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Being really good vs. being really public: Is this our choice at UC Berkeley?

David Hollinger, professor emeritus of history | March 10, 2010

I post here with the gracious permission of Tony Cascardi (who commissioned it for the Townsend Center Newsletter) an advance copy of a brief opinion piece that will appear in the next issue of the Townsend Center Newsletter, toward the very end of the month.
— David Hollinger

Let me ask directly a question that our conversations in Berkeley this past year have tended to skirt. In the specific tax environment that now exists in California, does our historic standing as a public university remain compatible with our equally historic standing as a campus of intellectual distinction? It is irresponsible of us as a faculty to continue to avoid this deeply unwelcome question, and to deny collegial support to those of our administrators who are trying to confront it.

It is easy enough to hold forth on the virtues of being public. Perhaps it is even easier to hold forth on the virtues of being excellent. Many of us have been doing a lot of both. And there was a time when doing both simultaneously was more than hollow bravado and wishful thinking. In that era, there appeared to be no structural conflict between being public and being one of the world’s leading centers of learning.

But institutions and practices are historically contingent. In recent years there has come into being a set of historical conditions very different from the set that enabled California to achieve a stellar system of higher education. Clark Kerr was able to mobilize widespread support for the Master Plan during a period of prosperity and of diminishing class inequalities. That Plan is increasingly threatened by the expressed priorities of voters and their elected representatives caught up in the anti-tax politics for which the notorious Proposition 13 of 1978 is an enduring emblem.

The sources of this anti-tax politics are multiple, and have been helpfully analyzed by our social scientists and historians. Perhaps this politics can be reversed? I hope so, and I applaud efforts like those of our colleague George Lakoff (through his ballot initiative to abolish the two-thirds rule in the legislature, enabling simple majorities to mandate higher taxes) to advance this project.

Yet even the most optimistic of souls usually will grant that the project of reversing the anti-tax politics of California is a formidable one, and not likely to be achieved prior to the time that the excellence of the UC system in general and of Berkeley in particular will be severely challenged by diminished state support. We need to remember that a recent, credible poll found that 69% of California voters prefer to keep Proposition 13 in place. Other polls reveal that opposition to increased income tax for high earners is sustained by the belief of 19% of the American public that they are in the top 1% of income earners, and by the belief of another 20% that they will join that 1% within their lifetimes. California politicians who win elections do not mention services and taxes in the same sentence.

This tax environment is the context in which it is difficult to avoid a dual speculation. Being really public—above all keeping fees low and access high– might require a diminution in the intellectual quality of the services that UC in general and Berkeley in particular offer the state of California. And being really good at what we do—above all maintaining a research faculty of the kind we now have– might require a diminution of the extent to which we are a public university.

If there is a risk that holding the line on being really public will diminish our intellectual quality, perhaps we should take that risk? After all, one could argue that what most matters in a public university is serving the needs of the public, and one could argue that given the more rigid class structure now in place in California, public monies should be devoted to services other than the maintaining of ten research universities. As Peter Schrag, the most perspicacious of the journalists covering state politics in relation to higher education asked recently in the pages of San Francisco Magazine, does California really need nine doctoral programs in Political Science? One could argue that the system of public higher education in California, given the current political economy of the state, should be refocused with the priority of providing opportunities for upward social and economic mobility, and that UC’s aspiration to remain one of the great research universities of the world is simply at odds with the most pressing needs of the population of the state. If Berkeley’s programs drop from the top five in field after field to somewhere farther down, might this be a price worth paying for keeping costs lower? The Master Plan was fine for 1960. This is not 1960. So, let’s be really public, even if it costs some diminution in quality.

