UC Berkeley News


'Define the important issues, now and for the future'
Our inaugural interview with Chancellor Birgeneau

13 April 2005

The ninth chancellor of UC Berkeley will be inaugurated on Friday, April 15. (John Blaustein photo)
Robert J. Birgeneau has been Berkeley chancellor for a little more than six months. As with any new chancellor, it's taken people here some time to get a feel for the person and his view of things - and Birgeneau has devoted a fair amount of time to moving about the campus, taking its measure as it takes his own.

This week will give anyone who's not yet made Bob Birgeneau's acquaintance many opportunities to do so. In celebration of both his formal inauguration and the university's anniversary (we were 137 years old in March), at one or another hour on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday he'll be spotted on stage introducing the participants in a pair of academic symposia; at Haas Pavilion welcoming hundreds of prospective students and their families to Cal Day; greeting staff and faculty at an International House reception; presenting the 2004 Peter E. Haas Public Service Award; accepting the congratulations of alumni at a gala Fort Mason Charter Banquet; donning and doffing academic regalia; and speaking seriously on the state of the campus and his own vision of our collective future during his inaugural address on Friday and in a Cal Day presentation on Saturday. (The full range of activities may be consulted online at inauguration.berkeley.edu and www.berkeley.edu/calday/.)

The Berkeleyan sat down with Birgeneau not long ago to range across a variety of topics. Some, we knew already, would be of interest to him - he's spoken out consistently on diversity and inclusion issues, on campus and off - while others clearly resonated with us, the pool reporters for campus staff and faculty. The result is an interview both long and broad: a warm-up exercise for those curious about what makes Berkeley's new chief executive tick, and who have plans to hear more from him over the next few days. - The Editors

It's been nearly six months since you became chancellor. How have you gotten to know the place?
One of the things I've done in my first six months is to go around to every school, college, and large unit, and spend a couple of hours with them. I've left it to them how they wanted to present themselves: If they wanted a dean to speak with me, fine; if they wanted me to meet with undergrads, fine. Those visits turned out to be extraordinarily helpful in educating myself, enabling me to understand Berkeley. And they confirmed what I expected to be true in coming here, which is that Berkeley has a phenomenal breadth and depth that very few institutions in the world have.

That's quite a statement, coming from someone who spent 25 years at MIT.
In the areas where Berkeley and MIT overlap, they're comparable - but MIT doesn't have a School of Social Welfare or a School of Public Health. It does not have Ph.D. programs in the arts and humanities, except in some specialized areas. This makes Berkeley all the more impressive.

I've been particularly struck by the unrelenting commitment every single unit has to excellence . and that's a term I do not really like to use, because it's so misused. It's the Lake Wobegon phenomenon, where everyone is above average. I prefer to talk about those faculties who play a leadership role in their fields, who define what the important issues are, now and for the future.

One way that leadership manifests itself is that everyone wants more resources. No exception: There's not a single unit at Berkeley that does not feel that it's underfunded. Those who are most aggressive use the same strategy I saw at MIT, which is to say, "We're in danger of slipping out of the top group; we're not as good as we used to be. As chancellor, surely it would be a major embarrassment to you if we were to go from No. 4 to No. 10. What a disaster that would be! So you must provide us with the necessary resources not only to stay No. 4 but to move up to No. 1."

Wouldn't someone in your position see that no matter where they were?
No. In fact, that is the exact opposite of what you see at second-level institutions, where every department is trying to convince you that they are better than they actually are. It's a characteristic difference between places that are truly first-rate and those that aspire to be first-rate.

What else has impressed you here?
A lot of interesting interdisciplinary activities: QB3 and CITRIS, and the various academic initiatives already under way or just getting going. Another positive here is the undergraduate population. They're exceptionally engaging and engaged, probably partly because of Berkeley's reputation for political activism. Sometimes with that activism comes an excessive amount of iconoclasm and even cynicism. But compared with MIT and Toronto, I find the students here very upbeat and positive . and remarkably supportive of the administration, on average. I spend a lot of time walking around the campus, and students will often stop me and engage me in conversation. It's a positive and constructive interaction. They want to know how they can help make Berkeley a better place.

