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Which University?

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | December 1, 2014

As I start this post, I hear voices on bullhorns in Sproul Plaza (ground zero for the Free Speech demonstrations 50 years ago) calling Berkeley students to walk out of classes today (Nov. 24) to protest the tuition increases approved last week by the University of California Regents for the entire ten-campus system.

students protesting tuition hikes


Many details are being argued about — promises, costs, efficiencies, subsidies, and much more. I am not going to address the particulars here; I lack the expertise to do so. Instead, I draw upon my 42+ years at Berkeley and what I know about the history of public higher education to make a few general points. They boil down to the simple observation that the citizens of California and the students need to decide what they want.

The marketplace

Berkeley is the top public university in America. It is ranked #20 in quality of undergraduate education by US News & World Report (UCLA is #23). Every university that USN&WR ranked higher than Berkeley is private — Princeton, Cornell, and such — and has an official tuition at least 2.9 times greater for in-state students (at least 1.6 times greater for out-of-state students). With respect to academic scholarship, Berkeley is, in one analysis, #4 in the world; all the others in the world’s top ten are private (UCLA is #12, UCSD #14). This is a remarkable achievement for a public university, but one that is a constant struggle to sustain.

Managing a world-class university requires a lot of money. Keeping it affordable requires that the money not come from students. Reconciling these two demands has become much harder in recent decades.

First, on the money. I had a close look at a big part of Berkeley’s spending when I recently served for three years on what is misnamed the “Budget Committee.” Nine faculty members review and recommend every academic appointment, promotion, and pay raise on the campus. The years I served were ones of falling state support following the Great Recession. We constantly faced sharp and expensive competition from other universities for the best new assistant professors.

More costly still, we faced repeated efforts by other universities – almost always private ones like Harvard, Duke, Chicago, and NYU – to take away our leading scholars. The competitors dangled large increases in salary and plush research support dwarfing what the faculty had at Berkeley. In the great majority of cases, Berkeley fended off the raiders, but to do so we had to match or come close to matching the external offers.

These were costly “wins.” (A side note: Another thing I learned was that salary offers tend to increase the closer the skill-set of the professor is to the skill-set Wall Street rewards. Not good news for, say, art historians.) Add to the salary expenditures the $1 million or more that it often costs to set up a chemistry, bioengineering, or neuroscience lab for a new appointee.

Getting and keeping the best scholars is expensive. One response to competition and market pressures could be to just say No to matching salaries. The reply to that option is: Your best faculty will leave, if not for the money, then because their colleagues are leaving and the university is no longer bringing in the best young scholars. Berkeley has successfully fought (so far) to keep its best faculty and its high academic ranking. Maybe it should not have. (More on that below.)

The state

Sather Tower


When I was a University of California student (UCLA ’68), tuition and fees were nominal, especially considering how much extra income a U.C. degree could get you. The taxpayers of California paid for a big chunk of my education. (Some argued even then that working-class taxpayers were subsidizing the educations of middle-class students; that is another discussion.) In the ’60s, state universities across the nation were booming in size and academic achievement, fueled by public dollars.

Those days are long gone. The share of the California state budget that went to the entire U.C. system dropped from about 8 percent when I graduated to under 3 percent now. Put another way, as recently as 2001, the state paid 23 percent of U.C. expenses; it now pays $1 billion less, under 10 percent of the system’s expenses (source).

Although pushed along by economic stagnation and recession, the decline in financial support for state universities is the long-run effect of policy decisions, notably the taxpayer revolt measures of the 1970s and ‘80s and voters’ setting higher priorities like prison expansion. To sustain quality at leading public universities like Berkeley, Michael Hout wrote in 2009, “a system that once thrived on almost four state dollars to every parent’s or student’s dollar now asks families to match the state contribution dollar for dollar, or more.”

The choice

State taxpayers and students face a choice. The critical moment in the development of public universities was the Land Grant Act of 1862, designed to spur states to build colleges that would “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.” Agriculture and engineering — practical research and teaching — were the core missions of the state colleges for generations.

