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Robert Birgeneau: 'We serve California extraordinarily well'
In a wide-ranging interview, the chancellor revisits inaugural themes, citing progress made in all three areas. Emphasis is put on fulfilling Berkeley's public mission while maintaining preeminence in teaching, research

18 October 2006

In a recent conversation, the Berkeleyan asked Chancellor Birgeneau for a "progress report" on key goals he enunciated in his inaugural address a year and a half ago. (The text of Birgeneau's April 15, 2005 address is online.) The conversation in his California Hall office covered a breadth of issues, but it always returned to the themes he articulated in Zellerbach Hall on Inauguration Day: leadership, connection, and inclusion.


Among the challenges before Berkeley faculty, says Chancellor Birgeneau, are stem-cell research, energy alternatives, and global poverty. "Only three or four universities in the entire country can compete with us in both breadth and depth," he says. (Bonnie Azab Powell photo)
 

In your inaugural address, you said Berkeley's continuing academic leadership relies on strong support for faculty, in terms of resources and salaries. But in recent years, the need to retain top faculty has begun to throw the faculty-salary structure out of balance. How would you score the progress we've made in providing salaries to retain faculty?
That needs continuing work. Just this year we introduced a "bump" in the salary that faculty realize when they earn tenure. Now I'm involved in elaborate discussions about prioritizing among all of our needs. Not that new resources are going to magically appear, but we're asking ourselves questions such as, Should the next $3 million available in the operating budget go into faculty salaries, or toward support of lecturers and graduate instructors, or what? That's something we'll decide collectively, with input from the senior leadership team as well as the faculty, through the Academic Senate.

We're now in the quiet phase of a fundraising campaign, which has gone extraordinarily well. In the past two years we've raised somewhat over $660 million, by far a record for Berkeley. One area in which we're hoping to raise significant funds is chairs for faculty. Chairs in the past were priced at $500,000, but going forward they will be endowed with a minimum gift of $2 million, which is more typical of other universities - in fact, it's less than at many other universities. At $2 million, a chair will generate enough income to give us new resources for addressing faculty-salary issues.

Using private-endowment monies for salaries would be a departure from the past, when base salaries were considered the responsibility of the state.
The state of California simply will not supply us with enough money to pay competitive salaries. We know that for a fact, and it's very unlikely that will change. So we need to find new resources, and private philanthropy is one of the sources. There are other possibilities: For example, our return on overhead is significantly less than that at the private universities we compete with; the government, therefore, gives private universities more overhead than they give us for carrying out their research. That's another area we're looking at more carefully to ensure that we get our fair share, using a more sophisticated methodology than we have to date.

Revamping the financial model on which we operate is an area where the addition of [Vice Chancellor for Administration] Nathan Brostrom is just transformational. He has the kind of knowledge in matters like this that normal academics, like me, just don't have.

The new campaign will be decentralized, with units driving much of the fundraising. Do you see this as an opportunity for areas that are traditionally underfunded, that don't get government monies - the arts and humanities, for example - to improve their situation?
It will be one avenue for them, certainly. You know, there is a perception that we make huge investments in startup packages and laboratories for scientists and engineers, and that there's no comparable investment in the humanities. And that's not true: The humanist's laboratory, after all, is the Library. As it happens, the budget for our library is higher than the operating budget for the physical sciences, and is about 80 percent of our budget for the entire College of Engineering. It's an extraordinary amount of money, but it's the correct investment: It makes us the top public-university library in North America . tied with the University of Toronto. So in fact, we make very large contributions to the humanities through the Library. But that, of course, doesn't help when you've got 27 essays to correct and you don't have anybody to help you with them.

'The country already has a Harvard and a Stanford and a Yale, and they fulfill very different social functions compared to Berkeley.'

Are you comfortable being a champion for the humanities, given that many people see you primarily as a scientist?
Well, I am a scientist, of course, so it's easier for me to be a champion for the sciences, because much of it is on the tip of my tongue. I have to work a little harder for the humanities..And one thing I always point out to people is that a humanities education does just that: It educates you, it prepares you to do many different things. And there are many important people playing leadership roles in society, in government and business and academia, who were humanities undergrads in a range of subject areas that may not connect with their current endeavors in any obvious way - Celtic studies, philosophy, and what have you - but that have informed their habits of mind and their approach to life, and life's values, ever since.

How would you assess the impact of your leadership on issues relating to staff - and to what extent have your intentions been frustrated by the university's budget woes?
Of course we're resource-limited all the time, even when the budget is going up, because there are always competing demands. Thank goodness I came here as chancellor when the budget was turning around, because I can tell you from my past experiences that it's much more fun to be a leader when budgets are going up! [UC President] Bob Dynes' compact with the governor has given us a solid basis for financial planning, with increasing budgets [projected for] my first five years as chancellor. So, therefore, we're able to give salary increases to everyone and are beginning to address equity issues.

