UC Berkeley News


Tears, tots, and some serious talk
Campus honors the Berdahls on Charter Day

| 21 April 2004



Peg and Robert Berdahl were honored by a grateful campus for their seven years of service to the Berkeley community.
Peg Skorpinski photo

“This is a big moment for two kids from South Dakota who met in Sunday school over 60 years ago,” Peg Berdahl told the Charter Day audience at Zellerbach Hall on Thursday, April 15. Mrs. Berdahl fought back tears as she and her husband, Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, each received the Berkeley Citation, the campus’s highest honor, for their service to the university.

On a day nominally dedicated to marking the 136th anniversary of the university’s charter, the true purpose of the Zellerbach ceremony was evident to all: to bid farewell to the outgoing chancellor. In June, Berdahl will step down from the office he has held since March 1997; his successor has not yet been named.

The ceremony began with the presentation of the 2003 Peter E. Haas Public Service Award to Corinne Jan ’76, for her work providing seniors and minority groups with access to health care, legal aid, and other services. In her acceptance speech, Jan kicked off two hours of tributes to the Berdahls from faculty, staff, students, and the city of Berkeley community by thanking the chancellor for “courage and compassion that have sustained Cal through tragedy, terror, and war.”

The speakers who followed echoed Jan’s praise. Engineering Professor Ron Gronsky, chair of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate, called Berdahl “a timely and patient consultant with faculty” who would leave behind a “tangible tradition of collegiality.” Margo Wesley, director of the Staff Ombuds Office, highlighted the many programs and activities he has championed on behalf of staff, including encouraging flex time, the Outstanding Staff Award, the Career Development Opportunity Program, the annual campus memorial service, and the Clark Kerr Infant Care Center for faculty and staff that will be the keystone of Peg Berdahl’s legacy.

Berkeley’s First Lady
Peg Berdahl has been as tireless in her service to the campus and the Berkeley community as her husband, said Irene Hegarty, director of Community Relations, who presented the Berkeley Citation to Mrs. Berdahl. In addition to hosting hundreds of dinners and events at University House, and accompanying the chancellor on his endless rounds of public appearances, Hegarty said, Mrs. Berdahl has championed breast-cancer awareness programs and activities; served on the board of the campus’s Young Musicians Program; and worked with the Early Childhood Education Program, University-Community Partnerships, the University Section Club, and the YWCA.

Hegarty brought Mrs. Berdahl’s legacy to life by ushering several young children from the Clark Kerr Infant Center on stage. The facility got its start in the summer of 1999, when the Berdahls were on vacation in New Mexico and happened to run into a Berkeley graduate student and her husband. The couples began chatting, and the student complained that, while she was grateful for the childcare assistance she received from the university, she wished there were a safe, on-campus place to which she could entrust her infant. Mrs. Berdahl returned to the university and immediately began pushing for such a facility, at one point volunteering the use of University House — her home — as the site when finding a location proved problematic. The Clark Kerr Center opened in August 2000.

Berdahl’s report card
In his keynote speech, Chancellor Berdahl chose to revisit the occasion of his inaugural address on Charter Day 1998, a year after taking office. At that time he had outlined which of Berkeley’s challenges he considered most serious and intended to address during his tenure.

Saying he wanted to “look honestly at his successes and failures,” the chancellor delivered a frank — at times pitiless — self-examination of his performance over the past seven years.

The only areas in which Berdahl seemed unequivocally satisfied were the creation of new interdisciplinary research centers and the campus’s increasing ability to attract private donations to offset declining state funding. Berkeley had “competed for and won more than one-third of California’s resources for the Institutes of Science and Innovation,” he observed proudly. He felt confident that the resulting Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), California Institute for Bioengi-neering, Biotechnology, and Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3), and other campus initiatives would generate life- and world-saving research for years to come. Meanwhile, in the past seven years, the campus has raised $1.5 billion, including 110 new endowed chairs and $200 million in student scholarships.

To Berdahl, the occasions for worry outweighed those for pride. In the area of faculty recruitment and retention, the campus had succeeded “beyond our wildest hopes,” as supported by a laudatory recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle noting how Berkeley had beaten out Harvard and other elite private universities in attracting top professors, Berdahl said. But, he went on, “our salary system is frayed” by the monetary exceptions that had been made to win those stars, leaving older faculty underpaid by comparison (see “The high cost of competing for top scholars,” page 1) and departments hobbled. “We have loyal faculty, but loyalty only goes so far,” he warned.

The chancellor gave the university under his tenure high marks for its renewing of capital infrastructure, noting the more than a dozen new buildings that have broken ground or are in the works, and the many extensive renovations to and seismic upgrades of existing buildings. The library, too, has blossomed under Berdahl, after being universally acknowledged to be teetering on a budgetary precipice when he arrived.

“We’ve invested substantial resources and climbed back into third place [among university libraries], behind only Harvard and Yale,” he said, before again cautioning the audience not to feel complacent. The current state budget crisis and its catastrophic effects on Berkeley have again placed the library in danger, he said, and “our ability to sustain this success is precarious and will take campus dedication.”

The budget crisis has and will continue to cripple the progress that Berdahl felt he had been making on staff issues aimed at reducing university bureaucracy. “Our report card on this endeavor may show improvement, but there is still room for significant improvement,” he said. “We have made progress in human resources and are working hard at staff compensation and reclassification.…[But] our staff was overworked before the current budget crisis and is working even harder now.”

Referring to a praise-filled report last month from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges renewing the university’s accreditation, Berdahl said he felt he had fulfilled his promise to improve departments’ ability to support the teaching and basic needs of their faculty. Then he once again pointed to the lead lining in the cloud: Despite technological advances that had made large-scale lectures more accessible and improved teaching in other ways, “the physical state of many of our classrooms is inadequate to fulfill teaching needs.”

Failure to achieve diversity
Berdahl reserved his harshest self-criticism for his performance regarding what he sees as the very foundation of this university. In his inaugural address, he had asked, “While it is not our mandate to mirror precisely the population of California, how are we to sustain public support if we do not better represent the impressive diversity that distinguishes this state?” and he had gone on to state an educational, moral, and public obligation “to make certain that we are accessible to students of all ethnic backgrounds and experiences.”

Seven years later, he said, “it pains me to admit we have largely failed in these endeavors,” as evidenced by the low numbers of African American and Latino students at Berkeley. (See “Admissions data a source of pride — and disappointment,” page 1.) Berdahl believes that, despite outreach efforts, many schools are not preparing students adequately for prestigious universities, and this trend is destined only to worsen in the current budget climate. Already there has been one immediate, devastating effect: “For the first time since adoption of the Master Plan for Higher Education, the University of California cannot guarantee admission to all eligible students,” Berdahl said quietly.

He then repeated a quotation from the educator and political philosopher Hannah Arendt that he had included in his April 1998 address:

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token to save it from the ruin which, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing the common world.

Accompanied by past and present ASUC presidents, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Gray then presented the chancellor with the Berkeley Citation on behalf of UC president Robert Dynes — a break with tradition, as it is usually the chancellor who presents the award. Berdahl, Gray said, would be remembered “for his humanity, as a wise person with integrity, humor, and thoughtfulness.”