Do you have a sense that they're getting the education they came here to get? Berkeley, as you know, is sometimes thought of as a university that prizes research over instruction.
I never call us a research university - we're a research and teaching university. Individual faculty I talk with take great pride in their teaching, and in the promotion process here teaching is an important part of the metric we use to evaluate faculty.

The challenge in any large university, like Berkeley with 23,000 undergrads, is how do you create community? A place like Yale does it by having colleges. We aren't able to do that. But we create community through many venues, including the Greek system and the more than 800 clubs we have on campus. Those students who want to participate in university life and student life are able to, because there are a lot of avenues for them to do so.

One reason I believe our students are in a good educational environment is that they are able to learn as much from each other as they do from faculty. One of my kids went to one of many small, elite teaching colleges in the east, and it's true that they had a very small student/faculty ratio, intimate attention from their professors, and all of that. But they did not have the quality of faculty that we do. Beyond that, the undergraduate population was so homogeneous that it was basically one suburban white kid from Massachusetts learning from another suburban white kid from Connecticut. That's typical of many of the elite colleges that are supposed to be outstanding in teaching, and that are highly rated by U.S. News & World Report. But if you come to Berkeley as an undergrad, you'll interact with a Chicano kid from Compton, or someone from a farming community in eastern California, or the children of Vietnamese refugees. Our students interact with a phenomenal range of people from very different backgrounds. That's an important part of their education, and you can only receive that kind of education at a public institution in a heterogeneous state like California.

Diversity is clearly an issue that you want to focus on seriously. There are many aspects of the diversity challenge here, and on university campuses generally. Which require the most urgent attention?
As you may know, I played a leadership role in the gender issue for women faculty in the middle '90s at MIT, and women's issues are certainly important here at Berkeley. I had an inspiring meeting with 40 or so women faculty a couple of weeks ago, a tough exchange with them about some of the challenges they face here. Many of these barriers are not so different from those we uncovered at MIT a decade ago.

But frankly, here at Berkeley and in California as a whole, it is my view that people who are interested in inclusion issues must have as their immediate focus the extreme underrepresentation of certain groups in our undergraduate body. There are challenges at all levels, among our faculty and our postdocs and graduate students, but it's so egregious among our undergraduates that, for now at least, that's where most of my energies will be directed.

You recently wrote, in that specific context, "All too often, excellence is used as a surrogate for exclusion." Is that true at all levels?
I'm afraid so. When you ask people in faculty searches, "Why are you always ending up with a white male?" you'll often get the response, "We hire exclusively on the basis of excellence." But so often the hiring process ended up being an exclusionary process no matter how well-intentioned the search committee may have been at the outset.

When I was at Toronto, there were very few women on the physics faculty, as indeed there are very few women in that capacity here. So someone would typically say, "We did a search, and there just wasn't a qualified woman, and furthermore women were only 10 percent of the pool." My answer to that was, "Well, you can play the 10-percent number two different ways. Another way to play it is that there are about 500,000 physicists in the world, which means that there are 50,000 women physicists - and you mean to say you couldn't find one excellent woman out of 50,000?" If people carry out searches that are wide-ranging enough and proactive, I believe that it is quite possible to find exceptionally qualified diverse candidates. If it is important to a department head to have a faculty that's broadly representational, then they'll actively look for outstanding candidates who are broadly representational, and not be content with whoever comes in over the transom.

Do you see yourself taking a more active role in hiring if you're dissatisfied with progress being made in faculty equity? Other than occupy the bully pulpit, is there something substantive you can do?
I've been in discussions with Angy Stacy, who has line-management responsibility for this as associate vice provost for faculty equity, as well as with the vice provost for faculty welfare, Jan de Vries. We will be looking at our search processes, and looking at those units that are more successful than others, to see what techniques they're using that are producing successes. We'll look at those that are not so successful as well, to make sure they are as inclusive as they need to be to access the entire talent pool.

Let's shift gears. How are things looking for the campus as budget planning for 2005-06 moves ahead?
Well, thanks to the compact between President Dynes and Gov. Schwarzenegger, we are going to have some new resources for the first time in several years, and I'm happy about that. Of course, these new resources are not enough to make up all at once for the loss in funding per student over the past several years, and it's our intention to proceed cautiously. The net increase in the amount of money we will have available is in the 5- to 6-percent range. So that gives us some flexibility, and the ability to start some new programs as well as to be able to address some of the salary issues we've been facing. So, as long as the compact holds over the next several years, I think that we will be in progressively better shape.

