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Telling the truth about UC

Robert Birgeneau, professor of physics, former chancellor | April 8, 2016

When institutions are under stress, they often find themselves under attack by those responsible for the stress in the first place. This vicious circle is dramatically illustrated by the recent state auditor’s report that heavily criticizes the University of California for many supposed faults, especially admissions policies and administrative inefficiencies.

I was taken aback by the auditor’s accusations, wondering if the facts had changed so dramatically since I stepped down as the Chancellor of UC Berkeley in 2013. They have not.

An especially controversial issue is admissions for California non-residents to UC as a whole but most especially to the flagship schools, UCLA and UC Berkeley. The auditor states that many non-residents are being admitted who are less qualified than California resident admits. So what are the facts, specifically for UCLA and UC Berkeley?

Because UCLA and UC Berkeley practice holistic admissions, direct comparison of qualifications is difficult. However, there is one metric that is universal, namely SAT scores, because all applicants, in-state, out-of-state, and international, take the same SAT tests. For California students applying to UCLA and UC Berkeley, the average SAT scores, out of a possible 2400, are 1741 and 1809. For California students who gain admission to UCLA and UC Berkeley, the corresponding scores are 1993 and 2075 respectively.

For students who are admitted to UCLA and Berkeley from other states, the average SAT scores are 2153 and 2237 respectively. For international students who are admitted, the scores are 2173 and 2201 respectively. These are all much higher than those for California residents. Clearly, the non-resident students are superbly well qualified academically, and they raise the standard for UC undergraduates significantly. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply not correct.

When I stepped down as Chancellor at Berkeley in 2013, the number of students from California was the same as when I started in 2004. The additional non-resident students were purely additive; they did not displace California residents. The only reason that we could take on these extra students was that their tuition and fees covered the actual cost of their education, unlike CA resident undergraduates who are egregiously underfunded by the state.

Entirely lost in the public discussion is the value that geographic diversity brings to the classrooms, residences, coffee shops and playing fields. I remember dramatically one conversation I had with a group of freshmen at a welcoming event in the autumn of 2009. We were discussing the financial crisis which had overtaken California in 2008. At one point one of the students got a wry smile on his face and said: “Well, I am from Greece. Let me tell you what a real financial crisis is!” He then proceeded to do just that. Even if the California students never took an economics class, they had learned a lot about international economics.

The value of geographic diversity is not just intellectual. The resources provided most especially by international students help finance the education of in-state students. Indeed, those resources made it possible for Berkeley to become the first public university in the United States to offer comprehensive financial aid to in-state middle class students. This is one of the reasons that UC Berkeley students graduate with among the lowest student debts in the nation.

The auditor’s report is correct in pointing out the impact of out-of-state admits on the ethnic diversity of our student body. This is solvable, but it will require a change in the policies of the university system to ensure that adequate financial aid is available to out-of-state students from low- and middle- income families.

Finally, the auditor criticizes the University of California for administrative inefficiencies, implying that the cost of higher education could be significantly lower except for wasteful spending. Coming from an employee of the state government, this attack is highly ironic. It feels like a player on the 76ers telling Stephen Curry how to play basketball.

Of course, any institution can become more efficient. As University President Janet Napolitano has clearly explained, the system’s campuses have made significant progress on this front and more is to come. Right now, however, tuition and fees at UCLA and UC Berkeley are less than one-third of those at USC and Stanford, while we provide a comparable quality education to our undergraduates. What other institutions in California are that cost effective?

Robert J. Birgeneau
Silverman Professor of Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, and Public Policy
Chancellor Emeritus, UC Berkeley

Comments to “Telling the truth about UC

  1. Prof. Birgeneau, now that we are changing chancellors, why don’t we restructure Berkeley to create an international campus to protect the human race at the same time?

    2016 elections and disastrous climate changes are proving that America’s education systems are failing to educate and motivate the public to fight for survival against global warming, violence and inequalities that are destroying our democracy and planet.

    Climate changes and posts on Berkeley Blog and Legal Planet are proving that time is running out faster than we predicted, and Berkeley is the best place in the world to provide the intellectual leadership to protect the human race in order to guarantee an acceptable quality of life for our newest and all future generations.

  2. I believe you should be comparing UCLA and UC Berkeley to other public universities in California. Apartments around the modern campus of UC Merced are 1/3 the cost of apartments in Berkeley. Apartments around Cal Poly (San Luis Obisbo) are 1/2 the cost of apartments in Berkeley.

