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What price excellence?

George W. Breslauer is Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of the University of California, Berkeley.

 George W. Breslauer
George W. Breslauer (Peg Skorpinski photo)

I joined the faculty at UC Berkeley in 1971, in an era when houses were still affordable and salaries, though modest, were still competitive. Since 1993, I have served successively as chair of a large department, Dean of Social Sciences, and, now, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of the campus. These jobs have given me the opportunity to gain an ever-wider view of the fabulous research and teaching that takes place at this university. But they have also given me a close-up view of how difficult it is recruit and retain the top-flight faculty who produce that research and teach our students. During the past decade-and-a-half, in particular, we have seen that UC Berkeley’s distinction as the finest public research-and-teaching university in the world, on a par with Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, and MIT, rests on increasingly fragile financial footing.

Simply put, UC Berkeley competes with the leading private universities for the best faculty talent, but does so with a handicap. Our faculty salaries lag greatly behind those of the competition (in the middle ranks — tenured associate professors — by about 25 percent). With these salaries, we seek to attract faculty to a region in which housing prices are among the most expensive in the nation. Our modest home-loan program is far less attractive than those of our competitors, who offer forgivable loans, low-rent apartments, and enormous housing subsidies.

This leads to many tense moments. Our private competitors are constantly trying to "raid" our faculty by offering them higher salaries, better housing, more research funds, and better research facilities than we are able to offer. I have seen the strain on the faces of professors who, deep down, want to stay at Berkeley. They revel in the intellectual excitement of working with world-class faculty colleagues and graduate students. They take pride in the fact that Berkeley is a public university dedicated to providing upward mobility for many thousands of students (one-third of Berkeley’s undergraduates come from low-income households). They appreciate the relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere on a campus that is not mired in elitist traditions and self-importance. And, of course, they enjoy the beauty and climate of the Bay Area. But, when our privately funded competitors tap their huge endowments to offer a standard of living, quality of research and teaching facilities, and spacious housing that far exceeds what they have here, I can see them — and their families — torn by the choice. It is remarkable that we have won as large a percentage of our recruitment and retention battles as we have. That is testimony to both the attractiveness of UC Berkeley and the magnitude of the efforts we have made to keep them. But that does not mean we will continue to win most battles.

The fact is that, with spiraling housing prices, the situation has become a crisis. Because of this, even less-prominent institutions in low-cost regions are becoming increasingly attractive to our faculty. We recently lost a professor to the University of Illinois, solely because of the spacious housing available, at relatively low cost, near that campus. Last year, we barely managed to avert the departure of two brilliant, tenured associate professors — one to Indiana University and the other to Notre Dame. Only swift action in gathering significant housing assistance for them led them to decide, literally at the last minute, to stay.

We have become in recent years a two-tiered faculty. In the top tier are those, like myself, who were lucky enough to come to Berkeley in the 1970s or 1980s, when Bay Area housing was more affordable. I never received or needed housing assistance from the campus. Also in this tier are those faculty who happen to come from wealth, and live comfortably as a result. But very large numbers of faculty arrived in the 1990s and 2000s and do not come from wealth. Even with help from the campus, they often live in cramped quarters, spend an exorbitant proportion of their income on mortgage payments, and worry about affording college tuition for their kids. (Private universities pay for much, if not all, of that tuition, but we cannot afford to offer such a benefit.) We scramble constantly to find ways to alleviate the worst situations among our faculty before the leading private and public universities come calling. Our modest, fiscally responsible housing-assistance program is barely adequate for all these purposes, but it is all we can currently afford.

The price of excellence is high, but it is a small price to pay to keep the finest minds in the country coming to California. Children from low-income and middle-class backgrounds deserve to attend a public university that remains on par with the leading private universities in the country. Faculty from modest socioeconomic backgrounds deserve to enjoy the comfortable, middle-class lifestyle for which they have worked so hard and long. They excel in their fields of specialization, transform the world with their research findings, and have won a hard-fought international competition for appointment to the faculty at UC Berkeley.

But to continue attracting the most creative faculty to Berkeley, we must strengthen our housing assistance programs. For example, we must convince private donors to help us finance a shared-equity program through which the university would co-invest in faculty houses and share in the appreciation of the real estate after they are sold. Many of our private competitors offer such a program. We have been able to afford only a few such loans, because they have to be privately financed. These loans were the basis for the exceptionally low interest rates offered to a dean and a professor at Berkeley, cases that were cited in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 13. What the Chronicle did not report was that, in both cases, the loan agreements explicitly entitle the university to share 33 percent and 43 percent, respectively, of the appreciated value of the home when sold or refinanced.

Whatever the mechanism for housing assistance, the time has come to solve this problem. I have spent 35 years at Berkeley and intend to spend the rest of my life here. In the meantime, I will do everything in my power to ensure that UC Berkeley will remain a preeminent institution for generations to come. It took decades to build a great university; it will take much less time to lose it.