The coin is easily turned. If there is a risk that holding the line on being really good will require the degrees of “privatization” that diminish our ability to provide low-fee, high access education to Californians, perhaps we should take that risk? After all, one could argue that a university of genuine intellectual distinction is of great value to California even if fewer Californians than now can attend and if many of those who do attend have to pay a larger share of its cost. Since many of the Californians who protest higher tuition for their children are the same people who will not vote the taxes to enable state support, the species of privatization embodied in higher fees can be construed as an indirect form of taxation. One could also argue that the distinction between public and private in this domain is not so clear-cut, that steps already taken toward multiple funding streams offer hope that the “hybrid” university can remain distinct from private campuses like Stanford and Caltech. Real excellence pays off for California, and we should not trade it away in return for the garden variety level of intellect that extreme anti-privatization impulses threaten to give us. The Master Plan was fine for 1960. This is not 1960. So, let’s be really good, even if it costs some diminution in public access.

Personally, I yield to no one in my respect for The Master Plan or in my identity with the Berkeley campus. I have served in countless campus capacities as a member of this faculty. Long before that I was a student here. I was in the Free Speech Movement. I came to know and appreciate Clark Kerr. My experiences at Berkeley as a graduate student in the 1960s were transforming. I owe almost everything to Berkeley. I was able to come here because it was really public. But that is not what changed me. Many places were really public. I was changed because Berkeley was really good.

I now believe the risks to quality are more dangerous than the risks to public access. To be sure, if fees go up, fewer people like me could come, but what these people would get will be of greater value. Perhaps I am wrong to prefer this alternative? I hope those who lean the other way will publicly defend the taking of the risk of diminished quality, rather than ignoring the question.

The choice invites comparison to a choice often faced by Berkeley parents, including many who rail with conviction against the “privatization” of UC. Do you keep your children in the public schools even when the signs are that they are not getting the education you want for them? This dilemma comes about as a result of historical forces going back a long way, but when you face the choice it does not help much to speechify about neo-liberalism and its evils. So, too, with the University of California. Berkeley is, in a sense, our child. It is a precious thing for which we have some responsibility. To how much risk are we willing to see it exposed while we are making sure it remains really public?

Comments to “Being really good vs. being really public: Is this our choice at UC Berkeley?

  1. I guess it all depends on what you define as being “good”? I’d like to reiterate what Francesco was getting at:

    Does ‘excellence’ mean provided by people with the highest qualifications? Or provided in the way that actually benefits the largest number of people?

    Seen it many times before, where someone with a “great education” really can’t see the forest for the trees. Perhaps being public would help with that.

  2. I was in the Free Speech Movement. I came to know and appreciate Clark Kerr. My experiences at Berkeley as a graduate student in the 1960s were transforming. I owe almost everything to Berkeley. I was able to come here because it was really public. But that is not what changed me. Many places were really public. I was changed because Berkeley was really good. (very good information )

  3. Articulate and well-spoken argumentation, but what exactly do we mean as ‘good’? Academic excellence is as uncertain a concept as “excellence” and “academic” are.

    Does ‘excellence’ mean provided by people with the highest qualifications? Or provided in the way that actually benefits the largest number of people? Does it refer to the amount of information provided, to the means for its administration or the level of sophistication?

    Does “academic” refer to the research or the instruction at a university? An institution with world-class research laboratories and centers, is automatically a great place for learning? Hardly so, if the great research is not converted into material to be administered to undergraduate (or for that matters graduate) students…

    Plus in today’s world where communication and exchange of information is so much common and easier than the past, results of research from a center can be available at the other end of the Earth soon.

    Other issue: does a great scientist make a great professor? Someone who can train and educate at best his or her students? Again, moot. I think that the excellence of a university is measured by the value of those who have attended it. Is it demonstrated that only main research institutions can breed excellent graduates?

  4. The choice invites comparison to a choice often faced by Berkeley parents, including many who rail with conviction against the “privatization” of UC. Do you keep your children in the public schools even when the signs are that they are not getting the education you want for them? This dilemma comes about as a result of historical forces going back a long way, but when you face the choice it does not help much to speechify about neo-liberalism and its evils. So, too, with the University of California. Berkeley is, in a sense, our child. It is a precious thing for which we have some responsibility. To how much risk are we willing to see it exposed while we are making sure it remains really public?

