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Robert Birgeneau meets the press
Robert J. Birgeneau meets the press after being appointed as UC Berkeley's next chancellor. Flanking him are UC President Robert Dynes (left) and outgoing Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl. (Bonnie Azab Powell photo)

Incoming chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau pledges to increase accessibility, funding for UC Berkeley

Robert Birgeneau slide shwo Slide show: Birgeneau gets a crash course in Cal
Bear in Mind: An interview with new Chancellor Birgeneau
Berdahl introduces the Birgeneaus to the campus community
Chancellor Berdahl introduces his successor, Robert Birgeneau, and the new chancellor's wife, Mary Catherine, to the campus community on the steps of Doe Library. (Bonnie Azab Powell photo)

BERKELEY — Accompanied by joking references to bevies of Bobs and big shoes, the ninth chancellor of UC Berkeley, Robert J. Birgeneau, was formally introduced to the campus community today by the outgoing chancellor, Robert M. Berdahl, and UC President Robert C. Dynes. (The three Bobs are all more than six feet tall.) In between the lighthearted banter, however, Birgeneau made some serious pledges to his new constituency about ensuring equal educational access for all Californians, increasing private funding while aggressively securing public monies, and encouraging interdisciplinary research as the best way to solve the world's problems.

The UC Board of Regents made the announcement that Birgeneau would become Berkeley's new chancellor in a special meeting held in Doe Library's Morrison Reading Room. Even the narrow mezzanine gallery overlooking the sumptuous library was crowded with media, staff, students, and faculty, all hungry for a first glimpse of the man who has inspired weeks of media speculation about whether he would be Berdahl's likely successor.

Birgeneau at the podium
'Universities like Berkeley, which are pre-eminent in so many fields, have an edge over the rest in solving the world's problems.'
-Robert J. Birgeneau

"Perhaps no one in this room has been more eager to see this day arrive than I," said Berdahl, who had announced back in September 2003 that he would be stepping down from his post after seven years. After taking a year-long sabbatical, Berdahl will join the Berkeley faculty.

Dynes first met Birgeneau - who, like Dynes, is an internationally distinguished physicist - when they were both performing research at Bell Laboratories 30 years ago. He described Birgeneau as someone "who cares deeply about students, is courageous, compassionate, and will work tirelessly to sustain this university . He has a deep commitment to social equity and to the responsibilities of a public university." Birgeneau is currently the president of the University of Toronto, which has 69,000 students, more than twice as many students as UC Berkeley. It is Canada's largest public university.

Berdahl said he and his wife, Peg, have become personally acquainted with Birgeneau and his wife, Mary Catherine, through visiting the Berdahls' daughter and son-in-law, both of whom are on the University of Toronto's faculty. "I knew that Bob Birgeneau was the person most likely to be given the nod, and I was delighted when he was selected," said Berdahl. "We have come to know Bob and Mary Catherine as warm, delightful people with a true commitment to improving the institutions they are associated with and the society in which they live."

For Birgeneau, that commitment stems from what he calls his "humble beginnings." As he told George Strait, Berkeley's associate vice chancellor of public affairs, in a videotaped interview this morning, "We were the sort of people who had to get jobs when we were 15-and-a-half just to survive." (Watch the webcast of the Bear in Mind interview.) Born in Toronto, he credits his community with rescuing him from an impoverished life of drudgery and starting him on the path to higher education. When Birgeneau finished grade school, a local Catholic priest paid his tuition to attend a well-regarded private boys' high school. His mother threw a huge party to celebrate his high school graduation: he was the first in his family to ever do so. Then, tragedy struck his family, and his plans to attend the University of Toronto were almost derailed by the possibility he would have to support his family. Although he ended up not needing it, his high school mentors stepped forward and offered their financial support so he could go to college anyway.

As he told Strait, "It's not surprising that I'm absolutely committed to inclusion and to access for people from any kind of background, for people who are financially disadvantaged. I could not have done this on my own."

