Thousands of University of California students, faculty and staff gathered in Berkeley today for one of many rallies held statewide to protest how the system’s Board of Regents has dealt with reductions in state funding.

A noontime rally brought more than 5,000 people to UC Berkeley’s Upper Sproul Plaza, according to Tanya Smith, president of the Berkeley chapter of the University Professional and Technical Employees-Communication Workers of America union Local 9119.

Among other protests in the state, hundreds of people also gathered at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, where state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, criticized how the UC system was being run.

The rallies were a response to recent moves by the UC Board of Regents, which approved a plan in July to institute employee furloughs along with other cuts and fee hikes. UC President Mark Yudof also announced this month a plan to increase student fees by another $2,514 over the next year.

Lisa Kermish, vice president of the entire UPTE-CWA Local 9119, said the Berkeley rally was the biggest she has seen in decades.

“What was incredible to me, and I use this word sparingly, was the solidarity of the students, the staff and faculty,” Kermish said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a real coming together for a common purpose. It was a pretty amazing gathering.”

Smith said representatives from several unions spoke at the rally, which included people from the California State University and community college systems.

“The message that came across at the rally is that we’re not going to stop at the University of California,” Smith said. “Public education is in jeopardy across the state and across the nation.”

A general assembly was also planned for 6 p.m. at Sproul Plaza.

In a teleconference with reporters today, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau defended the decisions made by the Board of Regents. He blamed bad economic conditions for the cutbacks and fee increases, and said the furloughs have helped to save hundreds of jobs.

Birgeneau also blamed state legislators who cut $813 million out of the UC budget for 2008-09 and 2009-10 compared to the general fund support for 2007-08.

He said he hopes that the rally “raises the consciousness of Californians so that they will vote for legislators that support public education.”

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