Robert J. Birgeneau

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Robert J. Birgeneau
Chancellor Birgeneau at Berkeley.jpg
Birgeneau at a Blum Center groundbreaking, April 2009.
9th Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley
In office
Preceded by Robert Berdahl
Succeeded by Nicholas Dirks
14th President of the University of Toronto
In office
Preceded by Robert Prichard
Succeeded by David Naylor
Personal details
Born (1942-03-25) March 25, 1942 (age 72)
Toronto, Ontario
Nationality Canadian
Spouse(s) Mary Catherine
Residence Berkeley, California
Alma mater University of Toronto
Yale University
Profession Physicist

Robert Joseph Birgeneau (born March 25, 1942) is a Canadian physicist and university administrator. He was the ninth chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley from 2004 to 2013, and the fourteenth president of the University of Toronto from 2000 to 2004. His period as the Berkeley chancellor was among the most controversial in the university's history and was characterized by increasing police violence towards students.


The first from his family to finish high school, Birgeneau graduated from St. Michael's College School in Toronto. He received a B.Sc in mathematics in 1963 from St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto, where he also met his wife Mary Catherine; they have four children.[1] Birgeneau received his Ph.D in physics from Yale University in 1966 for thesis titled Magnetic Interactions in Rare-Earth Insulators under the supervision of Werner P. Wolf.

He spent a year each on the faculties of Yale and the University of Oxford. From 1968 to 1975, he worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories.


He then joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a professor of physics. During his 25 years at MIT, he served as Chair of the Physics Department and ultimately as Dean of Science.

University of Toronto[edit]

He was then appointed to serve as the President of the University of Toronto, a role he held from 2000 to 2004. Birgeneau appointed Shirley Neuman as Vice President and Provost (chief academic officer) in July 2002, but she resigned on February 2, 2004, after just 19 months on the post. It was reported that Neuman’s head-strong approach alienated her from colleagues and students, and there were also tensions between Birgeneau and herself.[2][3][4][5][6]

He left the University of Toronto before the end of his seven-year term, causing a flurry of controversy with his abrupt departure.[7][8]

UC Berkeley[edit]

He was recommended to the UC Board of Regents by Robert Dynes, then President of the UC system and a former colleague of Birgeneau when both worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories.

Birgeneau has used his platform as Chancellor to make contributions to several political debates. On June 14, 2007, Birgeneau joined the Chancellor of Columbia University in condemning Britain's University and College Union for boycotting Israeli academics and academic institutions and insisting that any boycott include their universities.[9] Citing the "likely" threat to California's academic competitiveness if Proposition 8 were passed, Birgeneau urged the UC Berkeley community to vote against a 2008 state ballot measure which would eliminate the right of gays and lesbians to marry.[10] During the 2011-2012 academic year, he sent campus wide messages in support of the California Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to qualify for financial aid, the reform of Proposition 13, which would close corporate property tax loopholes passed by voters in the late 1970s and reallocate that funding to social services, including higher education, and the repeal of Proposition 209, which would reenact affirmative action and significantly increase diversity in the nation's public higher education institutions.

Also during the 2011-2012 academic year, Birgeneau unveiled Berkeley MCAP, the Middle Class Access Plan, a new financial aid model that caps the total annual cost of an eligible students' education - from tuition and fees to expenses including room, board and books - at 15 percent of the family's total income. Families with incomes from $80,000 to $140,000 and assets typical of that range are eligible for the program, which will provide grants beginning with the fall 2012 semester. While the UC-wide Blue and Gold program aids lower-income families, this is the first program of its kind in the system to benefit the middle class. It also served as impetus for the statewide Middle Class Scholarship program, announced by California Assembly Speaker John Perez.

