobs when we were 15-and-a-half just to survive.” Born in Toronto, he credits his community with rescuing him from a life of poverty and starting him on the path to higher education. When Birgeneau finished grade school, a local Catholic priest paid his tuition to attend a well-regarded private boys’ high school. When he became the first in his family ever to graduate at that level, his mother threw a huge party to celebrate. But when tragedy struck his family, his plans to attend the University of Toronto were almost derailed by the possibility he would have to go to work to support them. Although he ended up not needing it, his high-school mentors stepped forward and offered their financial support so he could go to college anyway.

As he told Strait, “It’s not surprising that I’m absolutely committed to inclusion and to access for people from any kind of background, for people who are financially disadvantaged….I could not have done this on my own.”

Birgeneau reiterated and expanded on that commitment as he addressed the regents’ meeting, the press conference that followed, and then the larger UC Berkeley community awaiting him outside. “I hope we can have a student population that is genuinely inclusive and serves the entire state of California, not just a portion of it,” he said at one point. He also declared that no child born in California should lack “full and equal access to all we have to offer.”

When a reporter asked for specifics on how he intended to increase diversity at UC Berkeley, Birgeneau, after first citing his need to familiarize himself thoroughly with the campus’s admissions process, stated firmly, “I think people are multidimensional and they should be judged on a multidimensional basis.”

Competing on a level playing field

At a post-announcement reception at University House, the chancellor’s campus residence, Birgeneau met many of the people with whom he will collaborate, over the years to come, in guiding UC Berkeley. Here he stands with several of Berkeley’s academic leaders, including (from left) CNR Dean Paul Ludden, L&S Dean of Social Sciences George Breslauer, IAS Dean John Lie, Graduate Division Dean Mary Ann Mason, and UC Berkeley Extension Dean James Sherwood. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Birgeneau comes to Berkeley at a time when the campus and the UC system face painful financial cuts. The incoming chancellor said that he would actively encourage more private funding of the university. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was on the faculty for 25 years, has an endowment of $1 million per undergraduate, he said, and he would like to grow Berkeley’s endowment “so we can compete on a level playing field with the private institutions.”

Birgeneau reportedly oversaw a fundraising campaign at Toronto that broke the Canadian record by bringing in $750 million. Still, Birgeneau believes strongly that such additional funding does not let the state off the hook. “Private support is critical, but we are a public institution and therefore the public has a responsibility to support us,” he said.

An avowed fan of UC Berkeley, both for its academic achievements and its commitment to improving society, Birgeneau told the crowd assembed outside Doe Library, “I genuinely believe that UC Berkeley is simply the best public teaching and research facility in the world.” He said he has been impressed since his days as a graduate student with how often Berkeley appears on the top-10 lists of best graduate programs in a wide swath of subject areas.

Birgeneau will step into Chancellor Berdahl’s shoes on or about Oct. 1, after first ensuring that the University of Toronto is positioned for a smooth transition. A step in that direction was taken on Monday, August 23, with the naming of Frank Iacobucci as UT’s interim president.

To view the special edition of “Bear in Mind” featuring Robert Birgeneau, as well as a webcast of the new chancellor’s introductory press conference, visit http://webcast.berkeley.edu/events/details.html?event_id=163. Links to further coverage of the July 27 events from the Berkeleyan and the UC Berkeley NewsCenter are also accessible from that page.