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 Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, interviews Chancellor Birgeneau at the Haas School.

Chancellor Birgeneau: 'Attracted to complexity'
Campus chief explores roots of his 'passion' for public education, calls on students to challenge Prop 209

| 17 November 2005

topkey  Webcast: Watch the entire conversation | 1 hour, 2 minutes

No one who has tuned in even intermittently to UC Berkeley frequencies over the past year should be surprised to hear Robert Birgeneau articulate the benefits of diversity or extol the campus's role as a preeminent public teaching and research institution. Last Wednesday evening, however, Berkeley's ninth chancellor sounded these themes in the strongest terms heard to date - referring to "educational apartheid in California" and calling for the reversal of Prop. 209 - in a format that revealed nuances of character and the roots of conviction.

With an audience of about 180 "listening in," Dean of Journalism Orville Schell interviewed Birgeneau at the Haas School's Andersen Auditorium, eliciting details about his boss' childhood and his career as a physicist and university administrator, as well as his observations on U.S. democracy (he thinks, despite everything, that it works "moderately well") and higher education circa 2005 - with conversational detours into intelligent design, the dimensionality of space, and Canadian football.

At Schell's prompting, the chancellor referred to a hardscrabble childhood in Toronto, Canada, where he was one of four children raised by a single mom in an urban "tenement." With poor schools and young people conditioned to low expectations, it was "not necessarily the kind of surroundings that you'd think would generate the next chancellor of Berkeley," he said. Fortune, however, intervened. Singled out for a scholarship to a parochial high school in the suburbs, he "advanced quickly into a different kind of world."

"In that school," Birgeneau recalled, "it was considered that science was uncultured." Education of "proper Catholic young men" called for grounding in Latin, Greek, French, and German, in addition to religious studies, and it was with a scholarship in classics that he was admitted to college - the first in his family, and one of very few in his neighborhood, to make it out.

'Reverse 209'

These youthful experiences, not surprisingly, had a lasting impact on Birgeneau the man. Out of that time, he said, "I brought with me an appreciation of the effects of poverty, poor education, social and sometimes racial discrimination, and the tremendous waste of talent" that these ills produce.

"My basic conclusion," he said, "is that we will not be able to have an environment that I regard as nondiscriminatory until [Proposition] 209 is reversed."

That 1996 California measure - which ended the use of affirmative-action policies in public education, employment, and contracting - won at the polls by only 400,000 votes, or "a 1-percent 'mandate,'" Birgeneau said. In his discussions with African American and Latino state legislators, he reported, the lawmakers have spoken of the state's 4 million unregistered Chicano/ Latino voters, who, if registered, might help reinstate affirmative action if a new voter initiative were brought before the public. "I believe it is possible [to reverse 209]," he said, "and I hope it happens while I'm chancellor."

Noting that Berkeley students are less involved as activists than their counterparts at the University of Toronto, where he served as president prior to his appointment at Berkeley in July of last year, Birgeneau called for a "renewed period of student activism." With a nod to the warning "watch what you wish for," he urged students to express their activism not through protests at California or Sproul halls, but through voter-registration and -education efforts of the kind he believes necessary to overturn 209.

The allure of complexity

During the hour-long conversation, Birgeneau also spoke about his career in theoretical physics (expanding on the melting of ice cubes in two dimensions, not three, and the repulsive force on which the universe depends) and the sublime satisfaction of finding simple and elegant solutions to complex problems. "There's a moment when suddenly you understand something and realize that no human being in the history of mankind has understood this before..It's genuinely a thrill, and carries a very deep satisfaction with it."

Why exchange such pleasures, then, for a relentlessly "choreographed" life as Berkeley chancellor? Birgeneau referred again to his attraction to complexity, in this case the complexity encountered in running a large institution rather than the sort derived by exploring the fundamental properties of materials. "Being chancellor uses parts of you that you didn't know existed," he said. "You as a human being get tested and developed broadly," and your works are of direct concern to many, not just the "100 people in the world" who might understand an advanced theoretical-physics problem.

The evening event was subtitled "a passion for public education," and its final portion highlighted this theme, with Birgeneau parrying each suggestion that the distinction between public and private institutions may be becoming less exact. Having spent most of his career at two prestigious private universities, Yale and MIT, Birgeneau said he felt qualified to speak to the profound difference between the publics and their private counterparts - in terms of who they serve and of what issues animate their faculty. "I know that just from our cabinet meetings" at Berkeley, where discussions among the campus's top administrators often touch on issues of public service, he said.

He spoke with enthusiasm about one new initiative (mentioned, as well, in his address to the Academic Senate the day before): a research center that will focus on alleviation of global poverty. Faculty enthusiasm for this nascent project, he said, is another indicator of a commitment to the greater good found in public institutions.

Berkeley stands out, said Birgeneau, in demonstrating to the nation and the world that it is possible to serve the public and achieve preeminence as a research university. "It's remarkable that we have this great public institution, with the faculty that we have here. and that a third of our students come from families with [an annual] income under $35,000."

The chancellor called on alumni, private donors, and government to "step up to the plate" in helping the campus continue its honorable mission. "One of the ironies," he conceded, "is that to stay preeminent as a public institution, we're going to need more private resources."