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.
The University does not currently charge for the online courses it provides, but Vice Provost Martha Pollack told the regents that instituting a fee service for continuing education and professional development programs was an option for the future.
Birgeneau said Berkeley’s main priority with MOOCs centered on providing “technology-assisted education” to its on-campus population as well as some offerings for the general public.
“We’re doing this to improve education, not to make money,” Birgeneau said.
The regents also discussed how to handle a presidential transition. Coleman is set to retire in 2014 and a search for her replacement will likely begin this year.
Birgeneau, who is set to step down in the middle of 2013, said the charge of a public university president is to assemble a competent leadership team, have solidified personal values, withstand “buffeting” from state politics and media and fundraise effectively.
“I’m a strong believer in the ‘no-jerk’ policy,” Birgeneau said.
Regent Julia Darlow (D–Ann Arbor) noted that the sessions with Birgeneau and others made her appreciative of the University’s efforts to contain costs. She added that careful planning over the last decade has positioned the University's finances in a good place.
“We’ve been timely in looking at cost containment and making some very significant changes over several years now,” Darlow said. “It’s contributed tremendously to the stability that we have right now (and) in contrast to what California has gone through, we can be very proud of what the University has right now.”
Birgeneau also spoke to the regents about programs that California sponsors to defray costs of attendance for lower- and middle-income students. California currently pays the entire tuition cost for a student whose family makes a combined income of less than $80,000 per year and qualifies for financial aid.
Darlow said she was impressed by the support that California provides, but she believes the University of Michigan is competitive in the amount of financial aid it awards.
“My commitment here is to the reduction to net tuition cost — and I stress the word ‘net’ — cost for middle and lower income students,” Darlow said.
In the University’s Record Update, Board of Regents Chairman Laurence Deitch (D–Bloomfield Hills) said the meetings with donors in California were important to building long-standing relationships with the University. California has the largest alumni population of any state outside of Michigan and is the second-highest donor state.
“Our meetings with donors are critically important to the future of the university,” Deitch said. “There's a great deal of support here in southern California for the University of Michigan.”