  5. A very good article by Professor Hollinger and i agree with Gibor that there is still some time to fight the good fight.Ultimately the public will follow you towards good!

  6. I just read your article after seeing it referenced in the recent CSHE paper by George W. Breslauer, UC Berkeley’s Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost , entitled “What Made Berkeley Great? The Sources of Berkeley’s Sustained Academic Excellence”. Together, these articles certainly made me stop and think. The crucial point I got from Mr. Breslauer’s paper was that while it’s the mandate of all UC Presidents to fight for continued/increased) UC support from the State, the ability of the UC President to influence the government/Governor of California, and the willingness of the Governor to then act affirmatively, are first and foremost the products of their economic times.

    I was an undergrad and graduate student at Berkeley from 1966-1972; if you were at Berkeley during FSM, then you remember paying just a couple hundred dollars in “Fees” each quarter (or semester, depending on exactly when you were a student…), like my family and I did, to get me that education and experience. As I recall, those Fees were just that: miscellaneous costs of providing UC services to students (e.g., access to Cal sports events, funding for ASUC programs). Those Fees were not “Tuition”, as they were not collected to pay the costs of educating those students. Now, of course, those Fees are, in great part, “Tuition”, even though it’s still not PC to address them as such for in-state student (perhaps we could paraphrase J.K. Rowling and refer to these ever-increasing ‘assessments’ as “Fee-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”…).

    As a lifelong Californian in my early ‘60’s, my belief is that the key to understanding how this transition occurred, how we initially adapted to it, and how we continue to adapt, requires suspension of the common and simplistic, but (in my opinion, anyway) questionable, belief, that initial pressures to increase out-of-state tuition and to initiate in-state tuition (“Fees”) were somehow related to the 1978 passage of Prop. 13. I did some research into initial calls for these increases, finding that the LA Times Archives records show that, as early as 1965, UC Administrators were calling for about $17 million dollars to increase faculty salaries at UC and Cal State colleges, leading to a drive for increasing out-of-state tuition at UC campuses and the imposition of “resident tuition fees” at both the UC and Cal State campuses. So these pressures began to surface at least 13 years prior to the enactment of Prop. 13, and – since 1979 was a recession year in California, and property values did not increase for at least a few years – more likely 15-20 years or more prior to its enactment. So while two factors – the need for additional means of funding UC’s excellence, and the need for California’s residents to be able to benefit from on-paper increases in their property values without being forced to lose those properties or to leverage them with refinancing due to unbridled increases in their property taxes – may have collided, it appears that the passage of Prop. 13 didn’t create the UC’s budgetary quagmire, it just made it worse.

    OK, so let’s use 17 years as the minimum time period between 1965, when Administrators called for these increases, and, say, 1981, when the initial effects of Prop.13 might have been visible. That gives our elected officials and our UC Administrators 30 YEARS from 1981-2011 to have developed some sort of long-term strategy to keep UC’s quality level undiminished while maintaining the “public” nature of the UC system. In a way, I suppose that strategy has been developed, because, again, history seems to have shown that the success rate of those officials and administrators has been directly related to the economic times we’re in: When there’s the perception that state monies are available for higher education, the UC Administrators and our elected officials have still been successful in seeing that more state funds are directed toward higher education; when the perception is that “we’re broke”, higher education, and the UC system in particular, have suffered. Obviously, we’re in the “we’re broke” mode right now, and whether we need to change that model may depend on whether we view the current financial condition of our state and the attitude of its residents and taxpayers as the status quo during downtimes, and let’s just be patient and pay our increasing “Fees” until the upturn comes, or whether we view the present status of not only California, but of its cities and counties and of its nation, as a sea change which requires new and creative thinking about how to obtain the level of services and excellence we want from not only Berkeley and the UC System, but from higher education in general, all education levels, our cities and counties, our state, our nation, and the planet!

