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Chancellor Birgeneau talks to the press Chancellor Birgeneau (right), joined by Iraq veteran Stuart Martin (center) and Ron Williams, who runs the campus's veterans' services network, meets with reporters on Monday. (Steve McConnell/UC Berkeley NewsCenter)

For the press, Birgeneau lays out his priorities
Bolster the budget with world-class support, protect the educational program, and make all students feel welcome

– An emerging strategy for sidestepping the recurring impact of state's budget woes, along with Berkeley's unique new program for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and Cal athletes' medal heist at the Beijing Olympics, dominated the topics addressed by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at his annual back-to-school press briefing on Monday.

"This is probably the single most exciting day of the year for us here at Berkeley the first day the students turn up," said the chancellor in his introductory remarks. "As always, we have an exciting new class coming in."

Before turning to the budget and other important issues and initiatives, Birgeneau offered up a quick profile of the more than 9,000 new students descending on Berkeley this fall, joining 26,000 already enrolled.

Among the new students are 4,400 freshmen, about 2,000 transfer students, and almost 2,800 graduate students. Two of them both transfer students entering as juniors are 13 years old, according to Birgeneau; two others are 60. And 117 of them, he noted with pride, are counted among the nation's best science and engineering students, all winners of the National Science Foundation's highly competitive fellowships; Berkeley aced out both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (76 NSF winners) and Stanford (67) in attracting these students.

"Berkeley continues to be, by a wide margin, an attractive place for students in science and engineering," Birgeneau, a physicist, told the assembled media.

The chancellor also described steps the campus is taking to protect itself from the ups and downs of the state budget, so that Berkeley can maintain the high quality of its educational program over the long term. California, faced with difficult decisions over cutting myriad state-supported programs, has yet to adopt a budget two months past the start of the new fiscal year.

"We're going to have to be starting classes without knowing how much money we're going to receive," Birgeneau said, and that makes planning extraordinarily difficult.

To insulate the university, he continued, "We are going to have to find a way of managing our budget so that we're less vulnerable to the wide fluctuations of the state budget."

In the short term, that's meant imposing "a variety of new financial measures" for example, capturing the interest on money that is in accounts waiting to be spent.

For the long term, Birgeneau said, he's brought in some significant financial firepower to develop strategies for bolstering Berkeley's budget process. Frank Yeary, former worldwide head of mergers and acquisitions for Citigroup, was hired in June as a vice chancellor, to work with Vice Chancellor for Administration Nathan Brostrom, who came to Berkeley in 2006 from J.P. Morgan, as leaders of the new budget strategy.

"This is world-class talent," Birgeneau said. "We're hoping, with their leadership, that we'll be able to change our budget process." Raising more private money will be part of the overall strategy, the chancellor said.

For this year, the best Berkeley can expect is that the state funds the campus at the same level as last year around $500 million in operating money. But because of rising costs, that that still represents a 5 percent net decline in state funding this year, Birgeneau made clear.

Chancellor Birgeneau
"The one thing we need to protect here is the education of our students."
- Chancellor Robert Birgeneau
"Unfortunately," he said, "in the short term we're going to have to cut back significantly on our hiring of new faculty, so we're not going to be replacing most of the faculty who retire." That means the ratio of students to faculty, currently about 18 to 1, Birgeneau said, will "gradually increase."

Asked if that meant classes would be cut, he responded, "We hope not. The one thing we need to protect here is the education of our students." It may mean that some classes might be delayed, or not offered as often, in the near term, he added.

In spite of budget problems, Berkeley was able to reduce the overall costs borne by students whose family incomes are low enough to qualify them for Pell Grants, the chancellor said, noting that "the rise in the cost of living and in fees was more than offset by the increase in our financial-aid package, and that's in part because of good management."

In addition to his financial initiatives, the chancellor emphasized his commitment to making Berkeley a welcoming campus for students who have served in the nation's military. He introduced Ron Williams, a staffer who runs the cross-campus veterans' services network, and Stuart Martin, who arrived at Berkeley last spring as a transfer student after serving in the Iraq war.

Martin told the press how the network helped him with the daunting task of applying to Berkeley with transcripts from six community colleges the result of his having moved around with the military and then negotiating the complications of the GI Bill in arranging his student aid.

"It was very unfamiliar coming in, but it's been nothing but a big welcome," he said.

Williams said that the incoming freshman class counts 77 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans among its number, which he believes is a record for any of UC's 10 campuses.

The performance of Cal athletes past, present, and future at the Beijing Olympics was another point of pride for Birgeneau. Altogether, athletes with connections to the Golden Bears won 17 medals "a very impressive showing," the chancellor enthused.

He later used the Cal athletes' Olympic performance to respond to a question about the latest legal proceedings over Berkeley's efforts to build a new student-athlete training center and move UC Berkeley athletes out of seismically challenged Memorial Stadium.

"If anyone had any question of the value of our student athletes, they need only look back at the Olympic statistics I provided you," he said. "We are extraordinarily proud of our athletes and want to provide them with the safest and best facilities that we can."

Referring to the seismic-safety issues of student-athletes who train in the stadium, he added, "It's really unfortunate that all the legal proceedings have extended the physical danger to our students for almost a year and a half, and I think the people responsible should be ashamed of themselves."

The chancellor also announced that more than 11,000 students, faculty, and staff have signed up for Berkeley's new WarnMe emergency alert system, opened for student sign-ups last month and for faculty and staff this week. In the event of an emergency, the system sends immediate alerts by phone, e-mail, text, and TTY.