News Column

UC Berkeley Shakes Off Recession

August 27, 2013

Nanette Asimov

UC Berkeley has emerged from the California recession with a new chancellor, new plans for helping liberal arts majors nail down that elusive career, and -- despite a new dependence on private dollars -- a commitment to remain a public resource.

As almost 36,000 students return to class this week, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks acknowledged in back-to-school remarks that before accepting the job last year he wasn't so sure it would be a good move, "given the turmoil and levels of disinvestment in the California higher education system."

"But I was extremely gratified to learn that it was not just alive and well, but prospering even in the hardest times," Dirks said. "I'm thrilled to be here."

The new chancellor was flanked by campus executives who painted a broad portrait of how UC Berkeley is entering its first postrecession fall term in years.

Only about 13 percent of the school's budget comes from the state ($290 million), down from about 28 percent ($430 million) nine years ago when Dirks' predecessor, Robert Birgeneau, was hired, according to university figures. Early estimates show the trend heading back up, with about $310 million expected next year from the state.

Despite its increasing reliance on tuition and philanthropy to make up the difference of more than $140 million, "Berkeley has never been more diversified or more true to its public purpose," said John Wilton, vice chancellor for administration and finance.

That doesn't mean underrepresented minorities -- black, Latino and American Indian students -- are flocking to campus.

Just 3 percent of incoming freshmen are black, while 15 percent are Latino, and 1 percent are American Indian. Three out of 4 are Asian American or white.

Lower-income students

But the premier university appears to be much more accessible to low- and middle-income families than are many private schools.

Among the new freshmen, 1 in 4 is the first in their family to attend college. English is the second language for almost 60 percent, and 22 percent have household incomes of below $45,000.

"There are more Pell Grant recipients at UC Berkeley than in the entire Ivy League," Dirks said, noting that 40 percent of all undergraduates pay no tuition.

But Dirks also counted out-of-state and international students in the diversity pool. Almost 1 in 3 incoming freshmen come from outside California, about the same as last year. The campus goal is that 1 in 5 of all undergraduates be nonresidents, who pay about twice the annual tuition of residents. Nonresidents pay about $36,000, compared with $13,206 paid by California residents.

Construction projects

As students return, they will be greeted by several construction projects. The most visible is the $223 million, two-year overhaul of lower Sproul Plaza that has already seen the destruction of the important but never beautiful Eshleman Hall, former home of the Daily Cal.

Surprisingly, in 2010 students voted to tax themselves for the next four decades to pay for half of the beautification project, agreeing to pay a $70-a-year fee that rises to $522 by 2052. The campus pays the rest.

Meanwhile, a host of new initiatives includes one that addresses the bane of liberal arts majors everywhere: what to do with that degree in English? Or philosophy, anthropology or history of modern dance?

"A lot of people who graduate in liberal arts don't really know" what options are open to them, said Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor for student affairs.

So as part of what is being called "a culture of caring" at Cal, the campus is inviting students in the College of Letters and Sciences to use a new online tool intended to help them not only "identify the skills they're gaining from their education," but also "increase their appeal" to prospective employers.

Classes start Thursday.

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @NanetteAsimov


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