Complete Interview With Chancellor Robert Berdahl: Free Speech "Essential" to Campus

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The Daily Californian: Reaching your fifth year now as chancellor, what do you think has been your imprint has been so far on the university?

Robert Berdahl: Well, I think there are a number of things I am really pleased about. Obviously, the most visible impact probably has been the focus we've given to the renewal of the physical infrastructure of the campus, all of the SAFER projects, all the seismic retrofit of the campus, I think is really vital to the future of it.

And if you look at the very large buildings-we've got Latimer, we've got Wurster we have Barrows, we have Hildebrand, we have Hearst Memorial Mining underway, and approaching conclusion, Barker-a large number of projects all together that I think are preparing the campus to be equipped for the future.

I also think the Health Science Initiative is a very important initiative for the campus. If one looks back at the history of Berkeley, I think that there are a number of sort of the important moves that the university made that established it in a very strong position as a university. In the 1930s, it was the building of the physics department, which won the first Nobel Prize.

Then out of that came a whole series of Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, and that began with the hiring of Lawrence, the hiring of very, very distinguished physicists. That was the period in which physics became the major science and led to Berkeley's being in the driver's seat for the Manhattan Project and development of atomic energy in the country.

As I look at the current circumstance, it seems to me that the biotechnology revolution, which is built upon information technology as well as the life sciences, is where the 21st century will be. And it's really essential that Berkeley positions itself to take advantage of that opportunity.

We've recruited outstanding faculty, our buildings associated with them, so I think that's going to be an important legacy, perhaps the most important legacy that I might point to as a part of my tenure as chancellor. A lot of things, I think the expansion of housing, some of the things we're going to be talking about, I would also say are important. I think the creation of a vice provost for undergraduate education that gives a campuswide position to planning for undergraduate education is an important step forward, so I think there's several things I'm very proud of.

DC: What would you say is your biggest ambition for the next few years?

Berdahl: My biggest ambition would be I think to complete the funding necessary to move the Health Science Initiative, (and) really forward very, very directly. I think a second ambition is to provide adequate fellowship support for graduate students. We're not as competitive as we need to be. A third ambition is to complete the funding for the East Asian Library, which is one of our high priorities. We need to raise another 10 to 12 million dollars to do that and then to invest more into undergraduate education.

I would say that those are the four, (including the goal to) raise the money to invest in undergraduate education. Those are the four.

We have a strategic taskforce underway (for the) academic plan that is led by the chairman of the senate David Dowall and Bill Webster. They're hard at work and I've seen some early drafts of some of their plans. I think that that planning for the future is really a very critical thing and it incorporates all of these things that I've been talking about.

DC: Now you said some thing about funding undergraduate education. What sort of funds would it...

Berdahl: Well, I think we want to expand the programs that provide an active learning experience for students. That means engaging students in the research aspect of learning, so that students are really active learners and given an opportunity to use what is a magnificent research university in ways that, say, a liberal arts college cannot do because it doesn't have the research capacity that this university has.

So the advantage of coming to Berkeley is that it is a research university. How we can maximize that advantage for undergraduates, that I think is really a challenge. When I refer to investing in undergraduate education, I mean taking the advantage of a research university. and applying it to the undergraduate learning experience.

DC: So some examples of those programs?

Berdahl: It would be research in laboratories, it would be engagement in various kinds of social science research projects in the community, it would be active learning in many of the disciplines of the professional schools, social sciences and natural sciences. It's obviously not quite as easy in the humanities where students do their own research but are not, because we don't necessarily have teams of research in those areas. But I think that in most areas across the campus we can have a more involved and engaged learning experience for students, undergraduate students.

DC: At the university memorial after the Sept. 11 attacks, you said to the campus community, "We should not allow ourselves to be changed." Do you think the campus has changed since then?

Berdahl: No, I don't. I'm very proud of the campus since Sept. 11. It seems to me the campus has really responded to that crisis with thoughtfulness, maturity, a degree of discussion no matter what position people take on the right response to Sept. 11th, whether they're in favor of military action or oppose military action.

It's been a very thoughtful, and I think, moderated kind of response because people understand that this is a very difficult issue. So I'm very proud of how the campus has responded. And I don't think we have changed. Yes, we've introduced some additional security measures on the campus, but through it all and even in response to some of the issues raised by the Patriot Act, the campus has said, "These are our values, this is what we stand for, this is how we will deal with these issues" and been true to itself. So I'm very pleased to how the campus has responded, both on the part of the faculty as well as on the part of the students.

