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Berkeley Battles the Blues : Beset by Shriveling State Support, UC Students and Faculty Wonder When the Bloodletting Will Stop--and if the University's Luster Is Forever Tarnished

June 13, 1993|LARRY GORDON | Times staff writer Larry Gordon began covering higher education five years ago, just before the UC system was hit with its budget woes.

FOUR MILLION FRUIT FLIES, NIBBLING ON CORNMEAL and molasses, are being bred inside bottles at Corey Goodman's laboratory on the UC Berkeley campus. Their tiny central nervous systems, as small as particles of household dust, will be dissected under powerful microscopes, delicately sliced open to reveal cell patterns often headed for developmental catastrophes.

"I just find the mystery of how the nervous system gets put together a wonderful challenge," says Goodman, a wiry 41-year-old professor of neurobiology who earned his doctorate at Berkeley and now mentors young minds there with the style of an encouraging older brother. "What makes us different, the way we are, has to do with some collection of cells that we know very little about."

His research on the connections between nerves and muscles in Drosophila may provide insights into human neurological disorders and even psychiatric illnesses. That's why the project has won large, prestigious grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institutes of Health. But with or without an ultimate link to humans, the project already is recognized as the kind of intellectual and scientific work that UC Berkeley likes to brag about--especially this year, the 125th since its founding.

So why, then, is anxiety floating around Goodman's fifth-floor lab like the pesky fruit flies that sometimes escape their bottles? Why does Goodman worry that there might one day be no one to maintain his super-cold refrigerators or keep his records? Why, during what was supposed to be a triumphant yearlong anniversary celebration, do he and most of UC Berkeley's faculty, staff and student body just not feel in a party mood?

Like public colleges and universities nationwide, the nine-campus UC system has been facing big money problems. As demilitarization brutalizes the California tax base and Sacramento struggles with the state budget, the University of California may be facing its most serious crisis ever. By every measure, from student services to curricula to faculty quality, the shaky bottom line is threatening UC's lofty claims of excellence, particularly at its flagship campus, Berkeley.

Visitors can't immediately sense such an emergency in Goodman's 3,200-square-foot lab, where 26 enthusiastic students, postdoctoral fellows and technicians keep raising and dissecting fruit flies while loud rock, classical and reggae music compete for in-house airwaves. But behind such bustle, the crisis is there. It's in the students' basic fees, which will rise to more than $4,000 a year next fall for in-state undergraduates, a 150% increase over fees four years ago. It's there in the 5% temporary pay cuts that Goodman and most other UC employees and teachers will face starting in July. It's there in the probable layoffs of support staff and part-time lecturers, in reduced class offerings, in the shutting down of entire graduate programs and in enrollment tightening that will worsen applicants' current 1-in-6 odds of gaining freshman admission to Berkeley. It's also there in the induced early retirements of 255 Berkeley professors, 15% of the total faculty so far. And, perhaps most important, it's there in a definite unease about the future.

"What all of us worry about is, how many years does it go on?" says Goodman, sitting in his cozy office. "If you told me two more years, I'd say we can survive. If you told me four or five years, then we all get really discouraged." His conversation, usually precise and enthusiastic, briefly stalls.

"The citizens, the Legislature, have to realize they have a very special resource here both for the state and the country," says Goodman, rallying. "They have this institution educating people, training leaders. It is a public institution, and yet it is one of the very top places in the country. But it's really very fragile. You can't take it for granted. It's easy for things to slip."

THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA WAS ESTABLISHED IN 1868 BY GOV. HENRY Haight. The state took over a struggling private college in Oakland and moved it to a township that would be named for 18th-Century Irish Anglican bishop and philosopher George Berkeley. In his writings, Bishop Berkeley expressed a devotion to Manifest Destiny that must have appealed to the Golden State pioneers: "Westward the course of Empire takes its way."

Until recently, such ebullient expansionism might as well have been UC's credo. The Berkeley campus opened in 1873 with the completion of North Hall and South Hall. Photos from the era show only a few farmhouses on the downhill slope between the school and San Francisco Bay. North Hall was later demolished, but the Victorian brick-and-gabled South Hall remains at the core of the 1,232-acre campus, which also has a creek and redwood groves. The school today enrolls more than 30,000 students in about 200 undergraduate and graduate fields, including Norwegian, rhetoric, folklore, optometry, nuclear engineering and peace and conflict studies.

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