After Birgeneau: Berkeley’s Privatized Future

Posted on 19 March 2012

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By Peter Schrag

You can’t fault Robert Birgeneau for quitting his post as chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. The wonder is that he hung on as long. Through his eight-year tenure he got vilified for the staff cuts and tuition increases imposed by round after round of state budget reductions; for the roughing-up of campus demonstrators by Berkeley’s campus cops and for the sin of being away while they were at it, for getting paid too much and for any number of other misdeeds.

Two days before he announced his resignation last week, 359 members of his ever-helpful faculty called on him to ask the Alameda County district attorney to drop its charges against demonstrators arrested last November. Birgeneau forwarded the faculty petition to the D.A. with a semi-endorsement. He will not get the Ronald Reagan award for administrative fortitude to add to his other honors. Earlier, his faculty, academics who must have the plushest jobs in the Western world, passed three resolutions condemning him for the way his cops handled the most recent round of protests – the Occupy Cal demonstrations that in some vague way were supposed to be part of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But its relevance to the great inequities in American society that prompted OWS was a little hard to pin down.

The real culprits in the Occupy Cal events, like those in Occupy Oakland and like those in the demonstrations against the tuition increases and campus job reductions of four years ago were far away. It was therefore refreshing that the demonstrations of the past couple of weeks against cuts in higher education funding finally focused on Sacramento, where more than a decade of California bloodletting has been taking place. Better still they should have focused on the legislative and district offices of the cultish Republican members who pledged never to raise taxes, even if they starve everything else.

Birgeneau struggled valiantly against the difficulties that fate, and terrible timing, dealt him. In response to the cuts in state funding, he pushed for an admissions policy that is accepting a much greater percentage of out-of-state and foreign students – all paying much higher tuition than Californians. Birgeneau said that the main objective wasn’t to generate more income but to give the campus a broader, more cosmopolitan student culture. But it didn’t prevent one Berkeley professor from remarking that the place was becoming a finishing school for rich Asians. That many of those foreign students struggle with English remains one of the better-kept campus secrets.

Recently – and perhaps in partial compensation – Birgeneau extended more financial aid to middle class students, those from families earning between $80,000 and $140,000. That’s in addition to students from families with incomes below $80,000 who already pay no tuition.

Similarly, he’s long pushed for an ethnically and economically more inclusive campus and has been a strong backer of the California DRREAM Act which has made illegal immigrants eligible for student aid. But at a time when California universities are still prohibited by Proposition 209 from giving preferences based on race or ethnicity, the numbers for black and Latino admits haven’t budged much. “Although challenges still remain,” Birgeneau said in his letter of resignation, which is effective in December, “I am confident that we have put into place a clear pathway for the years ahead and strategies that will support Berkeley’s ongoing excellence and its impact on the world.”

He may be right about Berkeley’s continuing excellence. Under him, Cal has raised some $2.4 billion in private and philanthropic donations in the past four years. In the process, the university has managed to increase its philanthropic fund raising by a greater percentage than any other institution, public or private. But it will nonetheless be a very different place – less a public university than a privatized one, operating increasingly on funds from sources other than the state and, by virtue of its increasing distance from the California’s majority-minority population, ever more a place apart.

None of those things is Birgeneau’s fault. And on the matter of continuing excellence there are growing questions. Given the state’s precarious financial circumstances, both immediate and perhaps long-term, and the pervasive public resistance to significant tax increases, will outstanding candidates for faculty positions still be as eager to risk the uncertainties and come here? How many who are here now will drift away if they get better offers from Stanford or the Ivy League? And given Birgeneau’s problems, how many outstanding candidates will be eager to replace him?

In Berkeley, UCLA and San Diego, California was always unique in its ability to achieve world distinction for its research in a public university. It was always an uneasy fit and the events of the past ten years or so – the cuts in state support, the demonstrations, the attacks on both the president and some of the chancellors – have demonstrated how uneasy a fit it’s become. Institutional reputations usually outlive by many years the distinction that earned the reputation in the first place. So Berkeley – and UC – may enjoy high regard for some time. But it’s hardly assured, and very likely only as they become very different places from what they were a generation ago.


Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.

Thanks for this thoughtful interpretation of the challenges facing the UC system. However, I disagree with your casual depiction of Berkeley faculty as ungrateful whiners "who must have the plushest jobs in the Western world" and the Occupy Cal protests as misguided in their efforts to reform campus governance practices.

