UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who maintained the university's prestige even as it lost $160 million in state funding, announced Tuesday he will step down as the school's top official the end of the year.
Birgeneau, a physicist who came to the campus in 2004, will return to teaching and research and will remain at UC Berkeley. He told reporters Tuesday that he and his wife made the decision more than a year ago.
Teaching "is why I got into academia in the first place," said Birgeneau, who will turn 70 this month. He also said he plans to lobby the federal government to fund top public universities.
Birgeneau was paid about $416,600 in 2010, the most recent year available. His base salary that year was $436,800, but campuswide furloughs led to the reduced amount.
The university will search nationwide for a replacement, UC President Mark Yudof said.
Birgeneau has been a frequent and pointed critic of California's cuts in public college and university budgets. State funding accounted for 26.5 percent of UC Berkeley's budget in 2004, when Birgeneau arrived, and just 11 percent this year.
Birgeneau said Tuesday he is particularly proud to have preserved the university's quality during his term. Others agreed that UC Berkeley has remained, well, UC Berkeley in that time.
"While I might not have agreed with all his policies, I do think he brought the right values," said Patrick Callan, president of the San Jose-based Higher Education Policy Institute. "Under difficult circumstances, Berkeley has maintained, and perhaps even improved, its standing among the world's top universities."
The chancellor said after his hiring that he planned to lead the university for seven years. He said Tuesday he stayed an extra year because of economic troubles prompted by "the most extreme disinvestment by the state in UC's history."
Birgeneau arrived at UC Berkeley after serving as president of his hometown University of Toronto and as a dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Like many California university leaders in recent years, Birgeneau has been the focus of campus protests, particularly over the university police department's response to Occupy Wall Street-related demonstrations. Earlier in his tenure, demonstrators perched in campus trees for more than a year and a half, and a November protest in front of Sproul Hall led to police using batons on students and employees.
"This was a new sociological phenomenon for me," Birgeneau said.
The chancellor somehow managed to keep the university running relatively smoothly, said physics professor Bob Jacobsen.
"Berkeley's a tough crowd, but he has done a great job of navigating that," said Jacobsen, chairman of the faculty's Academic Senate.
Birgeneau will be remembered for his support of minorities and undocumented immigrants, said Vishalli Loomba, UC Berkeley's student body president. The chancellor, who has said he grew up poor in Toronto, has vocally supported the federal Dream Act, which would allow illegal immigrants to become legal residents if they graduate from college or join the military.
"He really was chancellor at a very, very difficult time," Loomba said. "He took some very strong positions on some very controversial issues."
Although Birgeneau's successes should be commended, he has not always supported student protesters or apologized quickly enough for police responses, said graduate student Bahar Navab. The chancellor should, for example, condemn Alameda County prosecutors for filing criminal charges against some protesters, she said.
"In many ways, he has celebrated the right to free speech for our students," said Navab, president of the university's Graduate Assembly. "I'm hopeful there's still time for him to do more."
Yudof, the UC president, on Tuesday lauded Birgeneau's accomplishments.
"Robert Birgeneau has proven to be a passionate, dedicated and effective steward of the world's greatest public university," Yudof said in a written statement. "He has been an ardent champion of academic excellence, as well as an unwavering advocate for the underdog."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattkrupnick.