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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

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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

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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.