If anyone is capable of understanding the challenges confronting the U. of I., it's Robert Birgeneau, the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.
Birgeneau, who retires in June to continue his acclaimed physics research and lead the Lincoln Project, a national discussion on higher education funding, will speak on the Urbana campus March 6 as part of Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise's ongoing "Research University in the World of the Future" speaker series. His talk will be at 3 p.m. in Spurlock Museum's Knight Auditorium.
When Birgeneau took over as chancellor at UC-Berkeley nine years ago, the California economy was humming, the state was providing about 30 percent of the funding for its 10-university system, and the governor was promising more.
Since then, state funding has trickled to 11 percent, the university has found about $80 million in annual savings through an internal administrative review process called "Operational Excellence," and voters, legislators and students are still demanding a better return on their investment.
Sound a little familiar?
"No responsible leader can assume that the state is magically going to see the light and reinstate funding," he said. "The single most important thing we understood was that changes were happening and we needed to address them."
Birgeneau has led several successful strategies that have not only kept the university afloat, but performing at a premier level. Strategies included the aforementioned administrative review, increased fundraising activity and a greater focus on developing corporate partnerships.
"It's been a dramatic change and we've had to do a lot simultaneously," he said. "It hasn't been easy to navigate - it's very similar to what the U. of I. has experienced."
Birgeneau said leaders of higher education must come to terms with the fact that government support may never return to 20th-century levels. And once the concept of "disinvestment" is accepted, they must then plot a sound course, follow it without fear and create a funding model to support it.
"Public universities have to decide what their missions are," he said.
And even in times of change and constrained budgets, he said higher education cannot abandon its commitment to underrepresented students.
"There are pressures all the time to compete and it seems the most vulnerable are the first sacrificed" during times of austerity, he said.
Helping qualified students who have been shut out of higher education because of financial or minority status is an ideal he said UC-Berkeley has fiercely adhered to. Even in the current climate, the university has been able to lock in guaranteed four-year tuition rates for freshmen and increased assistance to low-income and middle class students.
"Those areas are part of the challenge and we've made a lot of progress there," he said.
Birgeneau considers the times he's faced in his tenure at Berkeley unprecedented, but not unique, which is why he was so eager to volunteer to lead the Lincoln Project when he steps down as chancellor.
The Lincoln Project, so-named for its Morrill Act land-grant inspiration that education should be accessible to all and serve the public good, was created by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences "to engage state and federal policymakers, elected officials, university and business leaders, philanthropists, learned societies, and the broad public." Wise is a member of the project's steering committee.
Birgeneau said he hopes the process leads to the discovery of common-sense approaches that can be adopted to help all of higher education adapt to the changing times.
While Birgeneau said his experience leaves him with much to contribute to the conversation about the future of higher education, he too continues to seek answers.
He said he hopes to use the talk on the Urbana campus as a sounding board of sorts as he prepares to lead the Lincoln Project.
"I'll welcome any and all ideas that anyone has," he said of his visit.
As for his new employment arrangement, he'll volunteer a week each month for the Lincoln project and devote the balance of his time to his research on superconductors. As chancellor, he laments only being able to work on his research on weekends.
"I've been able to keep a reasonable level of research going and actually have had a lot of interactions with colleagues at (Illinois)," he said.
Prior to Berkeley, Birgeneau served four years as president of the University of Toronto. Before that he was on the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 25 years, where he was named dean of the School of Science. A Toronto native, he earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto and his PhD at Yale University in 1966. He was a member of the technical staff at Bell Laboratories from 1968-1975, joining the MIT physics faculty in 1975.
Birgeneau said he's tried to apply the critical thinking of his chosen field to the problems facing higher education - and after nearly a decade at the helm of Berkeley, he said he's incapable of ignoring the struggles of universities, looking at the opportunity to resolve them as a higher-education calling.
"I'm a physicist who works on complex systems - this is what I know and do," he said.