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The State

UC Berkeley Chancellor Says He Will Leave Post in 2004

Robert M. Berdahl has steered the campus through controversies while presiding over $879 million in renovation projects.

September 26, 2003|Stuart Silverstein and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, a soft-spoken academic leader known for his warm personal touch on a campus legendary for its controversies, announced Thursday that he will step down in June.

Berdahl, 66, an expert in German history who has served as chancellor since 1997, plans to take a one-year sabbatical from the university and return as a professor in public policy.

He has steered the campus through various controversies, including friction between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students, the war in Iraq and the resignation of a law school dean accused of sexual harassment.

"When he tries to calm the campus down ... he has a quiet but firm tone, and you always feel he knows the facts," said Marvin L. Cohen, a longtime UC Berkeley physics professor.

Berdahl presided over $879 million in renovation projects intended to rejuvenate and seismically retrofit aging facilities.

He also has been overseeing the construction of what will be the campus' largest research building, a $162.3-million biosciences and bioengineering facility.

He said he was proudest of the "tremendous progress" made during his tenure in improving the campus' aging facilities.

"The physical infrastructure of this campus is its greatest vulnerability in terms of sustaining itself as the public university of record in the country," he said.

In addition, he guided an overhaul at UC Berkeley's research library that restored the operation to top-ranking stature.

Berdahl, who spent his entire career at large public universities, served as president of the University of Texas at Austin for 4 1/2 years before being appointed Berkley's chancellor.

He described his leadership roles in Texas and at Berkeley as "a fairly demanding kind of position that involves very long work weeks. I'm 66 years old, and I feel like I would like to take a year off and do some teaching before I retire completely from the university. And this is the right time in my life to do that."

Jesse Gabriel, a senior majoring in political science and last year's student government president, called the 6-foot-4 Berdahl "a very warm and friendly guy. He's always got a smile and a great sense of humor."

He also credited Berdahl with putting the interests of students first, recalling how Berdahl helped him when a budgeting error threatened programs that were funded by student government.

A thoughtful, often relatively low-profile leader, Berdahl felt moved to seek out reporters this spring to voice his opposition to the war in Iraq, saying it represented a radical shift in American foreign policy.

He said he was speaking personally -- not officially -- but said he also believed he should not have to surrender his rights as a citizen to express his views.

Through the long lens of a historian, Berdahl said at the time, he worried both that the conflict could be the first in a series of U.S.-waged Middle East wars and that there had been a lack of significant debate -- in Congress, the electronic media and elsewhere -- on the decision to go to war. With few exceptions, he said, "there's been virtually no engaged public debate ... despite this very dramatic shift in the direction of American foreign policy. And that's very troubling."

Under Berdahl, who draws an annual salary of $315,600, UC Berkeley's longtime reputation for academic excellence was maintained, and possibly even improved slightly.

In the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings, Berkeley moved up from No. 23 among major national universities in 1997 to 21st this year.

Among major public universities, it rose from second place behind the University of Virginia in 1997 to tie for first, with Virginia, this year.

A search for a new chancellor will begin in a few weeks and is expected to last about six months.

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