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A poster advertising the Nov. 5 town hall meetingA poster advertising the Nov. 5 town hall meeting. (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photos)

At town hall on campus response to budget crisis, students raise concerns and questions

| 06 November 2009

Students turned out in force Thursday evening for a two-hour town hall meeting with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau and other senior administrators. Their common concern: the state budget emergency and the campus's response to draconian budget cuts that the crisis has brought.

"We entered this academic year with a shortfall in funding of $150 million," the chancellor told a crowd of more than 300 gathered in Pauley Ballroom. "What do you do when you find out you're missing" that much? he asked.

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To answer that question, campus leaders described how the budget shortfall ballooned over the year and what strategies they are pursuing to meet the financial emergency. In 39 years at Berkeley, "I've seen it all, but I've never seen it this bad," said Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer. Although he has witnessed cyclical state budget cuts in each decade beginning in the 1970s, flusher times typically followed each downturn, he said. The draconian cuts that were made this May — coming on top of cuts in 2002 through 2004 — were without precedent in their scale, said Breslauer.

How is the campus responding? Birgeneau cited cuts to academic and administrative units, a staff hiring freeze, a slowdown in faculty hiring, a voluntary retirement option, layoffs, faculty and staff furloughs, and an ambitious capital campaign, whose goal is to raise $3 billion from donors.

Because the state provides no support for approximately 2,500 Berkeley students, the campus also plans to "ramp down" enrollment of these unsupported students, he said. But "rather than leave those seats empty," it will admit more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuition fees than in-state students. This plan will generate about $60 million over four years, he estimated, and "greatly reduce pressure" to increase fees for California residents.

The hope, of course, is that as the economy recovers, the state will restore the funding to previous levels. "But it would be very foolish to rely on that, given the history of disinvestment by the state in the higher educational system," ventured Birgeneau. State funding per student in constant dollars "is exactly half of what it was 20 years ago," he noted, and student fees have been raised to compensate. To a large extent, he said, support for UC "has been transferred from the state to the students."

Worries about student fees

For many students and their families, that shift is painful. The impending vote by UC Regents on a proposed 32 percent fee increase, set for the board's Nov. 17-19 meeting, motivated many to turn out for the ASUC-sponsored forum.

Shiva Patel, a sophomore from Florida, said he has a lot of financial aid in the form of loans; he estimates that if the proposed fee hikes go through, his loan payments will more than triple, to about $1,000 a month, by the time he graduates. "It's getting to a tipping point," he said.

"I was expecting fee increases, but not a 32 percent increase," reported fourth-year interdisciplinary studies student Heather Shapiro. She said she wants to see budget transparency.

Erin Gore, associate vice chancellor from the campus budget office, responded that her office plans to post a "primer" on the UC Berkeley budget later this month, and a second explanatory document in January. (She is not aware, she said  whether UC plans to issue a comparable explanation of the systemwide budget.) "None of us have a crystal ball," she added, in a cautionary note. "But we're three months into this fiscal year, and the state is already $6 billion behind in revenue."

The political landscape

students at townhallStudents line up to question campus administrators.
On many minds were the broader political and social context of UC's current budget crisis, and potential strategies for fighting back. "I have a very simple question: Why have the people of California decided to abandon public education in our state?" one student asked.

In response, Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard said that voters, operating on fear, are choosing to fund prisons, to the tune of $45,000 per prisoner per year, over higher education. Calling the student's query "not a simple question at all," Birgeneau professed not to fully understand, himself, disinvestment in higher education by both California and the nation. In a recent Washington Post piece, and in talks with members of the Obama Administration, he has proposed that the federal government provide basic operating support for the leading U.S. public research and teaching universities. If the federal government were to invest in public education as it has in other stimulus funding programs, he said, "it would permanently solve the problems of Berkeley and the other 20 to 25 top research universities across the country."

The chancellor strongly urged students to lobby their state legislators and to show up en masse for a planned demonstration in Sacramento this spring, as lawmakers prepare the next state budget.

Breslauer, a political scientist, said that politically "the worst thing we can do is shoot inward" and start blaming each other. "We've got to shoot outward toward Sacramento" — combining grassroots lobbying of state legislators, "grass tops" advocacy (urging "heavy hitters" to withhold political contributions from lawmakers who fail to support UC), and direct appeals in Sacramento by UC officials. "Nothing short of that is going to help. We've got to all be shooting outward."

Students look forward

When the floor opened for questions, a line of students, 15 deep, quickly formed at either side of the room. Some queries "shot outward" at Sacramento or the California political system. But frustration was deep and there were rounds of friendly fire, as well.

Students raised a plethora of issues — among them a proposed state oil-severance tax (a potential UC revenue source), affordable student housing, redevelopment of Lower Sproul Plaza, and the cost of the athletics program. But they returned repeatedly to a few: fee increases (and whether, once instituted, they could ever be reversed), and their desire for budget transparency, democratization of the Board of Regents, and student input into decision-making processes.

On his way out of the town hall, undergrad Wayland Blue cited students' need to react effectively. The way out of this crisis may be far from clear, but "it's on us," he said.