Association of American Universities President Robert Berdahl says a recent lunch with a vice president from the University of Minnesota was typical.

Whenever two or more leaders concerned with the country’s major public universities gather, it seems inevitable that the discussion will turn to their uphill fight with the nation’s top private universities to hire the best academic talent.

This time, though, there was a bit of good news.

Berdahl’s lunch companion, Steven Rosenstone, vice president for scholarly and cultural affairs at UM, was telling alumni at the lunch that The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation had just given the University of California, Berkeley, a $113 million challenge grant to endow 100 faculty chairs throughout the university.

“He was telling them what a remarkable shot in the arm it would be for Berkeley,” says the AAU president, adding that the implication was clear that it would be lovely if the Minnesota alumni could think of ways to step up.

Berdahl, former chancellor of UC Berkeley and former president of The University of Texas at Austin, is happy for his former California colleagues-but perhaps happier still that the grant may spur potential donors of every stripe to do more to redress the competitive imbalance in the pursuit of top faculty.

Focusing on the Problem

“This elevates the conversation about the problem,” he says of the Hewlett gift. “It may elevate the willingness of private sources to recognize that public universities need support as well. The fact is, an endowment like Harvard’s grew by more than $5 billion last year. Compounding interest alone means they will continue to pull away” from their public counterparts.

It was exactly this point that Walter Hewlett, Chairman of the Board of the Hewlett Foundation, highlighted in explaining the Foundation’s decision to make the gift.

“The great public universities and Berkeley in particular are in danger today of losing their position in the pantheon,” Hewlett told assembled Cal alumni, administrators, and faculty when the Foundation’s gift was announced at the campus on September 10. “The cost of running these institutions has for years been going up faster than general inflation and faster than state revenues. Berkeley has already fallen behind its peers in what it can afford to pay its faculty. We cannot, we must not, let this trend continue.”

The grant-the largest private gift in the university’s history-will be given over the next seven years and will be used to endow 100 faculty chairs across all of the campus’s fourteen schools and colleges. The university will embark on a fundraising campaign to match the gift. The Foundation’s grant consists of $110 million for the endowment and an additional $3 million to help manage the university’s endowment.

Long a topic of discussion among administrators at the nation’s public research universities, the growing difficulty of competing with private universities for the top faculty and graduate students has garnered less public attention.

A Loss of Parity in Pay
David E. Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, says that in 1980 there was rough parity in the salaries of full professors at public and private universities. Today, largely as a result of the factors Walter Hewlett cited in his speech, a full professor at a public university earns on average $30,000 less per year than a counterpart at a private university.

“This certainly will add to the feeling that something must be done,” Shulenburger says of the Hewlett gift.
Depending on who is counting, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the nation’s college students attend a public university, and both Shulenburger and the AAU’s Berdahl worry that the widening gulf in funding could mean a two-tier system of education with the best resources available only to the relative few who can afford a private education.

“If we can’t hold on to the best and the brightest faculty at public universities, I’m concerned that two-thirds of the nation’s students will receive a different level of education,” Shulenburger said.

While UC Berkeley’s endowment has more than doubled to $2.46 billion over the past decade, its growth has been dwarfed by the surge in endowments at peer private institutions. Harvard University’s endowment is nearly $30 billion, and Stanford University’s is about $15 billion.

Struggling to Keep Up

The disparity has meant that these institutions sometimes have been able to lure top professors with salaries far higher than UC Berkeley can offer. Between 2000 and 2006, the campus has retained fewer than 70 percent of the faculty members who received offers from private universities and gave UC Berkeley an opportunity to make a counteroffer.

Currently there are 351 endowed chairs on Berkeley’s campus, in fields ranging from classics to insect biology. The Hewlett gift, if matched, will increase that number by roughly 30 percent. It also will provide funding to recruit top graduate students, who likewise are being offered substantial incentives by private schools.

At the University California, Los Angeles, Vice Chancellor for External Affairs Rhea Turteltaub says the stakes reach far beyond the campuses of the state’s public universities.

“California is what it is because of the knowledge base that these universities help create,” Turteltaub says. “I personally think that we have many of the people at the UC system to thank for California’s economy being what it is today.

“Now we are determined to get something like that for us,” she says of the Hewlett gift. “This raises the bar for everyone.”