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California's money woes ignite student anger and force tough choices at the state's flagship engineering school.

Hard times have come to Berkeley, the University of California system's flagship campus and home to one of America's finest engineering schools. Berkeley, and the entire UC system, is facing its worst financial crunch since the Great Depression, triggered by the State of California's budget meltdown. Drastic cuts in state funding and resulting steep tuition hikes have jolted the Golden State out of its dream of low-cost, superior higher education and prompted angry student demonstrations that recall the Free Speech Movement and anti-war protests of past decades. Neither Berkeley's College of Engineering nor other engineering schools within the UC System can avoid the pain. The historic COE has the resources to see it through this academic year, and so far, there's scant evidence that the value of a Berkeley engineering degree is at all tarnished. But if the cutbacks continue much beyond 2010, they could eventually damage its sterling world-class reputation, making it harder for it to retain top faculty and attract high-caliber grad students. "It's pretty bad," says S. Shankar Sastry, Berkeley's engineering dean. "There's no way to sugarcoat cuts of this magnitude." J. Karl Hedrick, a mechanical engineering professor, says faculty were told that massive layoffs and shutdowns loom if the budget squeeze persists for a few more years. "There's a lot of gloom. People are worried about the next two to three years."

Cuts Felt Nationwide

To be sure, the deep recession has pole-axed universities across the country, with even once cosseted private schools getting squeezed. State schools, which are at the mercy of legislatures forced to make deep cuts in public spending to compensate for free-falling tax revenues, have been hardest hit. In FY 2009, 85 percent of public schools had to make budget cuts, according to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. The current year has brought more cuts in state aid. Nationwide, states have slashed higher-education spending by 6.8 percent between FY 2008 and 2010, according to the Grapevine study published by Illinois State University.

But the scale of the problem in California is, typically, in a class of its own. The state's legislature sliced $2.8 billion from its higher-education budget, and UC's share came to an eye-popping $813 million. In response, UC fired around 2,000 staff and required all employees -- including faculty - to take mandatory furloughs, amounting to pay cuts between 4 and 8 percent. It also enacted a whopping 32 percent tuition increase, boosting the tariff to more than $10,000 next fall. UC's tuition rate, traditionally low, remains a bargain compared with that of many top schools. But tuition is just part of the cost of a UC education. The hike ignited a wave of protests that led to the cancellation of some classes, a number of arrests, and charges of unnecessarily rough police tactics. The protests hit a violent peak the night of Dec. 11, 2009, when 50 to 70 people vandalized the house of Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, breaking windows, lights, and planters and lobbing torches at the building.

"Student rebels think there is a pot of money somewhere. I am convinced there is not," says Hedrick, who thinks the students should be directing their anger at state lawmakers, not the university. Indeed, support for the protesters' tactics was thin among engineering faculty and students queried by Prism, although all expressed unhappiness about the tuition increase. Brandon Basso, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering, says he sympathized with the protesters' anger but not their methods. Civil engineering junior Samantha Vroomen, 21, says it's hard to accept having to pay more when being offered less. "It makes you wonder where that extra tuition money is going." Sastry doesn't disagree: "If you hike tuition, there's a sense that you should be getting better value for it - that it's not just being used for plugging holes."


Yet plugging holes is what Sastry's COE must try to do as it copes with a permanent 15 percent, across-the-board budget cut, a one-time 5 percent cut, and furlough-based pay cuts. Attrition and layoffs have reduced his staff by around 100. And, with few exceptions, there's a hiring freeze, which means that the normal churn of retirements will reduce his cadre of 1,500 faculty members by around 50 by academic year-end. Moreover, the college is hiring many fewer teaching assistants and has also cut back on using temporary lecturers. The COE, as well as the business and law schools, is financially healthier than many other Berkeley colleges, so it has been forced to take a bigger proportion of the cuts. That graduated approach, however, is not one used by all UC universities. At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), for example, budget cuts were made uniformly across all units.

Corporate Support

While all Berkeley engineering departments have been affected, some have felt the cuts more acutely than others. Despite the recession, certain companies still have the wherewithal to continue injecting cash into the schools that supply them with much-needed talent - the high-tech industry, for instance. Donations to Berkeley's electrical engineering/computer science department have enabled it to weather the fiscal storm better than others. Says Hedrick: "Some departments have much more discretionary funds than others. EECS has an order of magnitude more of this type of funding."

Sastry has his own pile of discretionary funds that he has been able to tap. "But those funds won't be there forever," he warns. Fundraising for engineering schools is a chore usually left to deans. But so acute is the need to try to replenish those coffers, even department heads are getting in on the act, says Hedrick. "Our head, Al Pisano, has been successfully, aggressively going after it." But in the middle of a particularly nasty recession, fundraising has gotten tougher. Says Vijay K. Dhir, dean of the School of Engineering at UCLA: "It's much harder this year. Donations are down, since most industries are also in a jam."

The furloughs have widened the historical gap between faculty salaries at public schools like Berkeley and those at private schools, in particular Berkeley's big rival and neighbor, Stanford University. But for Samer Madanat, a professor of civil engineering, "it was never much of an issue. Teaching kids at a public university has its own rewards." Still, he adds, the pay cuts "are not exactly a morale booster."

Just as discretionary funds have meant that some departments are hurt worse than others, the effect of pay cuts has been uneven. Perhaps a third of Berkeley's engineering faculty are eligible to replenish their pay from research grants, with the approval of the funding agencies, although some faculty have chosen not to take advantage of this loophole.



Research-grant income, in fact, "is quite vibrant," says Sastry. "There's been an uptick in grant money coming in, by around 15 to 20 percent," a boost strengthened by federal economic stimulus funds. The college's ability to interest funding agencies is both a tribute to its faculty and a sign of how a glowing reputation can provide a cushion in tough times. Berkeley's EECS department just got its 10-year external review, and the committee gushed: "If Berkeley is arguably the crown jewel of America's research-intensive universities, then EECS is arguably the crown jewel of Berkeley . . . the research programs in Berkeley EECS are arguably the best in the world." Downstate at UCLA, Dhir reports that his school's research income is likewise healthy. It was up 5 percent last year to $93 million and should jump another 5 to 7 percent this year.

The research-grant stream has meant that the college is still attracting top grad students, because those funds can be used to hire them. "So far, [graduate] student recruiting and retention are holding up very well," says Stuart Russell, head of the EECS department. "Students are extremely satisfied with the graduate programs here." Still, some competing universities "have resorted to 'buying' students with very large, multi-year fellowships, which are not easy for us to match," he adds. Basso says top recruits select Berkeley mainly because of its outstanding reputation, but attitudes can change quickly. "I think it is very dangerous to assume that the reputation of Berkeley is set in stone." Berkeley, Basso says, has in the past done a great job of making its COE departments look attractive when they bring in candidates for wine-and-dine weekends. "But it will become increasingly difficult to do so with less money," he adds. "These weekends cost money, and my impression is that Berkeley already spends a lot less on it than Stanford and MIT."

Not all engineering researchers can rely solely on the federal government for funding. Those more tied to state agencies are getting caught in the overall squeeze. Civil engineer Madanat, for instance, gets 60 to 70 percent of his research dollars from the state. "It hasn't disappeared," he says, "but it's been significantly hit." Meanwhile, even those researchers who are flush with funding are finding life more difficult. Staff cuts and furloughs mean there are fewer people available to handle administrative work, from accounting to human resources to travel, and federal grants are notorious for the extra paperwork they generate.

Consolidations and belt-tightening have also resulted in fewer TA jobs for grad students. Not all research projects have fared well, and Basso and around 15 other graduate students found themselves jobless last July when funding for the project they were working on dried up. But when he and the others tried to find graduate student instructor jobs, which were once plentiful, they found they had become scarce. "So it was a big scramble for everyone to find funding," says Basso, who eventually landed an outside fellowship.


In other ways, signs are appearing of what could become a long-term slide. Basso has noticed trash cans emptied less often and burned-out lights that don't get immediately replaced. And it could get worse. "If this continues for two to three years, we face a possible degradation of our labs, our complete infrastructure," Sastry frets.


The stresses are making Berkeley more vulnerable to faculty poaching. In the past, Berkeley was able to provide inducements that prevented its stars from being lured elsewhere. But slashed budgets give it less maneuvering room. "The faculty are generally very committed to Berkeley - there's no other place like it," says Russell. "But we are starting to see an uptick in raiding attempts at a time when our resources for fending them off are stretched very thin." 

It has been the college's undergraduate educational environment that has taken the biggest hit, however, because it's more reliant on state funds. "A drop in revenues leads to a reduction of [educational] quality, one way or another," Madanat says. Class sizes have increased, and some courses are scheduled less frequently - a direct effect of having fewer faculty. Samantha Vroomen says that course consolidation has resulted in some truly mega-size classes. Her last three chemistry courses were crammed with 500 students each. "That is really massive," Vroomen says. "It's hard to learn in that environment."