  3. Prof. Birgeneau,

    We continue to fail to meet the challenges of change, probably because we fail to change, and this might explain a root cause of the problems you describe in this post, along with many threats to our civilization like global warming, violence and inequalities.

    I have been trying for over a decade to determine why we keep failing to overcome global warming, especially since we have now exceeded 400 ppm atmospheric CO2 with no maximum in sight while climate change threats like drought and sea level rise appear to be out of control.

    Along the way I ran across social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s conclusion “You cannot understand a system until you try to change it” so I tried to use that as a basis for determining why we keep failing.

    First I studied some lessons of history. Will and Ariel Durant concluded that “When a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change” so I added that to my list of explanations.

    Berkeley philosopher John Searle studied the student revolt in the 60s and concluded that “When administrations are defeated, they almost invariably go down as a result of technical mistakes, failure to grasp the nature of the struggle they are engaged in and, most important, their own demoralization. — Curiously, many college administrations in America do not seem to perceive that they are all in this together. Like buffaloes being shot, they look on with interest when one another of their number goes down, without seriously thinking that they may be next.” Perhaps this also sheds some light on another root cause of our failures to meet the challenges of change we face today.

    One extreme case is the fact that Linus Pauling suffered the consequences of these failures when he championed peace protests at UC during the Viet Nam war and, since this was not the establishment way, he was marginalized and forced to leave UC even though he is probably the greatest American born scientist in the 20th century.

    One more root cause was explained by President Eisenhower’s in his 1961 Farewell Address which included the following grave warning “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    In the 2006 “Global Warning” issue of CALIFORNIA there was a cover story “Can we adapt in time?” that documents another root cause “— our species is wired to ignore problems in some far-away future” and that is most likely to be the greatest conclusion to explain the current fall of our civilization due to global warming.

    So the paramount question today appears to be “Can we adapt in time?” We shall most certainly continue to fail to meet the challenges of change we face today until we produce immediately implementable long-term solutions, especially including worldwide cooperation to save our civilization. Our paramount responsibility to our newest and all future generations requires us to come up with long-term solutions to this question.

    Finally, psychologist Jean Piaget concluded “The goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing new things.” Let us hope and pray that we achieve this goal at a much higher level than ever before, by overcoming the challenges of change that are overwhelming us today, with the greatest sense of urgency in history.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful response to what many Berkeley alums and students perceive as nothing more than expedient finger pointing by the State. Please know that the pragmatists among us understand the depth of Berkeley’s financial woes and commend both you and now Chancellor Dirks for taking on the challenge of rebuilding Berkeley as a financially sound academic institution – an outcome that, if achieved, will ensure that the school continues in its long tradition of groundbreaking ideas, research, and innovation.

  5. Prof. Birgeneau, other inconvenient truths that require zero tolerance are acts of sexual harassment and bigotry.

    Acts such as these have been enabled because of moral and cultural failures by far too many administrators, faculty, regents and politicians. And they are an increasing threat to our civilization that must be overcome by all of our institutions.

    Current news reports prove It is way past due time to reorganize UC because UC is no longer serving the needs of California students, citizens and humanity in an acceptable way. UC must become a role model that produces an acceptable quality of life for our newest and long-term future generations today.

  6. California students who attend Berkeley and UCLA are probably* more likely to stay and work in California because of their family roots etc, and hence their publicly-funded education contributes to the state economy over decades and decades.

    Out-of-state students are probably* more likely to return to their home states or other states after graduating, hence per capita the state of California probably* gets a lower longterm payback from out-of-state students.

    Probably* is asterisked because for some reason this data never seems to be provided. How difficult would it be to obtain home-state info from yearbooks and compare that at 10 year intervals to alumni addresses?

    Probably only the Universities could do this important data research and one could be forgiven for suspecting that current higher income from out-of-state students might be a reason that Berkeley and UCLA might not want to discover a longterm less-profitable-for-the-state-of-California comparison between in-state and out-of-state students.

    And a comparison with students from other countries might be even more unfavorable economically to the state of California (and to the U.S.).
    When discussing money, allow Californians to be provided with all relevant statistics and don’t dismiss with malarkey like “we can’t get that data.”

    And it is in the realm of possibility that students from outside California actually do in fact make large longterm financial contributions economically (personal taxes, jobs created) to the state of California and therefore should be welcomed by political economists.

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