It seems that you overlook the fact that much of the recent frustration with Chancellor Birgeneau goes deeper and wider than the concerns driving the Occupy movement as a whole. Not only has the Chancellor sought to maintain steady momentum towards privatization over the past decade, but he has tended to do so with little regard for legitimate concerns (at least in the context of a nominally public university) of accountability, transparency, or deliberation. As a result, many of the privatization initiatives on the Berkeley campus have exacerbated inequalities across departments and run roughshod over existing procedural safeguards against autocratic executive actions.

In abusing their authority in this way, Birgeneau and his administration have failed to reflect the values or priorities of the campus community, resulting in public expressions of internal dissent dating back to labor protests at least as early as the 2006-2007 academic year. The fact that the Chancellor demonstrated an utter inability to treat such dissent as anything beyond criminal mischief during this year's Occupy Cal action contributed to faculty and student frustration with his putative leadership.

I doubt that very many of the Berkeley faculty you malign would disagree that there are state-level budgeting issues that disproportionately impact the ability of any UC Chancellor or faculty senate to manage a campus budget as they would wish. Nevertheless, California's state-wide democratic deficit does not eliminate the value and importance of struggling to reform irresponsible and incompetent campus-level administrative practices.

I like this piece, but it doesn't do enough to focus on the disconnect between what the academy thinks is the problem and solution and what the reality is. It isn't only the just say no crowd that are the problem in government, but competing priorities for government resources. The group who's name shall not be spoken, the prison guards union, effectively stole UC and CSU's money. Neither Rs or Ds in Sacramento have any desire to upset that union. When Gray Davis bumped them up to law enforcement status the additional money had to come from somewhere.

The prison guards union is feared because it does something the academic community doesn't. It donates money and aggressively targets law makers. If you don't vote with them, they will run someone to the left or the right of you. Until the academic community faces reality and learns to play hardball politics, state funding will continue to dwindle.

Take Governor Brown's tax proposal. He wants to raise money to pay for "realignment," also known as more money on prisons. He is notably not proposing tax increases to reduce tuition at state schools. Yet, no one protested when he turned up to see his buddy Nader at UC Berkeley.

The decision to suppress student and faculty speech with violence was Birgeneau's. The decision to leap to the defense of students and to characterize linking arms as "not non violent" was Birgenau's. The decision to defend himself by saying that he leapt to defend police WITHOUT HAVING SEEN THE VIDEO FOOTAGE was Birgeneau's. This lie -- revealed by ACLU-gathered emails that Birgeneau was in contact with officials throughout the day, framing objectives and commanding police to not back down -- was Birgeneau's. The decision not to abjure publicly the Alameda DA's malicious prosecution of protesters continues to be Birgeneau's. The tacit support of efforts to supply the Alameda DA with evidence -- including the use of University medical records in order to identify protesters who reported injuries AND HAVE THEM CHARGED -- also belongs to Birgeneau.


UC Berkeley needs lesson in fiscal efficiency: American Enterprise Institute. Cal. Chancellor Birgeneau’s recruits born abroad and affluent out of state $50,600 tuition (subsidized by Birgeneau) students who displace qualified Californians; spends $7,000,000 + (prominent East Coast university accomplishing same at 0 cost) for OE consultants but stops examination of Chancellor office for inefficiencies; pays ex-politician $300,000 for a couple lectures; tuition to Return on Investment drops below top 10. Birgeneau doubles tuition: on all-in-cost Cal. is now the most expensive public university – more expensive than Harvard, Yale. Chancellor Birgeneau’s fiscal track record is dismal indeed.

Birgeneau would like to blame the politicians, since they stopped giving him every dollar asked for, & the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means. Every year Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) would request a budget increase, the timid UC Regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, & the Birgeneau leadership inefficiencies just piled up to $150 million +.

It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste during his 8 year reign. Faculty & staff raised issues with Birgeneau however, when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau engaged expensive ($7,000,000 +) OE consultants to tell him what he should have known as a leader or been able to find out from the bright, engaged people. (Prominent east-coast University accomplishing same at 0 costs)

Cal’s senior management is either incompetent or culpable. We are sympathetic to the running of higher education with declining state money. However, Cal. has been badly damaged by Chancellor Birgeneau. Good people are loosing their jobs. Recommendation: You never want a crisis to go to waste. Increasing Cal’s budget is not the solution. Honorably retire UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau. Email opinions to UC Board of Regents

(The author has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley where he observed the way Cal. senior management work)

He is quiet dedicated to his duties. Even after his resignation he said he plans to remain at Cal to teach. He also says he wants to get back into the field of research. He said he hopes there is "at least one more truly significant physics/materials science experiment still to come in my academic career."

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