In November 2008, former President Robert Dynes' close aide and UC Associate President Linda Morris Williams, was awarded a controversial pay out and re-hired as an Associate Chancellor at University of California, Berkeley by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.[11][12][13] Birgeneau and Dynes became friends while working at Bell Labs. This event led UC President Mark Yudof to initiate changes to the buy out program.[14][15]

Birgeneau was succeeded by Nicholas Dirks as chancellor of UC Berkeley on June 1, 2013.[16]

2011 Occupy Cal Protest Incident[edit]

Main article: Occupy Cal

With calls by students to occupy the UC Berkeley campus, Chancellor Birgeneau sent a letter, dated November 7, 2011, to the campus community stating "Any activities such as pulling fire alarms, occupying buildings, setting up encampments, graffiti, or other destructive actions that disrupt with anyone's ability to conduct regular activities -- go to class, study, carry out their research, etc. -- will not be tolerated."[17] On November 9, 2011, UC Berkeley students attempted to build an Occupy encampment at Sproul Plaza to protest the financial handling of the state's higher education system.[18] The students were met by UC Berkeley police and Alameda County sheriff's deputies in riot gear. The students tried to set up tents but were stopped by the police and seven students were arrested. A second altercation occurred in the evening when students joined arms and chanted "hold the line" and "the whole world is watching" while police approached with riot batons and bean-bag guns.[19] Six UC Berkeley students and one faculty member were arrested for resisting police officers.

Later in the day, Chancellor Birgeneau issued a statement saying "it is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience."[20] Some UC Berkeley faculty and students later circulated a petition and condemned the actions of Birgeneau and his administration by saying, "We are deeply disturbed by the images of violence against members of the campus community, as well as the justification and defense of these acts that followed".[21] A petition that garnered over 2,400 signatures, many of them from Berkeley faculty members or graduate students, stated, "We express no confidence in the willingness of the Chancellor, and other leaders of the UC Berkeley administration, to respond appropriately to student protests, to secure student welfare, and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus".[22]

With support from other student governments including UC Davis, Brown, and Harvard, the ASUC, UC Berkeley's student government, passed a resolution condemning the police brutality against students on the November 9 Day of Action. In a packed auditorium at International House, Berkeley's Academic Senate also considered a series of resolutions, all of which passed with overwhelming support. An earlier version of one of those resolutions would have expressed no confidence in Birgeneau and other senior campus administrators, but it was amended before the actual vote to stop short of expressing no confidence, while clearly condemning the handling of the situation. While much of the energy around Occupy dissipated during the campus winter vacation, subsequent encampments have been set up as recently as mid-February 2012 outside the International House at the corner of Bancroft and Piedmont. Just prior to the announcement of his resignation, students had circulated a petition for a referendum calling for his resignation. This bill reached the ASUC where it was voted down by ASUC senators from the Student Action party.

In the documentary At Berkeley, Birgeneau is seen in a private staff meeting gleefully belittling the actions and demands of the Occupy Cal protesters, contrasting their protest against "serious" ones in which he had participated in the 1960's which he boasts were about serious issues and where he and other protestors had taken serious risks, whereas the Occupy Cal protest had "no underlying philosophy" and could be described as "fun out in Sproul Plaza".


  1. ^ "Robert J. Birgeneau Appointed UC Berkeley Chancellor" (Press release). University of California. 27 April 2004. Retrieved 2009-01-03. 
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3]
  5. ^ [4]
  6. ^ [5]
  7. ^ [6]
  8. ^ [7]
  9. ^ Statement from UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau in response to British faculty union's proposed action against Israeli universities. 14 June 2007.
  10. ^ "Chancellor Birgeneau informs campus of likely impacts of Proposition 8". 2008-10-22. Retrieved 2008-10-29. 
  11. ^ SF Chronicle "Severance, new UC job for aide in pay scandal"
  12. ^ California State Auditor Report 2006-103, May 2, 2006
  13. ^ SF Examiner "Dynes example of larger problem"
  14. ^ Sf Chronicle "UC Chief Changes Buyout Plan"
  15. ^ San Diego Reader "After the Fall"
  16. ^ Office of the Chancellor. "Chancellor Dirks - Biography". University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 15 July 2013. 
  17. ^ Huffington Post "Occupy U.C. Berkeley Protesters Face Violent Confrontation With Campus Police (VIDEO)"
  18. ^ SF Chronicle "UC campus police move in on student protesters"
  19. ^ SF Chronicle "UC campus police move in on student protesters"
  20. ^ UC Berkeley News Center "Message to the campus community about ‘Occupy Cal’"
  21. ^
  22. ^ The petition was reposted from iPetitions on a UCSD faculty blog.

External links[edit]