BERKELEY (CBS SF) — As fall classes began Thursday at the University of California at Berkeley, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said the university remains the top public university in the world despite drastic cuts in state funding in recent years.

“We’re very proud to maintain our ranking as the top public university and as one of the top universities overall,” Birgeneau told reporters at a back-to-school briefing on campus.

He touted a recent ranking compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China which ranks UC Berkeley fourth overall, behind Harvard, Stanford and MIT, and as the top public university.

Birgeneau said UC Berkeley achieved its ranking despite what he called “a disinvestment in education that’s unprecedented” in the past five years and “an assault on public education by Sacramento.”

Vice chancellor for administration and finance John Wilton said in the last several decades state funding has declined from 52 percent of the university’s budget to less than 11 percent, which he described as “a massive change.”

Wilton said the large decrease in state funding “is not good public policy because investing in higher education is a high-return proposition.”

He warned that, “We’re walking a tightrope and we need more funds to continue improving.”

Wilton said the university had done “a remarkable job in responding to a horrible situation” but there are “enormous strains” and some administrative staff members are leaving for better opportunities elsewhere.

However, vice chancellor and provost George Breslauer said the university continues to recruit new faculty at success rates similar to historical rates. Of the offers that have been accepted or declined in the past year, 84 percent were accepted, he said.

Breslauer also said the university has been successful in retaining professors. Of the 33 retention cases in the past year, the university has won all 22 that have been completed so far, with the 11 others still pending, he said.

In addition, Breslauer said UC Berkeley continues to be successful in recruiting the best graduate students.

Breslauer said an important indicator of that is the multi-year fellowships awarded by the National Science Foundation to the best graduate students in science, engineering and economics. He said UC Berkeley was the clear leader in that indicator, with 190 fellowship winners listing it as their first choice, followed by MIT with 140 students, Stanford with 137 and Harvard with 99.

Anne De Luca, the university’s associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment, said that despite tuition increases the university continues to support students from all economic backgrounds.

She said one-fourth of the university’s freshmen come from families whose incomes are less than $40,000 a year and 40 percent of undergraduates pay no tuition through support from the federal and state governments, institutional funds and donations.

Edward Denton, the vice chancellor for facilities services, said the university has completed $1 billion in projects in the past year, including the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, the Energy Biosciences Building and seismic safety improvements to the Greek Theatre.

He said two other notable projects were the retrofit and renovation of the Memorial Stadium, the home of Cal’s football team, and the construction of a student training center adjacent to the university.

Birgeneau said if a tax measure on the November ballot that’s backed by Gov. Jerry Brown is defeated there would be “an immediate threat” to the university’s finances.

He said UC Berkeley could lose another $50 million in state funding and it would have to dip into its reserves to make up the difference.

He also said University of California President Mark Yudof, who oversees the entire UC system, has said that there will be “significant increases in tuition” if the tax measure loses.

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