Fewer teaching assistants compound the problem. "This makes homework grading and discussion sections very difficult," Hedrick says. There's less innovation, too, since lack of funds has for now put a damper on the creation of new courses. No existing courses have so far been canceled within the engineering college, but that's not necessarily the case elsewhere on campus. So some engineering freshmen and juniors have had trouble getting into required math, physics, and chemistry classes. Ken Rakestraw, 21, a mechanical-engineering senior, says many students end up on wait-lists for necessary classes. "They're in limbo for a while."

The UC ethos, going back to the 1960s, is inclusiveness. One third of the system's students come from low-income families, and Berkeley has more Pell grant recipients - 33 percent - than all the Ivy League schools put together. But the flagship school did not emerge unscathed from a January report by the Education Trust, which slammed the nation's leading public research universities for their poor track record in admitting minorities. Berkeley's intake of minorities, it noted, was just 17 percent in 2007. Stanford, in comparison, enrolled 26 percent. Berkeley officials say their efforts are hampered by the voter-approved Proposition 209, which bars state schools from considering race in admissions. Sastry, however, wants to step up the COE's efforts at recruiting minorities, including doing more outreach at high schools, although he admits that will be harder given the crunch. So he's hoping that private support, particularly from foundations, will give him the funds he needs.

Poorer students with access to financial aid packages may not be too badly hit by tuition hikes, Madanat believes, but he worries that students from the lower-middle class could be frozen out. They qualify for fewer aid programs, yet haven't enough money to pay the higher costs.


Take the kidsWhen the University of California was founded in 1868, Berkeley was the first of what would become a 10-campus system. Right from the start, it had an engineering college. Its graduates brought water to California's now lush agricultural fields, helped build the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge, and pioneered some of the research that created Silicon Valley.

  • The COE is ranked second by U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges guide.
  • The COE's graduate school is ranked third by U.S. News's Best Graduate Schools guide.
  • The COE has 38 centers and institutes, whose missions range from bioengineering to earthquake research. It's affiliated with two national laboratories: Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore.
  • Its faculty includes 72 National Academy of Engineering fellows, 10 National Academy of Sciences fellows, and 3 winners of the Turing Award in computer science.


That California's public universities have had to take such a hit strikes many as unfair, given that, as UCLA's Dhir notes, "we spend more on prisons than university education." But there is no escaping the reality of a $20 billion state budget shortfall. So, what to do if state funding continues to wither? Some have suggested letting the highest-ranked research campuses, like Berkeley and UCLA, charge higher fees than others in the system. But there's little enthusiasm for that idea. A more popular suggestion is charging graduate students higher fees. Grad fees at many other top schools across the United States are higher than Berkeley's. Says Russell: "Clearly, the student demand is there, even at 'full price' - you only have to look at the enormous master's programs at Stanford and USC." Another suggestion is to turn the Santa Cruz, Riverside, and Merced campuses into teaching schools that do little or no research. Not surprisingly, the reaction to that notion by Arthur Ramirez, engineering dean at Santa Cruz, was scathing: "Not only is it not likely, but the suggestion itself is ridiculous."

UC's schools, which saw applications rise 6 percent this year, could also recruit more students from out of state, who pay much higher tuition. Only 6 to 7 percent of Berkeley engineering students come from outside the Golden State, and the goal is to eventually increase that to 15 percent. There's no legal limit on out-of-state enrollments. At the University of Michigan, located in a state even more economically depressed than California, 37 percent of engineering undergraduates come from outside the state, and they pay a tuition triple that of residents. David C. Munson Jr., Michigan's engineering dean, argues that the large number of out-of-state students has a positive educational effect, as well as a fiscal benefit. "We improve the quality of our student body by recruiting from a broader pool."

Schools can also become more aggressive in tapping corporate sources, following the example of Berkeley's electrical engineering department. It obtained a $110 million challenge gift from Hewlett-Packard that other companies decided to match, which is paying for several new endowed chairs. Qualcomm also gave it the funds needed to hire a top computer scientist. At Santa Cruz, Ramirez used a combination of indirect and gift funds to hire a leading genomics researcher. To hire faculty, Ramirez says, engineering schools have to be "very imaginative in raising funds."

Higher tuition, fatter fees for grad students, more reliance on out-of-state students and corporate largesse . . . certainly these are doable options for an engineering college of Berkeley's caliber. But all these steps would make it more like its private-university peers. No one wants that to happen, Russell says. But neither will Berkeley's COE allow its faculty strength to weaken, the quality of its educational offering to crumble, and the gleam of its research reputation to tarnish. "If forced to," he says, "we will move to a model closer to the private universities." And if Berkeley goes down that road, look for UC's other engineering schools to follow the leader.


Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.




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