After Birgeneau: Berkeley’s Privatized Future
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.