UC Berkeley's future is California's future

March 25, 2012

Today, I have an auspicious birthday (70th), and on such occasions it is an appropriate time to look backward and, more importantly, to look forward. When I step down at the end of December, I will have been chancellor of UC Berkeley for a little more than eight years, a small period in Berkeley's distinguished 144-year existence. Like other chancellors before me, I hope that my leadership has strengthened this great university so that we can continue to be a national and international beacon for public higher education well into the future. Although there are many challenges, I am highly optimistic about UC Berkeley's future.

UC Berkeley matters. It is an intellectual and research powerhouse whose work is vital to our nation's economic future and the strength of our democracy. I began my career at Bell Labs. Great industrial laboratories such as Bell Labs, IBM Research and Xerox Parc that helped drive the nation's economy have passed or greatly faded. Research universities, in partnership with the national laboratories, have become the nation's engines of prosperity, more so in today's knowledge economy than ever before. The information technology revolution that spawned Silicon Valley, the biotechnology revolution and now green technology are driven by university research.

Over the last six decades, universities have created a legacy of excellence - fostering innovations, seeding new companies and creating jobs - that has been the envy of the world. Our students benefit from living and learning at a campus immersed in cutting-edge research, and many UC Berkeley alumni as well as faculty have helped create several thousand companies in high technology, biofuels and other fields. Basic research at UC Berkeley, together with that at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has made possible applications that support solutions for many of our most pressing social, environmental and health care problems. To maintain America's economic competitiveness and support an educated citizenry, we must strengthen our efforts in the science, technology, engineering and math fields as well as provide a strong infrastructure for the humanities and social sciences, which are also critical to America's global leadership success in the 21st century. My successor must help lead this effort.

UC Berkeley is also the embodiment of the American ideal that reaching the pinnacle of success can be everyone's dream. Embracing the majestic tapestry of the peoples of California, native-born sons and daughters and immigrants alike, it is the door to prosperity and a better life, earned through the ability to learn, not the ability to pay. The highest-achieving students from low- and middle-income families can aspire to the excellence of a UC Berkeley education along with their fellow students from more privileged backgrounds.

Access and excellence is an ideal we must not compromise. UC Berkeley's next leader must continue to sustain this extraordinary model of public higher education.

I, and many other university presidents, fear that a growing resistance to true equity and inclusion across the country poses a daunting challenge to the mission of public universities to maintain diversity and equality of opportunity. At UC Berkeley, we are working hard to achieve transformative change for equity and inclusion at every level of our institution. Our institutional commitment to these principles, which underlie our state and our country, must not be diminished.

My tenure as chancellor has seen the most extreme economic disinvestment by the state in the University of California's history. Continuing to advocate for public support to restore state funding to the University of California will remain a necessary part of our future. However, in the environment in which UC Berkeley competes, restored state funding alone will not be sufficient to keep us in the top echelon with our peers. Staying at the frontiers of knowledge requires competitive resources to hire and retain the very best faculty and staff, compensate them appropriately and provide them with the support they need to conduct groundbreaking research and to teach and support our students.

Preparing the future leaders that our communities, our state and our country require also means providing our students with an educational experience that will prepare them for a more complex, globally interdependent world. We must also respond to the learning needs of a generation of students raised with information technology.

UC Berkeley will need to find new sources of revenue to maintain global leadership and must look to public-private funding models. Those models must be structured to ensure that they do not compromise our university's public character. As national governments from many other countries are embarking upon major new investments in their public universities, we are proposing a federal-state-private partnership in which the federal government would invest $10 billion over the next 10 years to create 10,000 endowed chairs for the nation's leading public teaching and research universities. Our proposal is being championed by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and will need attention from our campus as it evolves.

I am confident that at UC Berkeley we will successfully complete our $3 billion fundraising campaign, and will continue to build in new ways on the generosity of alumni and friends. We must also continue to reach out to industrial partners to engage with us in facilitating the transfer of our research into advancing solutions to the world's most pressing challenges in health, energy and the environment.

Over the next 10 years, UC Berkeley will see a tremendous change in its workforce as Baby Boomers retire to be replaced by younger workers. We have begun to prepare for this change through our Operational Excellence program, which will result in a leaner but more highly trained and skilled workforce. The efforts begun under Operational Excellence to achieve significant operational savings while improving administrative excellence will need to continue.

As I return to being a regular faculty member in the departments of physics and materials science and engineering, I hope to see a different student body than I did in my earlier years of teaching. Our country is wasting much-needed talent by failing to attract more women and underrepresented minority students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

These are just a few of the challenges and opportunities that will face the next chancellor. My successor will no doubt bring his or her own ambitious goals to advance UC Berkeley's mission. Our 144 years of history tells us that she or he will have the support of a community that is vital, full of creative energy and passionately committed to UC Berkeley's ongoing success.

Robert J. Birgeneau


UC Berkeley


This article appeared on page E - 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle