The last couple of years have been even more tumultuous than usual for the university, with its historically restive student population. A series of tuition hikes have galvanized protests against system administrators around the state, and last November, during student demonstrations inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, university cops and other local law enforcement personnel were videotaped aggressively shoving their batons into protesters, as well as pulling some students by the hair, forcing Birgeneau to apologize for the police response.
Last month, emails obtained by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act showed that Birgeneau, who had been traveling in Asia at the time of the incident and claimed "limited contact" with administration officials, showed that he did not raise any objection to the aggressive baton use after being informed of it.
From the Huffington Post:
Provost George Breslauer wrote to Birgeneau after the first round of baton blows from campus police: "Protestors locked arms to prevent police from getting to the tents. Police used batons to gain access to the tents." Breslauer told him hundreds of students and a number of reporters were present, and that he expected the protest would carry on for days.
"This is really unfortunate," Birgeneau wrote back using his BlackBerry. "However, our policies are absolutely clear. Obviously this group wanted exactly such a confrontation."
A short time later, Birgeneau wrote Breslauer again to say, "It is critical that we do not back down on our no encampment policy." Birgeneau then referenced the situation in which Oakland Mayor Jean Quan found herself consequent to her handling of Occupy Oakland, where protesters established a camp for a short time, then were kicked out.
Birgeneau has also been a strong advocate of diversity and the rights of undocumented students. He spoke out strongly against Proposition 209, the state-s anti-affirmative action statute, and the controversial Arizona immigration law, saying that he was "horrified by this law."
For the non-controversial aspects of Birgeneau's biography, we turn to the university web site...
statement: “In his more than seven years as Chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau has proven to be a passionate, dedicated and effective steward of the world’s greatest public university. He has been an ardent champion of academic excellence, as well as an unwavering advocate for the underdog."
Robert J. Birgeneau became the ninth chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, on September 22, 2004. An internationally distinguished physicist, he is a leader in higher education and is well known for his commitment to diversity and equity in the academic community.
Before coming to Berkeley, Birgeneau served four years as president of the University of Toronto. He previously was Dean of the School of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he spent 25 years on the faculty. He is a fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, the American Philosophical Society and other scholarly societies. He has received many awards for teaching and for his research on the fundamental properties of materials.