Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, Senator Dianne Feinstein and Chancellor Birgeneau were on hand to officially open UC Berkeley’s newest building this afternoon, as were several dozen demonstrators whose protests were targeted at financier, philantropist and UC Regent Richard Blum, after whom the building is named.
The Blum Center for Developing Economies, which is in a newly erected modernist building linked by bridges and plazas to the renovated brown-shingle Naval Architecture Building on the north side of campus, houses the Global Poverty and Practice course, the fastest growing minor at Cal. More than 500 students have chosen it as their secondary academic field of concentration. Blum donated $15 million of the $18 million that was needed to construct the new center.
Protesters claimed that the budget cuts being imposed at Cal by Blum and his colleagues were bringing poverty to the campus. Kathryn Lybarger, a lead gardener on the university campus who was part of the protest, said the demonstrators were not against the building, but “the man who bankrolled it”. She cited student fee increases and pension cuts as key issues. “People who would have had $1,000 a month in pension money are now being expected to live on less than $700 a month. Richard Blum is bringing his co-workers into poverty.”
Carrying placards with messages such as “Blum: End poverty at home now!” and chanting slogans such as “Dick Blum you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side”, the protesters were confined to the street-facing side of the new building on Hearst, while the opening ceremony took place on the campus side. However, the chanting was loud enough to be remarked upon by several speakers and a small group of demonstrators managed to evade the tight security and appeared on a rooftop from where they unfurled a banner and heckled the speech makers.
Blum continued his presentation on the work being done at the center, although he did remark about the demonstrators: “These people want to stop us preventing girls being forced into prostitution. If you think I’m annoyed, you’re right.”
Ila Kelowna, who works at UC Berkeley’s School of Optometry, had joined the protest. “The university is cutting retirement funds for all staff at UC. They are halving our pensions and doubling theirs,” she said. Although the demonstrators said they were not protesting the building, there were chants of, “We need food to feed our children. We don’t need another building.”
Vice President Al Gore broke ground a year and a half ago at the historic Naval Architecture Building, which was designed by John Galen Howard in 1914, to signal the beginning of the construction of the new building which was designed by San Francisco based Gensler Architects.
The center’s declared mission is to adapt cutting-edge technologies to solve real-world problems, while educating the next generation of leaders in the fight against global poverty. Some of the initiatives that have emerged from the program — which has been running since 2006 in different buildings across the campus — include the fuel-efficient Berkeley-Darfur Stove used by refugees in Sudan, and the Cellscope which harnesses mobile technology to detect malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases in remote areas.