Chancellor Robert Birgeneau

The chancellor of UC Berkeley held an upbeat press conference on Thursday to say that the campus is bouncing back from last year’s tumult.

Declaring himself “cautiously optimistic,” Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said that the campus is on a sounder financial footing than it was last year, thanks to a 32% increase in student fees, staff and faculty furlough days, staff cuts, $313 million in private donations, and a tightening of budgets.

Even though the state has not yet passed a budget, meaning that Cal has started the academic year not knowing how much money is coming its way, Birgeneau does not anticipate more draconian cuts. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised him this summer there would an extra $300 million for the university system, said Birgeneau, although he cautioned that conditions can always change.

“We feel in a much more known and secure position than we were last year, which was pretty grim,” said Birgeneau. “We still face significant challenges here but we are quite proud of how we have dealt with the most dire economic situation Berkeley has experienced.”

More than 10,000 new students started classes on Thursday, including 5,000 freshmen, 2,500 transfer students, and 2,800 graduate students.

More low-income students than ever before are attending Cal. A record 37 percent of students come from families who earn less than $45,000 a year, making them eligible for Pell grants. Berkeley has more low-income students than the Ivy League and Stanford combined, he said.

Students gather at Sproul Plaza

Nearly 18,000 students, or about 70% of the undergraduates, receive some sort of financial assistance, a 5% increase over last year, according to university documents. Students whose families earn less than $70,000 a year do not pay tuition.

“Berkeley still continues to be the conduit into mainstream society for all kinds of backgrounds,” said Birgeneau.

The increase in financial aid is made possible, in part, by the increased fees and a larger number of out-of-state and international students.  About 20% of the new students are from somewhere other than California. They pay $35,341 to attend Cal, while state residents pays $12,462.

The university is also allocating a portion of that money for more courses in reading, composition, math and science. Offering more of entry-level classes will make it easier for undergraduates to complete their education in four years.

While Cal has a record number of low-income students, only 16% of the freshmen come from underrepresented minority groups. About 45.6% of the students are Asian-American or Filipino, 31.4% are Caucasian, 12.2% are Chicano/Latino, 3.2% are African-American, and 0.8% are Native American.

The university is trying to address the situation by increasing its outreach to minority students, according to Gibor Basri, the vice-chancellor for equity and inclusion. Cal is working directly with under-performing high schools around the state, community-based organizations, and other programs, he said. It is talking to juniors to get them interested in Cal, as well as working more directly with high schools to improve their academics. The Haas Foundation has donated a $16 million matching grant to help the university with minority outreach.

Middle-income families have been seriously impacted by UC’s increased fees and the administration will take a closer look this year how to help them, said Birgeneau. It is complicated because federal laws constrain loans and grants for middle-income families, he said. Laws may have to be changed in order to make scholarships and grants more available.

Noah Stern, the president of the Associated Students of the University of California, said students are still worried about more fee increases, faculty cuts, and larger class size. There may be demonstrations against the dismantling of the system, he said.

“I do foresee student organizing this year to put that at the forefront of campus attention,” said Stern.

One interesting indicator of the ongoing concern about what is happening to the UC system is an open letter a professor wrote this week to his students.  Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at the Goldman School, wrote on his blog that students have been “swindled” out of their education. The piece also ran on the Berkeley Blog, and it has gotten 11,000 hits, according to Dan Mogulof, the executive director of public affairs at Cal. The blog usually gets about 400 to 500 hits a day, so the popularity of the piece suggests it has gone viral, he said.

Yarn bombers go blue in honor of Cal start of classes

UPDATE 3:15 pm: Apparently, some students have already called for a protest for Oct. 7. Pictures of the balloons sent out to announce the demonstration here.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...