Berkeley’s budget woes and the Library

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Though the economy is strong again, many public universities continue to see declining support, or at least not see growth commensurate with an economic boom. UC Berkeley is facing a sixth year of frozen tuition (which was already low compared to peers), hard limits on out-state enrollment, no state financing for capital projects, and new responsibility for pension costs. Here is a message I shared with our staff and external advisory boards:

“By now you most likely have heard about Chancellor Dirks’s announcement that Berkeley has a serious annual, unsustainable budget deficit. If you haven’t, here is a link to his public statement: http://goo.gl/DQCHqP. The basic fact is simple: revenues are about $150 million a year less than expenses. That’s a big gap. To address this, our Chancellor has launched the campus on a major and necessary strategic re-alignment process. He has assured us, everything is “on the table”, with a simple guiding rule: we will make choices to uphold Berkeley’s world-leading commitment to excellence and access.

What do the long-term budget shortfall and accompanying strategic re-alignment of Berkeley mean for the Library?

The first and most immediate consequence is that for the second year in a row, we have been instructed to reduce our activity by about 4%. We also had a 4% cut last year. Over the next few months we need to find quick ways to reduce activity without seriously damaging our most important contributions to Berkeley’s excellence and access (in our case, access to information).

We have a smart and resilient staff, and together we’ll manage this immediate challenge. What about the future? Because of the size of the campus annual deficit, we must anticipate further cuts in our campus funds in coming years, as well.

As I wrote to you when I started this job — just a bit over five months ago — we have tremendous opportunities in front of us. There is no better time in history to be an information professional. But the public is providing less and less support to public higher education. The implication is straightforward: we need to prioritize, aggressively.

So we are launching a strategic planning process. Our challenge in a time of opportunity is not to work our staff to exhaustion and bitterness, to try to do more with less. Rather, we have to choose the very most important things, and do those excellently well. We will engage our staff, the faculty, the students, alumni and donors to discuss what those most important things are, and then we will prioritize.

We are not starting from scratch. The Library has been facing resource challenges for over a decade, and there has been a lot of strategic thinking already. Some directions are too obvious to ignore. We may not be able to prioritize them all, but we have to discuss them.

For example, we have one of the best collections of information resources of any research library in the U.S. Books, photographs, manuscripts, illustrations, videos, audio recordings, maps, journals, pamphlets, on and on. Those resources are held in trust for the benefit of the public. Shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to set those treasures free? To support Berkeley’s commitment to access by providing as much universal access to our treasures as is possible? Today we can do so in a way not possible until just a few years ago. We can create high-fidelity digital representations, and once created, there is essentially zero technical cost to sharing our treasures with everyone on the planet, through free and open networks. (The only limit is time, for those resources that remain under copyright for a while still.) We have started this project, but progress has been modest. Should we commit to this moonshot, to set our treasures free?

Another example: Berkeley provides the best public college and graduate education in the world. But 21st century leaders need more than we are providing today. Whatever path through life they will follow as artist or engineer, doctor or novelist, they need to be information professionals. They were not born into the agricultural age, nor the industrial age. They were born into the information age. The big information problem facing each Berkeley student today is not the scarcity of information, but the information flood. And so every well-educated citizen needs to be their own librarian, because the quality of their life — social, cultural, economic, political — will depend on being able to find, evaluate and use high quality information. Shouldn’t we, the information professionals on campus, the librarians, be greatly increasing our efforts to educate so that every Berkeley graduate is 21st century information literate?

We know about another major opportunity: the Library provides not only information resources, and information literacy education, but very special spaces for our students and faculty to learn and engage in scholarship. In fact, we are the primary provider of public, open, shared learning space on campus. And our space is needed more than ever by our students: with soaring Berkeley rents, they are living further away, and crowding more and more people into tiny apartments. They need space on campus to study and learn. And to be the best they need modern space that support collaboration, innovation and connection: connection to information resources around the world and right on our campus, connections to other learners around the world and right on our campus. The Library’s spaces should be our campus’s best designed and best equipped hubs for connected learning.

These are big opportunities, and there are others. We will prioritize so that we can take on ambitious challenges. We have to: Berkeley’s excellence depends on the Library, and we can’t let Berkeley down. Just as Chancellor Dirks promises for campus, we, the Library promise: we will come through this strategic re-alignment stronger and better, focused more than ever on Berkeley’s commitment to excellence and access.”

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