Berdahl and Birgeneau tour the campus
Berdahl and Birgeneau take a brief walking tour of the campus before Birgeneau's appointment was approved by the UC Board of Regents. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Birgeneau reiterated and expanded on that commitment as he addressed the regents' meeting, the press conference, and then the larger UC Berkeley community awaiting him outside on the steps of Doe Library and Memorial Glade. "I hope we can have a student population that is genuinely inclusive and serves the entire state of California, not just a portion of it," he said. He declared that no child born in California should lack "full and equal access to all we have to offer."

An Oakland Tribune reporter asked for specifics on how he intended to increase diversity at UC Berkeley. Birgeneau first cited his need to familiarize himself thoroughly with UC Berkeley's admissions process, before stating firmly, "I think people are multi-dimensional and they should be judged on a multidimensional basis."

Birgeneau comes to Berkeley at a time when the university and the UC system face painful financial cuts thanks to a dire shortfall in the state budget. The incoming chancellor said that he would actively encourage more private funding of the university. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was on the faculty for 25 years, has an endowment of $1 million per undergraduate, he said, and he would like to grow UC Berkeley's endowment "so we can compete on a level playing field with the private institutions."

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that at the University of Toronto, Birgeneau oversaw a fundraising campaign that broke the Canadian record by bringing in $750 million. Still, Birgeneau believes strongly that such additional funding does not let the state off the hook. "Private support is critical, but we are a public institution and therefore the public has a responsibility to support us," he said.

The rumored amount of Birgeneau's salary has inspired controversy in the run-up to the announcement, and the topic was mentioned in heated terms during both the public comments session of the board of regents meeting and the media press conference. Birgeneau will be paid $390,000 per year; the current chancellor's salary is $315,600.

Dynes defended the regents' decision as one of necessity. "The salary that Bob Birgeneau will be receiving is almost exactly what he's receiving from the University of Toronto. Change Canadian dollars into American ones and take the cost of living in the Bay Area, and it's basically a wash," Dynes said. "We live in a competitive market. In order to attract top people, you have to match what they're earning."

(Judging by a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, UC Berkeley, the No. 1 public research university in the United States, is not overly generous to its chancellors. When the Chronicle surveyed 131 chief executives of state research universities and public-college systems in 2003, 12 such presidents earned more than $500,000, and just over a quarter of them were paid more than $400,000.)

Birgeneau says he has been an avowed fan of UC Berkeley, both for its academic achievements and its commitment to improving society, for years. "I genuinely believe that UC Berkeley is simply the best public teaching and research facility in the world," he told the crowds today. He said he has been impressed since his days as a graduate student with how often Berkeley appears on the top ten lists of best graduate programs in a wide swath of subjects.

Birgeneau greets well-wishers
Birgeneau greets well-wishers at a University House reception following his appointment as Berkeley's ninth chancellor. (Steve McConnell photo)

That breadth of knowledge will be essential in the coming years. "Most of today's problems will not be solved by the next Einstein, but by polymaths," Birgeneau asserted. "Think about schizophrenia - to understand it, you need to look at its behavioral aspects as well as psychology, molecular biology. Many of the challenges we face are going to require strength in the humanities and the social sciences as well as the life sciences. Universities like Berkeley, which are pre-eminent in so many fields, have an edge over the rest in solving the world's problems." He went on to laud the university community's proven interest in public service, citing Berkeley's rank as the top supplier of new Peace Corps recruits as just one example.

Although wearing a Golden Bear pin and a Cal tie, Birgeneau concluded both his address on Doe Library's steps and the press conference by forgetting to utter the campus's customary closing remarks. A big, sincere grin on his face, he loped back to the podium to yell a tardy "Go Bears!"

He's learning fast. And as Berdahl told him, "Never, ever wear a red tie, and you won't have any problems."

Birgeneau will step into Berdahl's sizable shoes on or about October 1, after first ensuring the University of Toronto is positioned for a smooth transition.

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