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As the University of California struggles to absorb its sharpest drop in state financing since the Great Depression, every professor, administrator and clerical worker has been put on furlough amounting to an average pay cut of 8 percent.

In chemistry laboratories that have produced Nobel Prize-winning research, wastebaskets are stuffed to the brim on the new reduced cleaning schedule. Many students are frozen out of required classes as course sections are trimmed.

And on Thursday, to top it all off, the Board of Regents voted to increase undergraduate fees – the equivalent of tuition – by 32 percent next fall, to more than $10,000. The university will cost about three times as much as it did a decade ago, and what was once an educational bargain will be one of the nation’s higher-priced public universities.

Among students and faculty alike, there is a pervasive sense that the increases and the deep budget cuts are pushing the university into decline.

The budget cuts in California, topping $30 billion over the last two years, have touched all aspects of state government, including health care, welfare, corrections and recreation. They have led to a retrenchment in state services not seen in modern times, and for many institutions, including the state university system, have created a watershed moment.

The state’s higher education budget has been slashed by $2.8 billion this year, including $813 million from the university system – about the equivalent of New Mexico’s entire higher education budget.

“Dismantling this institution, which is a huge economic driver for the state, is a stupendously stupid thing to do, but that’s the path the Legislature has embarked on,” said Richard A. Mathies, dean of the College of Chemistry here at Berkeley, long the system’s premier campus. “When you pull resources from an institution like this, faculty leave, the best grad students don’t come, and the discoveries go down.”

As the litany of cuts continues, there is a growing worry that senior faculty members may begin to defect. In fact, some colleges around the nation have begun identifying funds to use to recruit U.C. professors.

Since California adopted a master plan for higher education in 1960, the state has been, in the words of the historian Kevin Starr, “utopia for higher education.” Eight of the 10 University of California campuses – all but Merced and San Francisco – are in the top 100 in this year’s U.S. News & World Report’s rankings. But maintaining that edge, without resources, is difficult.

In 2004, international rankings by the London-based Times Higher Education named Berkeley the No. 2 research university in the world, behind only Harvard. This year, Berkeley plummeted to No. 39, mostly because of its high faculty-to-student ratio. The other international rankings, by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, rated Berkeley No. 3 this month.

Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonpartisan group that promotes access to higher education, said that while public universities in many states were facing financial problems, California was in a class by itself.

“In most states, it’s the economy, and you can say that in a couple of years, it will bounce back,” Callan said. “But in California, it’s really part of a significant retrenchment of the whole public sector. If the perception is that it’s going to be chronic, and people give up on California, the pre-eminence of Berkeley and UCLA would be in danger.”

No wonder, then, that people like Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy, are asking themselves whether it is time to move on.

As co-director of the Institute for Human Development, an interdisciplinary research group that suffered big cuts, Fuller worries that the unit is losing its intellectual excitement and its ability to support his grant proposals. Then, too, he lost his two best graduate students last year to Stanford.

“To stay on top, you need to be bringing in new people,” Fuller said. “And I’m not sure how many of my most stimulating colleagues will still be here in three years.”

So although he was not swayed last year when the University of North Carolina came calling, Fuller said, he may be more receptive this year.

Formerly taboo ideas, like allowing UCLA and Berkeley to charge substantially more than other campuses, or even eliminating the research mission at some of the newer campuses, are being put forward.