In terms of lingering effects [of the budget crisis], they are primarily on the staff side, where there's been more suffering, relative to other components of our community, from the frozen budgets in the three years prior to my arrival. That generated a malaise among some of the staff - though I'm impressed by the deep loyalty of the staff. The fact that we held on to so many staff during this difficult period is a testimonial to that. We're paying close attention to staff-salary issues, and I'm hopeful that we can make progress on them.

You've taken a keen personal interest in government affairs. What do you most hope to achieve through closer interaction in Sacramento and Washington?
We went through a very difficult year [with Sacramento] this past year, not so much budgetarily as in terms of the gross misrepresentation about how people are rewarded here, which frankly did a lot of damage.

You're talking about the San Francisco Chronicle series on executive compensation at UC?
That's right. And though it was broadly viewed as an attack on executive compensation, in fact, people with experience in these things realize it was actually an attack on public higher education similar to that which has occurred in states like Michigan, Colorado, and Wisconsin. Let me put it this way: Newspaper after newspaper was accusing the University of California of wasting large amounts of money. I was deeply afraid that the consequence of the controversy over the past year would be that the Legislature would "punish" the university . a phrase I heard many times.

"Punish" us budgetarily, you mean?
Right. Of course, if that happened, the people who would suffer would be the staff, the faculty, and the students. So I spent a lot of time up in Sacramento trying to correct the record and heal the wounds. I visited many legislative offices, on several trips to Sacramento, and got a chance to speak with legislators, on both sides of the aisle, and their issues people.

We also put a lot of energy into organizing our friends - leading, influential Californians - both to educate them about UC's contribution to the state and to connect them with people in Sacramento, letting them know their views, letting them know about the importance of UC to the people of California. And because of that effort, we ended up with a budget we're all quite pleased with, one that is actually better than I would have thought we'd have gotten.


The campus library system is "the humanist's laboratory," says Birgeneau, who takes pride in its status as the top public-university library in North America (tied for that honor with his former stomping grounds, the University of Toronto). A humanities education, he points out, cultivates the "habits of mind" of many who go on to play leadership roles in society.(Steve McConnell photo)
 

A final question about leadership. You've said many times that you're "ambitious for Berkeley." What are those ambitions?
When I came here as chancellor, I can't tell you how many people told me that, for Berkeley to maintain its preeminence, we would effectively have to privatize. And I would say that if that were the case, I might as well go back to MIT. It seems to me that the one thing we don't want to do here is to emulate Stanford or Harvard or Yale. Not that there's anything wrong with them, but the country already has a Stanford and a Harvard and a Yale, and they fulfill very different social functions compared to Berkeley.

So my fundamental goal is very simply stated: to ensure that Berkeley retains its preeminence in research and teaching, but that simultaneously we fulfill our public mission in several ways - in terms of our student population, in terms of research that we do that's socially relevant, and more generally, in terms of our commitment to social-justice issues.

Have you set some specific goals to achieve this broad aim?
Part of it is maintenance: ensuring that we have the financial resources to hire and maintain a truly outstanding faculty . not just salaries, but infrastructure and resources for individuals. So we continue to put a lot of energy into planning and executing new facilities, whether it's the East Asian Library, which will be of tremendous service to the humanities; or the CITRIS building, which is important for engineering; or the proposed new art museum, which will serve the arts; or the proposed new health-sciences building, the Li Ka Shing Center or so-called Warren Hall replacement; or the energy we put into the stadium project, for athletics.

On the student front, one of my concerns is that historically at Berkeley we've been phenomenally successful in enrolling an economically diverse student body, in terms of how many Berkeley students are the first in their families to go to college or come from families with annual incomes under $35,000. This is something we should be very proud of. But our ability to maintain that is challenged severely by the resources available for need-based financial aid. A student who comes here from a family whose annual income is, say, $20,000 a year is required, through a combination of loans and work, to provide $8,200 of his or her own support each year. When we project that forward about five years, taking into account currently identifiable resources for financial aid, that number goes up to about $12,000. That means we're going to be telling someone admitted to Berkeley with a family income of $20,000 that they're going to have to provide nearly $50,000 on their own over their four years here. I'm extremely worried about that.

Do you think that's going to discourage some students from even applying?
I think it will . but even if it doesn't, someone from that background starts out disadvantaged, and if they leave here with, let's say, $30,000 in debt, they're going to graduate disadvantaged. We need to ensure that this does not happen. So that's another thing I've been doing up in Sacramento - working hard to promote creative solutions to these financial-aid problems.