  7. “Really good” may be defined, as Professor Hollinger proposes, to mean high graduate program rankings and standing in the unofficial but widely noticed US News & World Report’s polls. It can also mean quantitatively defined excellence of entering undergraduate students, in which Berkeley also shines. But if I were a student I would think that “really good” meant great satisfaction with my own–and my fellow students’–intellectual and emotional-psychological growth and attainments upon graduation, and with the careers we subsequently embarked on. Such data as may illuminate these matters ought to be looked at more closely. As a Harvard graduate, I am repeatedly surprised in reading the class reports and obituaries in the alumni magazine at the large number of graduates who pursued routine, though doubtless lucrative, careers as self-interested businessmen and professionals. Yet who would dispute that Harvard is “really good”? It’s a question of “good for what”? To what degree is a Berkeley education, or any other, really good, in the existential-philosophical sense, for its recipient, and for society? Is it enough for the faculty to read a few undergraduate seminar papers, hold office hours, give lectures, train graduate students, and publish their research (most of which undergraduates can only read–at best–with careful guidance and contextualization)?

  8. I believe that the state should fully fund and support our education, otherwise the students will face different challenges.

  9. Great article. In compare with France, there is a difference regarding prestige about universities in my country. If you are going to public one, governmental controlled university, this doesn’t mean that it is less “prestigious” than private. Of course, there are some well known and high ranking private colleges, but public are same good as them. So, it really depends on the country where you are living.

  10. I totally agree with you David Hollinger. We must pay more attention to education of the young generation of people. We must increase the money allocated to education.

  11. Thank you Professor Hollinger for this article. California currently spends over $45,000 a year to incarcerate a single prisoner. We rank among the highest in per prisoner spending, and the lowest in per pupil spending. We are fast approaching the day when we will spend more on incarceration than on higher education in this state. Clearly it is time to reconsider our budget priorities; if we put more money into our students I feel sure we wouldn’t need so many prison beds in this state.

  12. In france, public universities have less prestige than private high schools… Because there are a lot of students in public universities…

  13. We are only just beginning to have non-public universities here in Australia. Currently the private (or user-pays) universities are not looked on with the same prestige as the state or public ones.

  14. Professor Hollinger strikes at the heart of the issue facing the entire UC system in general, and UC Berkeley in particular. I am a 42 year old returning transfer student who has applied to four Universities in the UC system. As of today’s date, I have been accepted by two, UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. I am pleased that I have access to the UC system to continue my education, however I applied to Berkeley with one primary focus-academic excellence. Surely the other schools in the UC system are excellent institutions of higher learning, and should Cal decline my application, I’ll be proud to be a student within arguably the best public University system in the world. That said, it is to Cal that I aspire. It is the reputation for excellence, the potential for unlimited personal and academic growth that compels me to hold true to my aspiration to attend this very special institution. I would argue that although the other schools in the UC system are indeed excellent in many regards, to diminish the “good” that is UC Berkeley is to undermine everything that I have worked for these past two years to earn admission. As with all other walks of life, education has degrees of excellence to uphold and for some, to aspire to. Berkeley as an institution needs to remain the beacon on the hill for all of the UC system to aspire to. In short, being really good is necessary; it is not contingent on access. As a candidate for admission to Cal, I understand clearly that my odds of admission are significantly lower than at the other UC schools, yet I still applied. My reasoning is as clear today as it was the day I submitted my application: UC Berkeley is the standard bearer for public universities in our state. As such, it should adhere to the competitive admission process lest the quality of the student body, and consequently the quality of the educational process should diminish.

  15. I have to agree with almost everything Dr. Hollinger says here. It boils down to an argument that being really good is more special than being really public. Still, there is time to fight the good fight and convince the public that being really good AND really public is really worth it. If we lose that fight, things will be as he posits. Unfortunately, there is not that much time, and the forces he describes are already at work.

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