DC: To date, has the campus been asked by the federal government to look at student records?

Berdahl: Not any to my knowledge.

DC: You've made many public statements for the past couple of years supporting free speech on campus, especially when students clash on sensitive issues. So do you think there is free speech on campus?

Berdahl: Well, I think free speech is always, like all freedoms, it's something that is hard to maintain and easy to lose, and free speech is endangered by a lot of things. It's endangered by attitudes that come from public officials, especially in a time of crisis like we have had since Sept. 11th. I think it was one of the, the chief of staff of the president who said, "People have to watch what they say." Well, I think that creates an attitude of fear and an attitude that inhibits people speaking freely, so I think that, at that level, we have to be very concerned about challenges to free speech.

But we also have to be concerned about challenges to free speech, because free speech presumes an environment in which a person can express their views without being shouted down or intimidated or threatened. And that's not always easy when passions run hot and heavy. But I do think that we have to, we have to preserve that. If we don't preserve an environment for free speech, even when the passions are high, we have lost what is essential, and we will have changed as a university. We don't always succeed in meeting our ideals for free speech, and whenever we don't, we are less as a community than when we do.

DC: So, this is an age-old worry of students: how to find affordable housing in Berkeley. After Underhill, what is the university's strategy to alleviate the housing crunch for the next decade?

Berdahl: Well, we have, since 1990, in the Long Range Development Plan, we have a goal of 3,400 additional beds. We have either under construction or in planning now 3,200 additional beds that have been built since 1990. We have the Foothill Housing, we have about 1,100 to 1,200 beds under construction or about to be under construction or in the design phase for the Southside, and about 1,000 at Albany Village. So there's about 3,200 in response to that LRDP of the 3,400.

There will have to be more and we will be looking at additional sites that either can be developed in conjunction with private developers or built by the university itself. We've got to provide housing as well for first year graduate students and to be certain that our goal should be to provide two years of housing for everyone who wants it. Not everybody is obviously going to want that beyond the freshman year, but certainly the first year should be available while people are establishing relationships and finding roommates and the like.

There will always be, I think, in this area where population growth is a part of what California and the Bay Area is experiencing. There will always be pressure on housing, so we've got to just try to do as much as we possibly can to address that and I think we are doing as much as we possibly can at the present time.

DC: You said something about additional sites. Where else in Berkeley...

Berdahl: Well, there are sites-there's some underutilized, I think, what one would see as underutilized land on south Shattuck that might very well be-we don't own it unfortunately-there are other sites around Berkeley, perhaps, not just on the southside, where we will be looking and talking to private developers about the possibility of developing or looking at how we might be able to do that ourselves.

DC: Will this include People's Park?

Berdahl: I don't think People's Park is on the table for discussion at the moment.

DC: Statistics show that UC Berkeley's enrollment of underrepresented minority students are still well below pre-1997 levels, and the percentage of black undergraduates enrolled declined last year. So is UC Berkeley becoming less diverse?

Berdahl: I don't think it is becoming less diverse if one uses a broad definition of diversity. If one uses the definition diversity that refers only to the percentage of African American students in the student body, then obviously the answer is yes. But I don't think that can be the only definition of diversity.

Having said that, that decline is a serious concern for us. We would like to see it arrested and turned around, and I think we are doing everything we can through outreach programs, and work with the public schools and work through many of our programs that reach out to students to increase the number of African-American students who are competitively eligible for Berkeley.

The problem ultimately has to do with the percentage of 18 year old African American students in California who are eligible for the University of California as a whole, and that has to be expanded before one will see a large number who are competitively eligible for Berkeley.

But the number of Hispanic students is going up, we have a very large and diverse Asian American population on this campus. We have a student body that is very diverse in terms of its socioeconomic background, and we have a significant number of students who come from families whose parents weren't born in the United States, who are first generation college. I would say this is a very diverse student body, still. But clearly we're concerned to enhance in any way that we can within the confines of the law the representation of underrepresented minority students.

DC: With UC Berkeley already feeling the surge in undergraduate enrollment, the Academic Senate is considering major changes: cutting down dead week, encouraging more people to take summer school, "normalizing" the summer schedule. Out of the many proposals offered by administrators to accommodate Tidal Wave II, which do you think is the most important?

