Private gift to protect public university from faculty head-hunting


The Hewlett Foundation has donated a $113M grant to the University of California, Berkeley in what is the largest private gift in the public university’s history. The press release toots all the right whistles about supporting public education and keeping Berkeley competitive with private universities.

There is also a nice article in the Los Angeles Times that discusses the significance of the gift in more context. Namely it addresses concerns regarding faculty head-hunting by rich universities who can offer tenured professors higher salaries and bigger labs. Four years ago this was highlighted in a Science editorial titled “Is Berkelely Past its Prime?

The president of the Hewlett Foundation, Paul Brest, put it this way:

Berkeley is a very strong institution, but I have watched it become vulnerable to losing faculty to other institutions because of salary differences.

Brest had previously been associated with the Berkeley and Stanford law schools. In addition to supporting the UC endowment, the Hewlett Foundation’s grant will also go towards supporting 80 new endowed chairs with extra money earmarked for supporting graduate students and equipping laboratories.

Berkeley’s chancellor estimates that they have been able to retain 70% of the 200 distinguished facutly targeted by wealthier universities in the past years. In an anecdote from the Los Angeles Times article:

Three such faculty members each were recently offered $100,000 salary increases and $4.5 million in laboratory and research funds by one private university, he said. Berkeley could not match the offer but came up with enough additional funds to keep the trio, including meeting the professors’ insistence that labs for their students be upgraded.

“For these three faculty members, it wasn’t that they wanted things for themselves; they wanted things for their graduates and undergrads,” [Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgenau] said. “Frankly, I was so impressed with that it made me work harder to keep them.”

The Hewlett gift is especially notable because it’s being given not to develop new infrastructure, but to “support the campus’ basic activities” to mitigate the effects of state funding cutbacks. Interest from Berkeley’s endowment is largely restricted to specific functions, unlike that of private universities who thrive from large and growing endowments. This grant marks a subtle shift in funding paradigm towards private-university-style model of endowment growth.

“We are in the ironic position of needing private support for our public character.” -Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgenau

Why this matters

I was once able to talk to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory director Steven Chu on the significance of Berkeley as a public research institution. He noted that Berkeley’s future is critical as a flagship of public universities. Noting that I was heading abroad, he further explained that this wasn’t just about state schools versus private schools, universities like Oxford and Cambridge are also “public universities” in the sense that they are supported with federal funds.

The top private universities in the US have made big pushes towards `student diversity’ and outreach towards low-income. Meanwhile, Berkeley is one of the most diverse campuses in the world (especially if you consider the local community) and has, according to the UC, more low-income students than all of the Ivy League universities combined. While the Hewlett Foundation gift focuses on the research aspect of the university (keeping faculty, attracting top graduate students) there is the `trickle down’ effect of continuing to make world-class research accessible to low-income/first-generation university students as undergraduates.


William Hewlett (of “Hewlett-Packard”) is a famous Stanford alumni who has given generously to his alma mater. I think this story is also very nice as it bridges the Stanford-Berkeley rivalry that some undergraduates get overly-worked up about. Both universities benefit greatly from each other’s academic stregth and geographic proximity. (For example, that’s not a bad commute for cross-university collaborations.)

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