A 'Disaster' At Berkeley

For many high-school seniors, the University of California, Berkeley, is the holy grail, a chance to study with the best minds from around the world. But as prospective students and their parents toured the campus last week, the school had to work hard to put on a good face for them. Under the shadow of Sather Gate, the marching band honked out the fight song, with cymbals clanging and tuba players high-stepping around the quad. "Taps" might have been more apt. The budget crunch has put extra pressure on nearly everyone at this storied campus--besieged administrators struggling to lure minority applicants, students frantically seeking money to cover fee hikes, department heads trying to staunch a faculty brain drain and office staffers worried that a stalemate in Sacramento means no money for the mortgage at home.

At a campus long considered among the finest in the world, it's stunning--and closely watched by state-university officials around the country. Berkeley is the crown jewel of the University of California, a 10-campus system that also includes UCLA. That would be a rich menu for any state, but California has made a point of offering even more: the California State University system, with 23 campuses and a sophisticated network of community colleges. All this meant that 20 years ago, Californians could claim to have the best public education anywhere--from kindergarten to Ph.D. But in the late 1980s, surging enrollment in the lower grades strained the system. Then voter initiatives muddled with everything from spending to class size to curriculum. The budget woes ate away at the academic hierarchy--affecting the public schools, then community colleges, then the Cal State system.

And now, even Berkeley. The stress was clear last week at a San Francisco meeting of the UC Board of Regents, which voted to raise student fees 25 percent (to an average of $5,247 annually for undergraduates)--a measure UC president Richard Atkinson reluctantly supported as a last resort. "It's a disaster," Atkinson said as he emerged from the meeting, looking tired and drawn. "We're having huge cuts in programs. Hundreds of people are going to lose their jobs. If these problems can't be dealt with effectively... the whole future of the university is at stake." So far, the university's $3 billion state-funded budget has been cut by $360 million--and the legislature could cut $400 million more.

Near the top of everyone's list of concerns at Berkeley is ensuring a diverse campus. Cutbacks in funds for minority recruiting could make it harder to reach inner-city students, says Berkeley's chancellor, Robert Berdahl. Keeping the faculty in place is another priority. "The most distinguished faculty members are more available to be recruited elsewhere," Berdahl says. He's particularly worried about the physics department, which boasted of its Nobel laureates and was the home of Ernest Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron. A recent university-commissioned report by six outside experts was scathing, describing the department's aging facilities, low faculty morale and high turnover.

All over campus, students have more fundamental worries: paying the increased fees. Fred Fannon, a 19-year-old sophomore biology major, grew up in foster homes; he couldn't attend Berkeley without substantial financial aid. But the school has cut his work-study money by $6,000 in the last year. Now he may take a semester off to work and save some money. A degree from Berkeley is still his goal, but it grows more elusive every day.

Join the Discussion