Also, we're having a good year in fundraising. Since July 1, which overlaps [former Chancellor] Bob Berdahl's time and my own, we've raised something like $170 million in private funding, with very significant prospects in the immediate future for large amounts of additional resources. As it happens, a lot of our new donations are for facilities, so this doesn't immediately address the other issues we're dealing with. As we go forward, it's clear we're all going to have to put enormous energy into fundraising. I think that private donations will be a very important part of what is required to bridge the gap between our state funding and the incredible resources that the elite private universities have available to them.

You've said a public university ought to seek private support, but ought not to look to privatization as a substitute for public funding.
Absolutely. The critical message is that we are a public institution: We serve the public, we hold the public trust, we carry out the will of the public in research and education; and we have to keep that foremost in our minds. One of the things that we do extraordinarily well - and this statistic really differentiates us from private institutions - is educate an incredible number of students, particularly undergraduates, who come from families with annual incomes under $35,000. We have more such students than all of the Ivy League schools put together. That is what public universities ought to do: We ought to be the conduit into mainstream society for people from all kinds of backgrounds, but most especially those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

The budgetary strategy to date has been to protect the academic core and cut the administrative and service units. Do you think we have successfully protected the academic core over the past few difficult years?
The academic core is very strong here, measured in several different ways. First, if you look at our faculty losses - and it's unrelenting, the number of offers our faculty are getting from other places - in fact our losses are quite small, percentagewise: fewer than 20 percent of those who receive outside offers. Of the people we do lose, more than half leave for spousal reasons.

How are we doing when it comes to replacing faculty who do leave?
Not long ago I did some benchmarking of how well universities were doing at hiring the best young people. Using data from the Sloan Foundation, which gives fellowships to the best young faculty in the country in a number of areas, I found that MIT and Berkeley came out tied, with the largest number of Sloan Fellowship awardees among our junior faculties over the last five years. This indicates clearly that here we are continuing to hire the best young faculty.

So my conclusion is that in this area we're doing quite well. When I look at the tenure and promotion cases that reach my desk, and the hiring we're doing from outside, I'm impressed with just how strong the cases are. I also like the fact that some departments have been willing to take chances on mid-career people who may not yet be established as the world authorities in their field, but when one looks at the work they've been doing, one can see that they have phenomenal potential.

In terms of staff, protecting the academic core has taken its toll in the form of layoffs, increased workload, and bare-bones re-sources for administration, student services, physical plant, etc. How might you ease this burden for staff as we move into an era with a potentially heartier budget?
One thing I've found to be true consistently, certainly in the schools and academic departments I've been visiting, is that the faculty universally recognize and, I have to say, deplore the ever-increasing stresses on our staff. I've certainly got no reason to believe that isn't true in the administrative and other units too: Everyone appreciates the loyalty, hard work, and dedication of the staff and wants to see their situation improve markedly.

You don't make labor policy as chancellor - no UC chancellor does. What can you do to help the staff's situation improve, then, given that negotiation with unions is a function of the Office of the President?
We will do our best, going forward, to see that staff salary issues are addressed fairly and that their overall workloads are mitigated. Not all staff are unionized, which gives us some flexibility there.

Of course, as you say, for our represented staff we have the complication that their contracts are negotiated separately with UCOP, so we do not have direct control.

You yourself are a world authority in your field. Are you keeping your hand in academically? You gave your first campus lecture recently, and you have a lab on campus-

I don't yet have a lab at Berkeley: I do have an office, and I've identified space that will become a laboratory. I'm currently in the process of deciding what kind of research I want to do here. Like any other faculty member, I have to write a research proposal, and I've been thinking through what the elements of that proposal will be. I have e-mailed some of my friends to see if they have finishing Ph.D. students who would make good postdocs for me here. So I'm just starting to put together what will be the elements of my research program.