In the 20th century and especially after World War II, with a great influx of federal and state dollars, many of those institutions developed into premier research universities in the same league as Harvard, Yale, Chicago, M.I.T., and Stanford. Their faculty won great attention for their contributions; their students learned with such faculty and garnered prestigious diplomas; and their spinoffs presumably enriched the states. Those sorts of public universities are highly expensive.

So, here is the question: Should taxpayers and students pay – at whatever shares between them – for world-class research universities like Berkeley, or should they pay much less, only for what it takes to get a “practical education”? (A related question: How many of today’s students would still attend campuses like Berkeley if they provided only a “practical education.”)

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History.

Comments to “Which University?

  1. ‘These were costly “wins.” (A side note: Another thing I learned was that salary offers tend to increase the closer the skill-set of the professor is to the skill-set Wall Street rewards…)’

    It’s good to finally see an honest comment about this practice. Perhaps it is time to examine the question of whether or not the retention system actually serves the interests of the university.

    Are we to believe that those who do not seek outside offers are somehow inferior to those who do? Who is setting the standard for this assessment? Other universities, it seems? If so, what does that say about our internal system of assessment? Do the resumes of the ‘retained’ outshine those of others? Does this implied statement not call for scrutiny?

    This is a public institution, after all. Why hide the data? If the ‘stars’ want to leave, then what’s wrong with that? Surely a creative administrator can perceive many opportunities in such a scenario. At the very least, several new PhDs and post-docs, fresh from their cutting-edge research experiences, can be hired for the price of one retention package. So, whose interests are being served here, really?

  2. A great beginning in solving the problem would be for Janet Napolitano to set a better example. A staff of 2,000 people is outrageous. But what else can we expect from a spend thrift liberal politician? She could not run the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (and lied about it — specifically the security of our southern border). To expect her to run UC efficiently is quite a stretch.

  3. Always missing in these discussions: Private university alumni give back very generously. Public university alumni are very stingy in giving back. Look at the endowment of Stanford vs. Berkeley. Stanford alums are generous, Berkeley alums, by comparison, are stingy. Private university alums step up, public University alums step back and want the government money.

  4. Finding a university is easy but the costs are really high. I am from Fiji and was looking for a university in the U.S. for online tuition but the costs are skyrocketing.

  5. Putting more people into UC and State undergrad after two years in fortified community colleges would be very helpful. This will work when people have reason to trust that it is not just a way to cheat them out of their divine right to status education or foreclose options. Let’s acknowledge that it will not be equivalent to four years at UC, but if we allow three years at UC (perhaps including a semester of graduate level courses) after two at community or state college, it starts looking a lot more palatable, less like bureaucratic hell.

    The state is obligated to educate everyone who wants an education. Research drives productivity. Recognition that credentialing skilled trades by offering four year degrees at some community colleges–instead of relying on the private sector–indicates that educational segregation is not acceptable.

    “Practical Education” is often a myth. Private colleges have had a very spotty record in delivering lifetime careers from such programs. The state schools do this well. People often move from “practical career” to “practical career” with the university exchange system too weak to facilite the change well.

    The business of a research university, how it fits with national labs, national funding, et al, is not part of the average Californian’s dataset. It looks interesting, but exclusive. UC sells its contribution to science well, and frequently. But there is no transparency regarding the path to being a researcher for people who aren’t members of the university system. The lack of transparency is not just a matter of messaging, but is related to social educational inequality, quasi dismal conditions of some student researchers, and other factors.

    Prop 13 defunded education, and property costs skyrocketed, making it impossible to practically “work one’s way through college” (and pay rent with what?) It is time we recognize that real estate inflation and the mergers and acquisitions and consumer credit frenzies of the eighties, were basically a transfer of wealth with no/or minimal increase in productivity. That should set off alarm bells for anyone who’s been watching. Time to respond.

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