Chancellor Birgeneau on Berkeley: World Class Undergraduate Education at a Public University

by Rob Holliday

At the October 17, 2005 Letters & Science Colloquium, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau expressed strong support for maintaining Berkeley's excellent reputation for excellence not only in research, but also in undergraduate education, and he confirmed his commitment to continue providing world class public education to the citizens of California. Following his talk, he fielded questions from the audience of faculty, staff, and students.

After a year as chancellor at Berkeley, Birgeneau has developed warm relationships with students as both teacher and chancellor. He characterized Cal students as "engaged and engaging," adding that students at Berkeley consistently demonstrate a desire to transfer their acquired skills to their society. He expressed particular admiration for the "huge sense of community involvement" he has found here, more than at any other school where he has taught and called the Berkeley student body "inspiring" in this regard.

Discussing undergraduate education in general, Chancellor Birgeneau identified three elements as critical components of a successful undergraduate experience: teaching, research, and learning. Elaborating on the first, he stressed the paramount importance of excellent teaching, coupled with world-class research activity, in an environment where "research enhances teaching and teaching enhances research." In the past, as a departmental chair and now as chancellor, Bigeneau has always encouraged first-tier researchers to teach undergraduate courses and become actively involved in undergraduate education. At Berkeley, Chancellor Birgeneau commended the freshman seminar program and the L&S Discovery Courses as two vital campus venues that bring Distinguished Teaching Award winners, Nobel Prize laureates, and MacArthur Genius Award recipients into direct contact with undergraduates as instructors in a wide range of fields across the curriculum. Birgeneau acknowledged Berkeley's pre-eminence in the second component, research, and expressed his ongoing commitment to involve undergraduates in scholarship and research whenever possible. For the third element, learning, to flourish, Birgeneau asserted that it is not enough to have outstanding and inspiring teachers, but that it is necessary to have extraordinary and gifted students as well. Students can find inspiration as much from the student sitting in the next seat as they can from the faculty at the front of the class, the Chancellor observed.

Chancellor Birgeneau expressed great optimism for Berkeley's future. The campus, he said, has always attracted the brightest and best young faculty and continues to do so today, despite mounting resource limitations faced by the University in a difficult economic climate. Birgeneau repeated his appreciation of the "extraordinary and gifted students" he has found at Berkeley, emphasizing the need for diversity in the student body and acknowledging that much work needs to be done to rectify recent setbacks to equal access for all qualified applicants to Berkeley. Birgeneau pledged to work actively to find ways to increase representation of African Americans, Chicanos, and Native Americans in the student body, calling the current state of affairs in that regard "a disgrace." More than an issue of fairness, diversity in social, cultural, financial, and religious areas is a necessity if the undergraduate experience at Berkeley is to foster in each student a level of multicultural competency, which the Chancellor identified as an essential requirement in anyone whom he would regard as a truly educated person.

Birgeneau characterized the well-educated undergraduate as "one who knows where he or she came from, where he or she is now, and where he or she is going." From the tone of his talk at the Collquium, it seems fair to say that he has found that kind of student at Berkeley and that he will strive to make that a possibility for every undergraduate to come.

You can view a webcast of the Chancellor's presentation here.

The L & S colloquia, which take place once or twice each semester, provide opportunities to learn about and discuss the overarching issues affecting undergraduate education at U C Berkeley. For more information on upcoming or past programs, contact Alix Schwartz at alix@uclink4.berkeley.edu or (510) 642-8378.

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| Updated: Apr 11, 2007