The primary approach we're taking, which is consonant with the fundraising campaign we're about to start, is to emulate a matching-funds program that has existed in other states, and that worked very successfully in Canada. For example, if a donor were to give $100,000 for need-based financial aid for undergraduates, the government would match it in the form of permanent endowment.

"Connection" was one of your inaugural themes. How are you encouraging the multidisciplinary work that you see as critical to Berkeley's future?
Well, our faculty is very self-motivated. They don't need a dean or a chancellor to tell them what they ought to be studying or doing research on. Again, we should try to support them as much as possible with infrastructure and resources.

There are many interesting challenges before us where I believe that Berkeley can distinguish itself - stem-cell research, with all of its multiple dimensions; energy research, whether it focuses on carbon-neutral biomass energy conversion or novel solar cells built using nanostructure techniques; or issues of poverty in the developing world.

'The state of California simply will not supply us with enough money to pay competitive salaries. We know that for a fact, and it's very unlikely that will change.'

We can make contributions in these areas, first of all, because of the commitment of our faculty to serving society. But secondly, there's an important role for Berkeley in all these areas because of the unusual combination of breadth and depth that distinguishes us not just from other public universities but from almost all of the high-end privates. There are probably only three or four universities in the entire country that can compete with us in both breadth and depth.

Let's take stem-cell research as an example. Addressing a health issue like Alzheimer's with stem-cell techniques will require expertise all the way from basic developmental biology to, if we do find a solution, bioengineering, neuroscience, ethical issues (if we end up using embryonic stem cells), legal ramifications, and so on, all along the way. For each of the initiatives I've mentioned, we can, with proper organization, put together proposals and programs to do research here that is clearly superior to that possible at other institutions. And in terms of bringing people together, identifying organizational structures, possible resource sources, and the like, there are many areas where a chancellor can play an important role.

At what point do you tend to get involved in these initiatives?
It varies. The recent establishment of the Blum Center [for Developing Economies], which will deal with global poverty, began with a cocktail-party conversation between myself and Richard Blum, who of course, in addition to being an important person on the UC Board of Regents, is a financier with a longstanding interest in poverty issues. After a lot of work by a lot of people, it's ended up leading to the creation of this center, of which I'm very proud.

Another area where we're putting in a lot of real-time work is biomass energy conversion. In this case, the initiative is driven strongly by Steve Chu at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in partnership with the campus. On the administrative side I've been trying to strengthen the partnership between LBNL and the campus - to identify research areas that will be important for society, where our undergrads and grad students can participate actively, and in which we can take advantage of the phenomenal capabilities they have up at the lab.

You've also become closely identified with support for diversity and inclusion in higher education.
Since I came here, I've talked to an incredible number of people - staff, students, faculty from varied backgrounds - about their lives at Berkeley and how they can be improved. The message I hear - whether from the LGBTQ community, or African Americans, or people with disabilities facing, in their perception, special challenges - is so consistent that there's no question in my mind that there's a lot of room for progress here.

That said, I also get a lot of e-mail and other communications from people in the community that is absolutely uplifting, thanking me for speaking out publicly about these issues. It's really been extraordinary. One of the things I've focused on - and this may be a Canadian thing - is the importance, not of assimilation or homogenization, but of valuing people for who and what they are, valuing them for their differences.

You know, my underlying motivation is a very simple one: a deep-seated desire to see people treated fairly and equitably. It's not more complicated than that. And that means we need to ensure an environment where everybody is indeed treated fairly and equitably.

Once that's accomplished, we can build on that, to focus on issues that are specific to California - such as the unfortunate consequences of Proposition 209, including especially the difference between the makeup of our student body and that of California as a whole. In particular, one of my most important practical concerns is that the communities most in need of educated, strong leadership are also the communities most profoundly underrepresented at the state's flagship university. We should be educating the people who are going to be providing leadership in the African American and Chicano/Latino communities. But there are just too few people here from those communities at present to provide that leadership going forward.

A final question, following up on much of what you've said here today: What are the most important things the public needs to understand about UC Berkeley, in light of possibly skewed public perceptions over the past year?
I spend a lot of time explaining to people just what Berkeley is: our phenomenal students, our Nobel Prize winners..I emphasize the fact that we and UCLA have the largest percentage of students from disadvantaged backgrounds of any major research and teaching universities in the country - and the fact that their graduation rates are higher than those of privileged students at, say, Midwestern public universities. So not only do we have an important economic impact on the population as a whole - through new businesses that spring off from the university, for example - but we serve the people of California extraordinarily well once they enroll here. I like to talk about how well the Master Plan works here; about the success of the transfer-student mechanism, so that people get a second chance to come to a top public university. There are very few states where that's possible.