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Chancellor Birgeneau speaks to staff
Addressing a full house of campus staffers, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau garnered applause for his comments on raising the minimum wage for Berkeley employees and increasing aid for students from low-income families. (Steve McConnell photos)

Chancellor delivers good news, sounds familiar themes in annual address to staff

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| 28 April 2006

A new slate of career-development programs for Berkeley staff will be introduced this summer and fall, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced at a noontime address to staff on Wednesday, April 26. The anticipated programs, plus a new campus office to cultivate them, come as a welcome development for staff after last spring's discontinuation of the popular Career Development Opportunity Program (CDOP).

Sponsored by the Berkeley Staff Assembly, the speech drew an audience that nearly filled the 80-seat Wells Fargo Room at the Haas School of Business. The chancellor commented on topics ranging from wages to performance management, and from staff diversity to the controversy over compensation for UC executives.

Chancellor Birgeneau
'Clearly, to remain competitive we must offer competitive salaries. ... And so clearly we have to make progress on the financial front, and obviously I understand that [includes] the staff front as well.'
-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau

Birgeneau drew applause when he touched on such subjects as last week's action to raise the minimum wage for Berkeley employees, his efforts to increase aid for students from low-income families, and his support for the reversal of Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in admissions in 1996. The genteel mood at the event was in marked contrast to "chancellor's chats" in past years, which often turned tense and contentious as staff pressed concerns about salaries, workload, and unresolved union contracts. Some good news from the chancellor - and a somewhat tighter format for the event - seemed to make the difference.

New career-development programs will be spearheaded by a new Office of Workforce Development, under the purview of Associate Vice Chancellor for Health and Human Services Steve Lustig. Providing opportunities for staff training and development is increasingly important, said Birgeneau, as longer-serving staff draw close to retirement and a younger cohort fills their shoes.

The chancellor tied staff development to the issue of staff diversity. Staff from underrepresented minority groups fill many of the lower-paid campus jobs and are less represented in middle-range and higher-ranked positions, he said. To begin to address the situation, a new project on equity and diversity will be introduced at a May 9 forum, "Diversity in Action: Strengthening Excellence in our Workplace," an event co-sponsored by the Academic Senate and the chancellor's office. Staff are being given two hours administrative leave to attend.

Money talk(s)
Birgeneau said he "couldn't agree more" with calls from the Legislature and the media for "transparency" in setting and making public UC executive compensation, an issue reported on frequently in the press over the past five months. Birgeneau returned, however, to what he called a "central message": As a publicly funded university that competes with elite private institutions, Berkeley must offer competitive salaries, particularly to its faculty.

He added that competitive salaries are also vital "on the staff front." The regents, president, and chancellors all "recognize the staff demoralization that has come from several years of no salary increases," he said.

The chancellor pointed to last year's salary increases of 3.5 percent as progress, but acknowledged they were "just a beginning." Also implemented last year, he said, were equity increases for more than 600 non-represented employees in job categories judged to have the largest market lags combined with high turnover rates.

Citing an announcement he made last week, the chancellor said Berkeley is the "first UC campus to raise the baseline wage above the living-wage level" to $11.25 an hour. The action affects 180 of Berkeley's lowest-paid staff, giving some a pay increase of 20 percent. Birgeneau, who acknowledged that some thought the campus should do better, "wanted to at least get up to a living-wage level as a first step, and as a symbol for the system."

Birgeneau noted that his "biggest fear" about the controversy over UC executive compensation is the reaction of Sacramento legislators and the effect that could have on funding for the university - and, in turn, on staff salaries. "If random arrows come from Sacramento," he said, they could bring an overall budget reduction for UC, bad for the entire system and particularly hurtful to the staff.

To try to stem the tide of anti-UC sentiment in Sacramento, Birgeneau has taken the unusual chancellorial step of making weekly trips to the state Capitol to talk to critics and confer with supporters of UC. He said he has developed good relationships with Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuņez, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata and other key legislators, reinforcing the message of "what we're trying to accomplish [at Berkeley] and why it's important to the state."

"It's amazing how poorly understood the university's social role is in Sacramento," he said, noting that 31 percent of the campus's undergraduate students come from families whose incomes are less than $45,000 annually. The chancellor is working with the state and with private donors to seek new sources of financial aid for students from working-class families.

While the university's compact with the governor promises increased funding in the 3- to 4-percent range for the coming year, "everyone knows that's not good enough," Birgeneau said. More private funding is needed - which "does not mean we're going to privatize the university," he added. Currently, the university is in the quiet phase of a major fundraising campaign; Berkeley raised $318 million in private gifts in 2005, the chancellor said, and this year's fundraising is "ahead of that curve."

'You asked the wrong question'
The chancellor's remarks ran 30 minutes, leaving just 10 minutes for questions. Many questions were submitted in advance via e-mail, and Jessea Greenman, co-coordinator of the Berkeley Staff Assembly and emcee of the forum, said the chancellor incorporated answers to many of those into his remarks. She selected a handful of written questions from the audience for Birgeneau, including how he plans to change the impact of Proposition 209 on enrolling a diverse student body.

The chancellor said that when students asked him that question in his first year here, he reflexively would tell them about specific campus programs to address the problem. "I don't do that any more," he said. "Now I say, 'You asked the wrong question - the right question is what are you doing?'" The chancellor, a civil rights activist in the South in his youth, said he wouldn't have thought to ask campus administrators such a question in his student days because, he said, only partly joking, "I thought they were irrelevant."

His activist history informs how he considers the diversity problem, he said, and with the help of Chris Edley, dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law, he has concluded that "to make the kind of progress we need, we have to actually reverse 209." He noted that in 1996 the proposition passed by a margin of only 400,000 votes, and that there are 4 million unregistered Latino voters in the state today. With massive voter registration and education, coupled with a vigorous get-out-the-vote effort, the chancellor sketched a scenario in which the proposition might be reversed. He has been discussing these strategies with Latino legislators, he said.

Other questions remained at the end of the program - on pay, pay equity, possible reinstatement of employee contributions to the UC retirement fund, President Dynes' leadership on executive compensation, and a change in the office of the UC treasurer. Greenman said these questions will be addressed on an FAQ page to be posted soon on the BSA website.