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Regents gain insight in California

By Peter Shahin, Daily News Editor
Published January 23, 2013

It’s not always sunny in California — especially when it comes to higher education.

Last week, seven members of the University’s Board of Regents, University President Mary Sue Coleman and other University officials traveled to Los Angeles for a series of meetings with alumni and experts in higher education and education technology. The workshops were not made available to the public and were held in lieu of the regularly scheduled January board meeting.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the purpose of the trip was to provide regents and executive officers the opportunity to strategize and speak about long-term plans for the University. The group also took time to meet with Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University President John Hennessy; Robert Berdahl, former president of the Association of American Universities; and Dan Russell, one of Google’s top research scientists.

The University of Michigan delegation included seven regents; Coleman; University Provost Philip Hanlon; Jerry May, vice president for development; and Sally Churchill, vice president and secretary of the University. The trip was also the first official function for newly elected Regents Mark Bernstein and Shauna Ryder Diggs. Regent Katherine White was the only member of the board not in attendance.

“We’re very interested in issues related to the future of education, particularly public higher education — the challenges, the opportunities — and we have an opportunity in meeting out there,” Coleman said in December. “They all have a perspective that is very interesting. There is no way I could get those people to come out here.”

California is perhaps the epicenter of the struggles facing higher education. Over the last decade, the University of California system has faced enormous decreases in state support. According to UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein, the state of California contributed only 37 percent of the cost of educating a student for the current school year.

While the specific topics discussed were not made public, Birgeneau said his time with the regents and executive officers covered topics such as prospects for public universities across the country, budget challenges, streamlining administration costs, competition for the best faculty and financial aid for undergraduates.

Birgeneau said Berkeley has worked to combine its purchasing with the University of California, San Francisco in order to save money on large orders, among other administrative cost changes. Overall, Birgeneau said a “pessimistic” estimate was savings of $70 million per year as a result cost-savings programs.

The issue of declining federal support for research funding was also a primary focus of conversation. Birgeneau added that he was “optimistic” about the future of research funding in light of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address. Private partnerships with industry and foundations could also provide a new source of revenue, albeit one much smaller than the support that the federal government gives for basic research.

“Federal money is important, but we get a lot of money from different foundations,” Birgeneau said. “I would say we are trying to diversify our research base in the same way we diversify everything else.”

The regents also met with Russell, who is leading the Google's foray into “massive open online courses.” At the September meeting of the Board of Regents, some members expressed hesitation about the University of Michigan being involved in Coursera, a MOOC provider.