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Ardipithecus and the research university

Kevin Padian

Many specialists on the fossil history of hominids have commented on the importance of Ardipithecus, particularly as revealed by the stunning articles from Tim White and his colleagues this past week.  I can’t add meaningful details to that discussion because my specialty is closer to dinosaurs than to hominids.  But I will suggest a few things that Ardipithecus means for Berkeley – and for anyone connected to it.

Ardipithecus is the focus of a lot of media attention at the moment.  New research discoveries made by the Berkeley faculty seem to make the news constantly.  Many people think that this is great for the University, and perhaps it is.  But in what way?

First, it’s yet another discovery that burnishes the University’s reputation for research.  Berkeley is the #1 research university in the country.  That includes private as well as public schools, according to the well-known report from the National Research Council.  That report is now a decade old, and a new one is overdue.  Will Berkeley continue to dominate?

Second, it’s another reminder that the faculty at Berkeley are generating research that changes ideas in every field of intellectual endeavor.  That doesn’t just apply to anthropology and paleontology, but to literature, history, economics, the arts, to biomechanics and engineering and plant genetics and a host of other fields.  This has been going on for many decades, and it’s the main reason why Berkeley has the prominence it has.  This is a great university because of the quality of the faculty, and the students they attract.

Third, it’s another example of the incredible opportunity that Berkeley undergraduates have.  Most colleges that students attend have courses in the standard fields and subjects.  But at only a few are they taught by researchers in the field.  And at only a very few are these researchers the tops in their field.  So what this means is that any Berkeley student can take a class with a Tim White or a Marian Diamond or a Todd Dawson or a Mary Power or a Nipam Patel – to name only a few world-renowned faculty in our department – and find that much of what they’re learning comes from the professor’s own research.

Added to this is the opportunity for undergrads to get courses in things that are uncommonly taught elsewhere – because there are few specialists, and because they don’t have the resources.  For example, the kinds of courses that Tim teaches in human paleontology and I teach in the evolution of the vertebrates just can’t be offered in most colleges, because they don’t have the specimens.  We have the largest paleontology museum of any university in the world.  It also houses the State fossil collections, and a lot of other stuff.  Students come from all over to take these courses, because they can’t get them at places like … well, you know.

A further opportunity these students have is to talk with, get to know, and perform research with these faculty – even as undergraduates.  Students work in our offices, labs, and museums.  They go out in the field with us, and they do research and write papers with us.  Undergrads.

This is the value of a public research university.  Any kid who makes the grades can make it here.  He doesn’t need a million dollars.  Well, at least, he hasn’t up to now.  But given the disinvestment of California’s citizens in education over the past three decades, what can we expect in the future?

I asked before “Will Berkeley continue to dominate?”  That’s going to depend on public investment.  The real business of the university – its teaching and research – are paid for by a combination of state funds, student fees, and what the University can raise from donors.  As state support has diminished steadily, students and their families have absorbed more of those costs.  That’s making Berkeley more like a private university.

We can continue to raise student fees as the state continues to disinvest.  Or we can diminish our support for research, which would mean that many of our best professors would leave (as you can imagine, it’s often a struggle to keep them here anyway).  If that happened, there would be little difference between Berkeley and a teachers’ college.  Teachers’ colleges are great, but they don’t replace institutions like Berkeley.

Elizabeth Blackburn of UCSF, in accepting her Nobel Prize last week for Physiology and Medicine, lamented that the UC system was less likely to gain such awards in the future because the decline in state support is affecting our institutions so strongly.  By the way, she did her prize-winning work at Berkeley.

So let’s celebrate Ardipithecus, and Liz Blackburn’s research, and all the great work and teaching at Berkeley that makes it so special among American universities.  And let’s remind ourselves, and all our friends and neighbors, that discoveries like these won’t continue at Berkeley, that a Berkeley degree won’t mean in the future what it means now, unless its quality of research is maintained with state support.

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