Thanks largely to a rosier financial picture, Carol Christ is feeling optimistic about the future of the university over which she presides. Photograph, taken in August 2017, by Kelly Sullivan

In stark contrast to previous years, when the university’s crushing deficit tended to cast a shadow over such events, the mood was optimistic at a ‘Back to School’ press conference at UC Berkeley on Monday presided over by Chancellor Carol Christ.

Smiling throughout the event, Christ, who took the reins just one year ago, said the university should reach a balanced budget by next summer, one year ahead of schedule.

In 2016, the deficit stood at $150 million. University officials had predicted that the gap would be reduced to $57 million for FY 2017-2018, but the university has, in fact, exceeded its own deficit target. It is now projected to be between $30 and $40 million.

“It’s been a long tunnel, but not only can we see the light, we are on the edge of the tunnel,” she said.

State funding of $25 million made a big dent, Christ reported, combined with a roll-out of cost-cutting measures.

“We will achieve a balanced budget with this strong state support together and with the hard work and sacrifice on the part of our faculty, students and staff to whom we are grateful,” she said.

The cuts were concentrated in the administrative parts of campus, Christ said. She tried to protect “everything that is student facing.”

In an Aug. 17 story on the status of the university at the beginning of the new academic year, the Chronicle reported that the number of staffers such as custodians and administrators was down from 8,500 in 2016 to about 7,600 today.

One example of a cost saving is that the university now has people input their own travel expense claims, according to Cal’s Chief Financial Officer and Vice Chancellor of Finance, Rosemarie Rae. This, she said, has allowed the university to eliminate data-entry jobs through attrition and “move people into more valuable positions.”

Christ stressed that the key to financial stability, however, is revenue growth rather than reductions in expenditures.I have always believed that you can’t cut your way to heaven but you can spend your way to hell,” she said, quoting one of her favorite aphorisms. One example is the leasing of retail spaces in the newly opened David Blackwell residence hall.

A new fundraising campaign will go live in 2019, the Chancellor reported. She said funding commitments are currently at $569 million, over $90 million more than previous commitments from donors.

Asked if students would notice the tightened circumstances, Christ said if they did it would be due to the growth in enrollment rather than cuts. Cal enrollment has grown 17% since 2012, and it now has 42,000 students. Part of that growth was mandated by the UC Board of Regents, but the growth rate is now slowing considerably.

Carol Christ, center, talking at a Back to School press conference on campus on Aug. 20, 2018. Photograph: Tracey Taylor

Enrollment: 8,800 new students joining this fall

A total of 8,800 new students are joining UC Berkeley this fall, 6,100 freshmen and 2,700 transfer students. The youngest, Christ said, is 15, the eldest 63. Some other facts she shared on incoming students included:

  • Students come from 50 counties in California, 50 U.S. states and territories, and 70 countries from around the world.
  • 81% of the new undergraduates come from public high schools. 93% of the new transfer students come from California’s community colleges.
  • Just under a fifth of the students are the first in their families to attend any college or university.
  • Among those in the new class is a student who taught microfinance to women in rural India and helped create a local banking system there; a transfer student who grew up a refugee, unable to attend school…but who taught herself math and Farsi before going on to community college; and an entrepreneur who founded a global nonprofit that seeks to help young people fight mental health stigmas.

Housing: The most pressing challenge

Where all UC Berkeley’s students live continues to be a pressing challenge. Currently, UC Berkeley has the lowest percentage of beds for its student body of any campus in the UC system, with only 22% for undergraduates and 9% for graduate students. Across the system, the average is 38.1% for undergraduates and 19.6% for graduate students.

Christ has already spearheaded a strategy based on long-term leases as well as new construction with a goal of doubling the number of beds for undergraduate and graduate students in the next 10 years. The university just added 771 new beds with the opening of Blackwell Hall. Eight sites for new housing have been identified — including People’s Park and the Oxford Tract — and, according to Steve Sutton, the new vice chancellor for student affairs, a search for a master developer to start work on the projects should conclude by late October. (There used to be nine sites but Cal has put Richmond Field Station on the back burner because of its distance to campus.)

Free speech: Defined campus experience last year

Christ identified free speech as the issue that most defined the campus experience last year. A number of protests related to controversial speakers being invited to campus forced the university into some self-analysis and to shell out close to $4 million in security costs in just one month in 2017.

“It was challenging to uphold our unwavering commitment to the bedrock value of free expression, as well as related legal obligations, while at the same time fostering the values of diversity and inclusivity that are core to the campus,” she said. The chancellor said she will be announcing in the next couple of week how she will implement the recommendations made in May by the Free Speech Commission she appointed after the protests.

Even with a rosier financial picture, Cal is still wrestling with other challenges. It has had to deal with backlash over several high-profile sexual harassment cases over the past few years, and, just today, the Chronicle reported on the suspension of an architecture professor for “a pattern of sexual harassment that created a hostile environment.” Christ said the university had “no tolerance for sexual harassment” and that she thought they were making progress addressing it. 

And the university acknowledges there is still insufficient diversity among students, staff and faculty. Oscar Dubón, the new vice chancellor of equity and inclusion, said Monday that while the university had given 28 scholarships this year to incoming African-American freshmen, low enrollment was about making black students feel welcome and be “their authentic selves in all spaces” on the campus as much as it was about funding. Dubón also pointed out how the university does not reflect the fact that 50% of all Californian high school graduates are Latinx.

“We are an engine of social change,” he said. “We need to be mirroring the vibrancy of California and not be confined to our glass castle.” 

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...