The chancellor is actively involved in a lot of issues, which makes it a challenge to find time to do research, especially if one has to begin from scratch. Therefore, getting tighter control over my schedule will be essential if I want to be anything more than a dilettante in research.

You also have said that top administrators ought to come from the faculty. For all jobs, or just some?
It's clear that universities are not businesses: They are institutions that first and foremost must be devoted to learning, to both creating and transmitting knowledge. You're much more likely to find leaders who will remain devoted to those ideals if they themselves have come up through the ranks and appreciate the joy of both creating and transmitting knowledge. At the same time, accomplished academics are much more likely to command the respect of the faculty.

Of course, for a position like the new vice chancellor for business affairs, for which we're currently recruiting candidates, that does not necessarily hold true. There we need a completely different skill set. If that person comes from the business world - if we identify someone who has run the business side of a complex organization - that could work very well for us . . . as long as they can adjust to the interactive, consultative nature of universities, where the optimal decision is often not the one that optimizes the bottom line. This can seem strange to someone from a conventional business background.

As someone new to Berkeley and the UC system, what are your feelings about shared governance?
It seems to work very well at Berkeley. After all, it's made us the leading public teaching and research university in the country, if not the world. I have tremendous admiration for the faculty leadership here. Berkeley has had a tradition, and perhaps the good fortune, to be able to attract excellent people into faculty leadership roles. Consequently, shared governance works very well. If on the Academic Senate side we had people whose main interest was the lowest common denominator, shared governance wouldn't work.

At a recent campus forum on diversity, Boalt Hall's Dean Edley took a swipe at shared governance, saying, essentially, if it's so great, why are we still dealing with diversity issues after all this time? Are there issues that are so pressing that going through the deliberative process of shared governance might not be appropriate?
Though it is true that shared governance has not produced the diversity we must have at Berkeley, I can say that the faculty leadership is just as committed as I am to this ideal. In any event, Dean Edley is not alone in sometimes becoming frustrated with "the Berkeley way." There are some department heads and deans who have said to me, "Why put me in this role if I'm not trusted to make final judgments on things?" But overall, shared governance has worked well; it's helped strengthen Berkeley. The fact that the governance system functions well means that really excellent faculty get involved and become committed to working on behalf of the institution as a whole. The system is self-replicating in that way.

Are you developing a succinct agenda for your chancellorship?
Maintaining our leadership as a public research and teaching institution, with everything that entails, might be a one-phrase summary, and in a different way so might "enhancing our edge." Our mission naturally carries with it an emphasis on public service, something that our students, staff, and faculty are remarkably involved with in ways that are quite different from those at typical private institutions. We have staff involved as volunteers with the city of Berkeley in many different capacities. Many thousands of our students are involved in public service throughout the Bay Area, as are our faculty. There are countless different ways in which we'll make contributions to society. Of course, we want to pay attention to the kinds of challenges where our combination of breadth and depth can make a real, significant contribution.

Such as?
A model challenge for multidisciplinary research, and one in which I expect Berkeley to play a lead role, has been presented to us by the voters of California - namely, stem- cell research. To meet that challenge will require input from scholars in diverse areas ranging from molecular biology, medicine, and bioengineering to bioethics, law, business, and public health. If researchers from all of these fields can work together symbiotically and synergistically, they could make extraordinary contributions to human health and the human condition.

How does your interest in "making a contribution" relate to your choice of "Frontiers of Knowledge, Frontiers of Education" as the theme of your inauguration?
What should Berkeley do but play a leadership role on the joint frontiers of knowledge and education? Most people do not do research that is truly at the frontiers. If you look at the scientific literature, 99 percent of papers are just moving the field forward incrementally. They're not trying to open up new vistas; they're not taking intellectual risks. Places like Berkeley have the talent and intellectual depth needed for research that truly breaks new ground.

In my own career I've changed research problems often, and I have systematically tried to pick deep problems where little was known. Instead of choosing subjects where there were already 10,000 articles written, I'd opt for one where there were maybe five or 10 articles in the literature . enough to know that the problem is interesting, but still at the stage where one gets to make the early discoveries oneself. My scientific mentor, Gen Shirane, once said to me, "There are only two experiments that matter, the first and the best, and the ultimate is when they are one and the same."