BERKELEY — The federal government should step in to save chronically underfunded public universities, University of California leaders say.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau has proposed that top public research schools become state-federal "hybrids" that receive basic operating funds from the U.S. government. The federal government also should match private funding raised by universities at a 2-1 ratio, Birgeneau and Vice Chancellor Frank Yeary wrote in opinion pieces published in newspapers on both coasts.

The idea has been well received in Washington, they said in an interview this week, but it is unclear when and if the Obama administration would take it on.

"They were enthusiastic," said Birgeneau, who said he had spoken with Department of Education officials and was told not to expect any movement for at least the next two years. "But they told me they had no money."

President Barack Obama has been clear about his higher-education priorities for his first term, said Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton, and that list does not yet include Birgeneau's proposal.

"You look at the fight we're having over health care reform right now," Hamilton said. "That's just this year's budget. Realistically speaking, we've kind of got the table set at this point for the next couple of years."


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California's poverty, meanwhile, is what led UC to look elsewhere for money. The state has cut hundreds of millions from the 10-campus university system the past two years, and next year's budget appears to be similarly sobering.

UC leaders have tried to make their case in both Sacramento and Washington for better funding, saying the schools are losing ground to competitors in other states and countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, recently opened a government-sponsored research university that is expected to compete for UC faculty and students.

Other countries are aware that universities play major roles in economic development, said UC President Mark Yudof, who is writing his own proposal for a national higher-education strategy. States nationwide are cutting education budgets, he said.

"It's a national problem, and we need a national solution," Yudof said. "It's time we had a national discussion."

If nothing else, the proposal is sparking that discussion.

Birgeneau envisions significant federal help for a handful of the top public universities, schools such as Berkeley, Michigan and Illinois. Out-of-state students would pay in-state tuition at those schools.

The chancellor plans to discuss his plan with the leaders of the nation's top schools at this month's meeting of the Association of American Universities. Although many of those leaders are interested in the idea, it will be difficult to persuade private and less prominent schools — as well as lawmakers — to endorse it, AAU spokesman Barry Toiv said.

"The politics of the proposal are certainly challenging," he said. "It might be very difficult to get Congress to focus on a small number of universities."

Birgeneau said he is open to criticism. Like Yudof, he said his main goal is to get the country thinking about taking higher education more seriously.

"Someone else may have a better idea, and that's great," he said. "Our basic intention here is to stir the pot."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 510-208-6488.