Berdahl: Well, I would say that clearly the expansion of summer school and state funding of summer school has given us an opportunity to increase the number of students who attend Berkeley without necessarily increasing the number of students who are on campus at a given moment.

It'll enable students to spread more of their academic work through a 12-month period as against a 9-month period, so that may be the most significant response that we have. But I think there are some other creative responses, with off-campus programs and programs that enable students to learn in different settings that will be a part of the overall response as well. So, I think it isn't all a matter of trying to squeeze more students into a tight campus, it's a matter of expanding the opportunities beyond the 9-month year and the campus itself. Those are the most creative responses.

DC: Expansion of summer school-that came with extra money from the state budget. How will you accomplish stuff like expansion of summer school or looking at pursuing other opportunities with Tidal Wave II with a state budget that's running out of money?

Berdahl: I would say, first of all, that the governor has been extraordinarily supportive of higher education in the budget that he's recommended to the legislature. Obviously, we would like to have seen more in the budget and the regents requested more. But the fact of the matter is, that given the constraints with which the state is operating, the state support for our budget as in the governor's proposal has been I think been very, very generous.

So I don't see this budget downturn as catastrophic, at least certainly not at the present time. I don't see it as long term. I think that the economy is turning around, will turn around in the next year or two, and we'll see, I hope, continued support from the state for the kind of growth the university has to undergo. So I'm not pessimistic about that.

DC: Students have long criticized the university as being impersonal because of its large size. With the university expanding, will the university become more impersonal?

Berdahl: I don't think there's a significant difference in the nature of a university at 31,000 students than there is at 29,000 students. It is characteristic of all large public universities to have a certain quality of bureaucracy that gets characterized as being impersonal.

And there's a fact to that, and it's an unavoidable fact. This isn't, as I said, a small liberal arts college. It isn't an environment that in which one is surrounded by all kinds of nurturing quasi-parental structures. It's a much more an environment that attracts students who are much more independent and able to contend with that.

At the same time, I think there are a lot of things that we can do and need to do that are part of this undergraduate initiative that I've been talking about in terms of student advising, provision of small classes for freshmen and freshmen seminars, provisions for Capstone senior seminars for students to deal with the culmination of their work as undergraduates here-all of which would draw them in more contact with faculty. So I think there are a number of ways in which we can take some of the advantages of a large research university and use them to make it a more personal place.

DC: With reports that top graduate students in their field will not go to UC without more competitive offers of housing and financial support, how is UC going to continue attracting and retaining top tier faculty and graduate students?

Berdahl: It's a major concern for us, and I think we are already in conversations about how we can ensure housing for first year fellowship students and will be working to try to do that. In the course of the next year, housing remains, for undergraduates as well as graduates, a major consideration. So that is a high agenda item for us and we'll be trying to address that as early as next fall.

DC: Have you given any thought when you think you'll be done with serving as chancellor?

Berdahl: No, I think I'll be done when I feel as though I have achieved something that will be enduring, and that I had sort of completed the agenda that I had set out for myself in the first year or so that I was here. I certainly don't see that happening in the short, near term future. I got a lot here going on that I want to see completed.

DC: What is your assessment so far of Athletic Director Steve Gladstone, and do you have any hope for the Cal football season next year with the new coach?

Berdahl: I think Steve Gladstone has done a very, very fine job. I'm very, very pleased with the way he's taken hold. In fact, we had the Athletic Department and head coaches and their husbands and wives over at the house yesterday for a reception. I think he's building a very strong department. He has certainly won the confidence of alumni. He is got all of the values that I was looking for in an athletic director, and so I'm very, very pleased with what he has done as athletic director.

I'm very excited about what Jeff Tedford's going to do for the football program. Anybody who watched the Fiesta Bowl and saw the Oregon offense, I think, couldn't help but be impressed with the rather stunning offensive capability that Oregon possessed, and they've been a very good team. But Oregon, and bear in mind that I spent 19 years at the University of Oregon, Oregon has not always been a football power, and it was built systematically over the last 10 years, to the point that a lot of us feel that Oregon should have been playing for the national championship this past year.

Much of that is due to Jeff Tedford, and the kind of leadership and offensive program that he's put into place. I'm very impressed with him. He hit the ground running, got all of his assistant coaches in place before Christmas. They were on board so that the moment that he hit campus after the Fiesta Bowl and he was here on the third of January, and all of his assistant coaches were here and they've been out recruiting and working hard ever since. So, he's really a tremendous energy person and I think he's going to create a really exciting program for us.


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