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 Chancellor Birgeneau listened as Terry Downs read a question from an audience member at the annual BSA-sponsored "chat with staff." (Steve McConnell photo)

Birgeneau: 'The state of the campus is good'
In annual staff chat, chancellor addresses issues of campus worklife - equity, pensions, and paychecks

| 11 July 2007

Among the lessons of his nearly three years at Berkeley's helm, quipped Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at his annual chat with campus staff, "is never take a job as chancellor unless you're guaranteed that staff salaries are going to be going up." His listeners, many of whom recalled all too well the belt-tightening days of his predecessor, Robert Berdahl - "a very tough period," said Birgeneau, due to state budget constraints - seemed largely in sync with his generally sunny view of the current state of the campus.

Holding aloft his Cal ID card - which, he noted, identifies him as "staff" - Birgeneau touched on a range of topics during the friendly June 22 gathering in the Haas School of Business' Wells Fargo Room, which featured an informal, half-hour presentation by the chancellor, followed by a 45-minute question-and-answer session. The annual event is coordinated by the Berkeley Staff Assembly.

The chancellor set the tone early by pointing out that the previous week, while addressing a crowd of campus employees at Summerfest, Berkeley's  annual staff-appreciation event, he'd worn a CUE T-shirt "to show my solidarity" with campus workers and to "send a message that I'm chancellor of every single person at the university." It was a theme he sounded even when discussing his opposition to a recent agreement between the UC Office of the President (UCOP) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees - a contract settlement that gave new wage increases to lower-paid employees, including special raises for custodians.

"I hope everyone believes that I and the people in my administration are committed to all our staff, including the lowest-paid workers," Birgeneau said, pointing to the Berkeley campus's recent steps in raising workers' baseline wages to $11.70 an hour. "I grew up living on minimum wage myself, I know what it's like personally," he said, but added he "didn't think it was fair" that one group of workers got the pay hikes while others in similar ranges did not.

He called himself "quite vocal" in opposing the new agreement, noting that he'd expressed his opinion to UCOP. "You see what influence I had," he added, to laughter.

Birgeneau also called upon personal experience in discussing the Board of Regents' proposal to end the so-called "contribution holiday" for UC Retirement Plan members by phasing in payroll deductions intended to ensure the fund's solvency. (The proposal, which is contingent upon the Legislature's willingness to match employee contributions out of the state budget, is currently in limbo.) Birgeneau described the state of the UC pension fund - which the regents insist is dangerously underfunded, an assertion disputed by some union analysts and other critics of the proposal - as "almost identical" to the situation at the University of Toronto, where he was president for several years before coming to Berkeley.

Canadian law, he explained, "doesn't allow you to be underfunded," requiring that any deficits in a university's pension fund be made up out of its operating budget. At UT, he said, "The union was urging us to reinstitute pension contributions, because they saw the possibility that union workers could be laid off because we'd have to take money from the operating budget and put it in the pension fund."

That experience, he explained, "made me a conservative on pension contributions" and a backer of the regents' plans to bolster UC's pension fund.

Birgeneau's talk ranged over a number of issues and initiatives, from the campus's fledgling $500 million partnership with BP to create the new Energy Biosciences Institute - "the single most exciting [initiative] for me personally" - to a new career-development program, new buildings, a new vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, and a Sept. 19 court date for a lawsuit over plans for a new Student-Athlete High Performance Center.

"This is a life-safety issue, regardless of how anyone else has presented it," said Birgeneau of the proposed student-athlete facility, declaring himself "pretty optimistic" that the campus will prevail in court.

Birgeneau, reminding the audience that the campus is currently in the "silent phase" of a major fundraising campaign, estimated that he spends about 20 percent of his time on fundraising and insisted that public universities need to emulate their private peers in focusing on philanthropy and - even more crucial, he suggested - Wall Street-caliber investment talent able to make endowments grow. "Actually," he said, "investment teams have turned out to be more important than the fundraisers."

"It is very unlikely that we are going to have a state legislature that will provide us with the kind of resources that it did in the distant past," Birgeneau said. But with the campus raising money at an average rate of $300 million a year, he concluded, "we're doing pretty well on that front."