uc.jpgThe University of California at Berkeley’s chancellor said today he’s “cautiously optimistic that we’re turning a corner” in dealing with funding problems that have forced tuition hikes and staff and faculty layoffs in recent years.

In a briefing with reporters on the first day of fall classes at his campus, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said last year “was the most dire economic situation UC Berkeley has faced in its modern history.”

“We still face considerable challenges, but we have a much more known and secure situation than last year, when it was pretty grim,” he said.

Birgeneau said the university has been able to stabilize its financial situation by having everyone contribute. Student fees were increased by 32 percent last year, and faculty and staff members have had their pay cut.

UC Berkeley also collected $313 million in donations from alumni, parents and other supporters for the fiscal year ending in June, which was nearly $7 million more than the previous year, he said.

The state Legislature, however hasn’t yet passed a budget, which Birgeneau said is “really challenging” for the school because it makes planning difficult.

But he said he feels reasonably confident there won’t be any more major cutbacks in state funding because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently assured him there wouldn’t be more reductions.

“We’re on track for the short term and the long term as long as there aren’t any more draconian cuts,” Birgeneau said.

He said he’s had hundreds of conversations with students at back-to-school events this week.

“Almost no one has complained about our fees,” he said.

Instead, students have mainly wanted advice about what they should major in, Birgeneau said.

UC Berkeley also began increasing the number of foreign and out-of-state students it accepts this year because they pay higher tuition rates, Birgeneau said.

He said that means the student body has a greater geographical diversity and a broader mix of cultures and perspectives, and the extra money they bring in is providing “resources to help us address our needs.”

At the same time, the university has a record number of low-income students who pay lower fees, he added.

The percentage of low-income students has generally been in the high 20s in previous years, but this year an estimated 37 percent of undergraduates are from families who earn $45,000 per year or less, Birgeneau said.

“We have more low-income students than all of the Ivy League colleges combined, plus Stanford,” he said, saying that he’s proud that UC Berkeley is “a conduit for people from all incomes.”

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